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The Inaugural Address

Howard Wesley Johnson
Twelfth President of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology
October 7, 1966

The University of the Future

Howard Wesley Johnson

It is altogether fitting that periodically we take the time to reaffirm our reliance on the main principles of our free educational endeavor. It is especially fitting that such a reaffirmation should take place in this old city of Cambridge where the endless stream of history flows around us almost as tangibly as the Charles. For it was here, three centuries ago and more, that there began in Cambridge at Harvard the American tradition of dedicated scholarship and consistent high standards in education. It was here two centuries ago, along the Charles, that there flared the first sparks of the freedom that is still ours, not only to enjoy but to deserve. A few hundred yards behind us here in Rockwell Cage lie still the remnants of the fort that Washington and his ragged army built in 1775 as part of the line defense against the British occupiers of Boston. The walls of that old fort stand proudly today in constant testimony to the successful outcome of that struggle. The revolution of free men that began then has never stopped, and from the beginning full access to education on merit has been one of its main strengths.

One hundred years ago, with the founding of M.I.T., began a new revolution in education, based on the worth of useful knowledge and committed to the full development of a young and vigorous country. That revolution, too, has never stopped, and we propose to continue it.

Fifty years ago, M.I.T. crossed the Charles to Cambridge , and from its halls have continued to come the men who leave a major impression on a technological world.

Yes, Cambridge is an appropriate place to measure the distance that has been covered by advanced education in this country, to appraise the quality of its performance, and to mark the principles which have made it possible.

Now we reaffirm the need for the fundamental contribution of the university in the advancement of society and the critical need for that contribution in the world today.

We reaffirm the need for the special role and responsibility of the independent private university within the higher educational system to provide a special leadership, a vigor and quickness in experiment for the development of ideas.

We reaffirm the vitality of the technological challenge for the universities, and especially for this one, in the continuing development of science and engineering that makes further physical advantage possible, and in the development of people to provide leadership in a technological society.

We reaffirm the words of Karl Compton that "the advent of modern science is the most important social event in all history," and that this powerful fact poses the problem of providing new paths for meeting humanity's need for an individualism in a world rich in the mass products of physical advantage. This human use of science is the imperative of our time if man is to understand his state and expand his potential on earth.

We reaffirm our belief in the concept that new ideas spring from the minds of the most talented people, and we must search out the most promising wherever they are to be found and give them opportunity for maximum performance. The nation is best served when we provide opportunity for education for all to the limit of their ability. But our thrust forward will depend on the performance of the best, not the average.

We reaffirm the importance of the close learning interdependence that should exist between teacher and student, and the vigorous interaction that this implies of ideas and positions, of the past and of the present. We see no substitute for this confrontation if learning is to take place.

So we speak again of these propositions that characterize our educational system and that have special meaning for M.I.T.

William Barton Rogers' plan for "the improvement of industry and agriculture by a knowledge of its connections with truths and laws" is as sound in principle today as it ever was; and his phrase, "the dignitv of useful work," is as rich in meaning for both individuals and society as ever. But we look now at a newer set of situations to be confronted by those basic propositions: a new world with larger concentrations of people, greater pressures produced by higher expectations, faster change rates produced by the extraordinary advances of science, and more complex human interactions resulting from a network of improved communications which threatens to defy old concepts of distance and time. These fundamental changes in our societal structure, these sharp etchings of change caused by the acids of progress, alter the ways in which our principles are now secured. As Alfred North Whitehead has said, "The art of free society consists first in the maintenance of a symbolic code, and secondly in the fearlessness of revision. Those societies which cannot combine reverence to their symbols with freedom of revision must ultimately decay." M.I.T. has always honored its symbols, and yet it has always been able to revise. And this recognition of the need for change and the existence here of the power to achieve it has kept this institution a force for progress throughout its history. The great works of Compton, Bush, Killian, Stratton, and all the others testify to this principle.

It is a hard fact of our time, in this last third of the Twentieth Century, that relentless change has forced the universities into the forefront of society, from a supporting role to a leadership role. The demands upon the university of today to meet the problems of the new world alter the ways in which it performs to fill its basic functions. Historically, society has given other institutions within it opportunities for major leadership. Now it is clear that society will turn more than ever to the university for help in raising the standards of life, for providing new ideas for solving problems, and, most of all, for providing new kinds of leaders. The historic roles of the university--to educate the youth, to preserve knowledge, and to create new knowledge--remain the same; but the emphasis on them becomes greater in a more demanding society, and the greatest emphasis will be on developing leadership.

