mitbostonThe General Institute Requirements, the GIRs, are the sacred core of an MIT education, embracing required subjects in mathematics, physics, chemistry, and biology. This semester, the faculty defeated a proposal to introduce the first changes to the GIRs in several decades.

While thinking about how to vote, I spent an interesting hour in the Institute Archives looking at old subject catalogs, some dating from before MIT moved from Boston to Cambridge. In the 1908-1909 school year, tuition was $300. Back then, MIT offered a subject on locomotive engineering. Subjects in aeronautical engineering had not yet appeared.

Many subjects had an oddly contemporary feel. Subject 30 was calculus of one variable; 31 was calculus of many variables; 770 was a year-long treatment of classical mechanics and electricity & magnetism. All were roughly aligned with what we teach today in 18.01, 18.02, 8.01, and 8.02. All were roughly aligned with what was specified in the proposed changes to the GIRs, which mainly allowed departments other than mathematics and physics to teach nuanced versions of existing subjects.

Don’t get me wrong. I love that stuff, and I loved it when I took it. But what happened to the 20th century? Should a student escape from MIT without knowing about relativity, quantum mechanics, black holes, and why we need a Large Hadron Collider? And what about the idea that some computations cannot be done at all and others take impossibly long? And what about the statistical ideas that have become so much more important now that we have data-hungry computers to amass and exploit huge databases?

Some say that the main obstacle to a more radical GIR proposal is that there is too much to know, and they speculate that a survey of faculty would yield 100 subjects, each as important as 18.01 to a well-educated scientist or engineer. My guess is that there are only 20 absolutely essential subjects and maybe many fewer. If the GIR committee had produced a list, however long, we could think constructively about which subjects to compress and combine, to introduce, to eliminate, and to recommend for study during life after MIT.

I think I’ll start my own list. Suggestions welcome.