The university of tomorrow cannot pretend to ignore these vigorous currents of change around it. It cannot produce students who, in Kafka's words, are like "couriers who hurry about the world, shouting to each other messages that have become meaningless." Now more than ever, the university must be concerned with educating men who have the understanding both of science and of society in a modern world and who have the character and taste to represent the highest standard.

How can this best be done? There are no simple answers, no easy propositions. For each institution, faced with special demands and special problems, the need will be different. But I see some basic characteristics of M.I.T. which now emerge in newer translation as we set our course for these next years.

The first outstanding characteristic of M.I.T. is its direct capacity to act, to respond to problems and to solve them in effective, powerful ways. M.I.T.'s record is perhaps unique in this regard. This is modern engineering at its very best. Bright men with a bold approach to a large complex problem affecting society's interest find here more support and opportunity to demonstrate effects quickly than in any other place I know. The vitality of this horizon-seeking force--this powerful response to problems--will, I hope, never change at M.I.T. The cost to the nation would be too great, and the loss of capacity in developing gifted individuals would be no less a disaster.

But there is an important consideration which will increasingly affect M.I.T.'s response to problems. I believe that the general range of problems attacked by M.I.T. in the future will shift more and more to those that understandably affect the ways in which our society lives, that this institution will increasingly exert its power toward the problems of human significance. It seems clear to me that we have reached the stage of population levels and aspirations when the happy and productive ordering of our community lies in massive solutions to our problems in education, in urban living, in regional development, in commerce and industry, in transportation, in medicine, and, yes, in the peaceful conduct of nations. And the effective solutions to these problems become of first priority to the nation. As M.I.T.'s Physical Science Study and other curriculum improvements have shown in education, and the engineering systems approaches have potentially demonstrated in other fields, the university can make a powerful contribution toward the solution of these problems, and I must add that these are the problems which attract the best and most vigorous effort of our socially conscious youth. The attraction and appeal of this kind of bold engineering and social science and management to our best young people is not dead. It has just come alive.

The second outstanding characteristic of M.I.T. is that this is a university in which the bone structure is science and the application of science. Science is fundamental to M.I.T.'s past, and, I believe, to its future. The study of science has outlined the educational pattern for all of our students, and the pursuit of scientific research here has been the drumbeat to which our Faculty and, indeed, the world listens.

Let me comment on each of these two parts of the whole. In teaching, we believe that the student broadly learns from the rigor of interpretation, comparison, and discovery that is the core of the approach of science. It is difficult to see how the completely educated man of the future could be without this understanding of the physical and biological world, no matter what his later professional emphasis.

Research in science deserves the special concern of all of us. To strengthen our basic fields, to state again the need to follow the paths of science where discovery leads without faltering, these are propositions of the highest priority. One consideration, not so obvious, however, is the danger that M.I.T.'s very power to mobilize talent in urgent response to problems runs the risk of reducing our ability to nurture the quiet patterns of the laboratory and the study with the purpose of developing basic advance in the sciences. It is difficult to remain in the firehouse when the whole town has rushed off to fight the fire. But I believe we must strengthen this second pattern of individual concentration. It is true that the peace and serenity of this pursuit at M.I.T. will, perhaps, always be that of the eye of the hurricane; but I believe that strengthening the path of scholarly life is central to the strength of the institution itself. This approach to major support of science and engineering will require a dedicated effort and, most of all, a change of attitude on the part of all of us, and I predict we will succeed.

I have spoken of our intention to press both for effective engineering application and strong basic science because, of course, one is incomplete without the other. M.I.T. will make its contribution by continuing to achieve a dynamic equilibrium of science and application.

I turn now to another set of characteristics of M.I.T., just as vital and just as valid to our future.

They relate to the total education of the men and women who emerge from this institution in the future. We hold that it would be inadequate for the basic education of the M.I.T. man and woman to stop at science and engineering. We hold that both frameworks, science and the humanities, are complex requisites to the education of the man who is to occupy the leadership responsibility in tomorrow's world.

The threat implied in the concept of the separateness of the two cultures lies in the narrow arrogance of power based on assumptions of a pre-eminence of a specialty. This narrow specialization is what we propose to avoid--a specialization, I might add, found as easily in medical doctors, businessmen, and politicians as in scientists and humanists. My point is that the future will demand of M.I.T. a great deal more than that it simply bridge the supposed schism between two cultures, where the not-so-well-rounded scientist can be as ignorant of Shakespeare as the humanist is of the second law of thermodynamics. We shall have to provide the true generalist capable of dealing with the great problems cutting across every area of our lives.

M.I.T. can be proud of its revolution in broadening the base of education in the humanities as well as in science, but what we have done is not enough. We must continue to strengthen the power of the confluence of science and the arts. We have found productive avenues for the strengthening of many areas of the arts, but we must find more ways of strengthening the interaction between these two parts which are, indeed, not separate at all.

For me, the study of history, presenting the understanding of the past, the perspective of man's heroism and folly, his achievements and disasters, his hopes and fears, helps to explain life and develop a deeprooted concern for humanity. I suppose that as Trevelyan has said, "the poetry of history lies in the miraculous fact that once on this familiar spot of ground walked other men and women ... thinking their own thoughts, swayed by their own passions, but now all gone, one generation vanishing after another, gone as utterly as we ourselves shall shortly be gone."

Now I want to turn away from this footnote on subject matter in the curriculum to a matter closely related to it--the environment within which our education takes place. There is a tendency for the pressures of the older format of M.I.T. to produce a physical environment that is efficient in the short run, perhaps, but inefficient in the long, and less interesting than it might be. Music, architecture, and painting, by their nature, are equipped to impose form and meaning on the increasing complexities of human experiences, including those of science. Should we deprive ourselves by excluding a concern for these elements from our overall environment? I don't think we can. If we look for human satisfaction and the uplift of the spirit, then the pattern of living of our students, the beauty of the surroundings and the variability of our converse are important, and we propose to press for major improvement.

I come now to the final characteristic of M.I.T. and surely its most important--our students, their quality, their motivation, and their outlook. For 100 years the men who have emerged from M.I.T. have become part of that moving parade that has made of this institution a great historical force. The present generation of students will surely meet that standard. M.I.T. is a relatively small institution in size, relatively large in its influence on society. Our emphasis continues to lie in the quality on which this nation depends for advancement, rather than on great numbers. The men and women who emerge from M.I.T. in the future will have an increasing advantage, a richer breadth, as well as M.I.T.'s characteristic ability to deal in depth. I believe that the university man today has a special requirement to perform effectively for society. For it is performance that is the final standard of a man's worth. He will be concerned with service to society, service in the cause of society, and the well-being of his fellow man. He will have the ability to appreciate the whole, to compose confidence with a sense of the beauty of life and the tragedy. He will carry a deep-seated sense of responsibility. He will have an enjoyment of life that will set him apart as a member of that select band who through the years have known the pleasure of intellectual advance and solid social accomplishment, who have high ideals and yet no illusions about what remains to be done or the difficulty of dealing with an ambiguous world. He will have learned, as Justice Holmes has put it, "that life is a profound and passionate thing." And in seeking to serve his fellow man, he will come closer to understanding man's purpose on this earth.

Arthur Schlesinger in his book A Thousand Days reports a brief conversation between John Kennedy and André Malraux in which Malraux describes the ostensible issue of the Nineteenth Century in Europe as being between the monarchy on one hand and the republic on the other, whereas, he said, the real issue was between capitalism and the proletariat. Malraux went on to say that the ostensible conflict of the Twentieth Century is the conflict between capitalism and the proletariat, and then he asked Kennedy his opinion of what, indeed, was the real issue. The President replied that the real problem of our century is the management of industrial society. I would propose that central to the effective solution of that problem, in all of its complex facets, is the issue of whether or not the universities of our time will turn out men who know science in the broad context of society and who, understanding life and loving liberty, can provide a responsible leadership in education, in government, and in industry, in a world dominated by technology.

This, then, is the new call to the university of the future. As the Institute founded by William Barton Rogers proceeds in its second century, we call for a renewal of our historic plan. The elements of this plan draw from the basic fiber, the very character of this institution: our power to act, our foundation in science, our commitment to research, our determination to build the humanities and the arts, our emphasis on the importance of the environment and, above all, our expectations for the performance of our students. These basic propositions make M.I.T. a university that never looks back as a conserver of the past but always forward as a maker of the future.

A difficult task lies ahead. Yet the pains and dilemmas that we shall encounter in achieving this plan are far from the problems of despair. Rather, they represent opportunities for reaching an end which no other university of our time has reached. We may be on the verge of bridging traditional separate cultures. But more importantly, as we do so we are engaged, I believe, in the process of confronting a whole system of interrelated problems of our modern society. It is, I believe, the role of the university of the future to apply this all-out concern for issues of human significance, to keep in balance a dynamic system of variables while at the same time pressing for progress toward our final goal--the goal of total and continuous education for the whole man.

I believe M.I.T.'s record in this process, over the coming years, will illumine our society in significant ways both directly through the men and women who come from the Institute and indirectly through the example M.I.T. sets for others. In this great cause, I join my colleagues, and, conscious of the valiant work of those who have gone before us, and of the hopes of those to come, I say, let us go on.

Technology Review 69, November 1966, pp. 19-24.


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