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The Inaugural Address

Jerome Bert Wiesner
Thirteenth President of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology
October 7, 1971

Science, Technology, and the Quality of Life

Jerome Bert Wiesner

Times are no longer conducive to speculation. Our burden is that we know enough today to make dire, and specific, predictions about the future—and most of us will live to see some of them come true. Nor do the times call for purely expedient commitments to action. We have all memorized the words of ten years ago which conjured visions of great new worlds; our need now is to move practically and painstakingly toward their fulfillment. Our commitment must be to progress in significant and inspiring steps toward solving our local and global problems. In the pursuit of these tasks we cannot afford cliches, and a failure to examine and re-examine ideas will amount to a betrayal of the human race.

In this context I wish to restate what I see as the basic purpose of any university and of ours in particular: It is the quest for learning, the nurture of learning, the transmission of learning, the use of learning. We gather at such institutions, teachers and students alike, to expand man's knowledge of his universe. No doctrine, no orthodoxy, no conventional discipline or gust of political passion can be allowed to divert us from this purpose.

When this university was founded a century ago, the atom was an irreducible unit, radiation was not understood, the great equations that frame the physical universe were undreamed of; Pasteur was just beginning his work, Einstein was unborn, the moon was made of green cheese. As much as any institution of learning in the entire world, M.I.T. has helped roll back the frontiers of darkness. And we shall continue. Here we shall offer shelter for the search for knowledge to all those who come, at any age, to join in that search. And the only loyalty test we shall impose is that of loyalty to learning.

In this spirit the faculty and alumni of M.I.T. have earned us an honored place among the world's great universities. The social and behavioral sciences, management, humanities, and the creative arts have taken their place alongside the original activities in science and the "useful arts" (as William Barton Rogers, M.I.T.'s founder, used to call them), adding substantially to M.I.T.'s intellectual breadth and distinction and to its record in public service.

Much of what we do in the year 1971 must reflect the uncertain mood of the times and highlight the necessity for re-emphasizing the great excitement and essential value of research in the sciences. Our agenda also reflects deep awareness of the threats to the quality of life in our society and the need for increased sensitivity to the dangers arising from the careless exploitation of new technology.

The Essence of an Enigma

I have been impressed, since being appointed President, by the great concern and affection of people I meet everywhere for the welfare of M.I.T. and for universities in general. The hidden message I decode is that a lot of people, including many with no ties to the academic world, do care about the universities, do look to them for leadership and, consequently, are very upset when they find their performance disappointing. But I also hear much criticism of M.I.T. specifically, as well as of other universities. The criticism comes from everywhere, old and young, rich and poor, radical and conservative, from all ethnic and minority groups.

For each group the university is the symbol of its frustrations and fears. The reactionary elements in the society are prone to view the university as a subversive force and believe that its administrators have been too tolerant of student and faculty challenges—some say threats—to the established order. Large numbers of young people and those adults who want more rapid social reform are critical because they consider the university a conservative force whose primary function is to "socialize"—in their words, "co-opt"—students for a role in society which they see as exploitive, unsatisfying, and—to varying degrees—obsolete and designed to support existing institutions and social relationships. We have achieved the dubious distinction of being regarded, at one and the same time, as the hothouse of revolution and the propagator of the status quo. To the poor and the blacks, the university is the locked gateway to opportunity. And other critics see the university as an untrustworthy ally whose staffs use knowledge sought at public expense to frustrate government purpose.

In other words, to many citizens of our society, the university has become the essence of the enigma that is the future; in it are fused the hopes and disappointments that power the continuing revolution of our times. Academia, with its conflicting constituencies is at once the intellectual front line and the only neutral meeting ground of that revolution.

The many individual objections to the performance of universities are given coherence and are amplified by a growing wave of anti-intellectualism, mysticism and primitivism. This new evangelism is fostered by those who feel that the structure and goals of a society which stresses the achievement of material progress through science and technology cannot provide a life of dignity for the individual. For these critics, including many students and faculty, the university is in league with the enemy; for some it is the enemy. And to those who see uncontrolled technology as the major source of our social dislocations, M.I.T. is the special symbol of concerns and frequently the object of anger. They are persuaded that the social and economic forces which propel technological innovation cannot be directed toward the general welfare; that, in fact, technology represents a malignancy which will dominate our civilization and ultimately condemn all men to be slaves of a vast, impersonal, and all-powerful organization. Their cry is that its onslaught must be stopped.

If this vision is correct we are already doomed; for it is clear to me that we cannot escape technology in some form. In fact, I am convinced that without new scientific knowledge and wise technological investments now and in the future, the problems of mankind will only increase. At the same time the increasing complexity of society and its capability for control of the individual pose very real hazards, and these matters require our continuous vigilance.

I view the present multi-crisis differently—and hopefully. I see it as a perilous but positive phase in man's continuing evolution—a process now determined largely by his own actions, which he is still learning to manage. At this juncture, it is our obligation to intervene on the side of man. Ironically, the problems we face stem from our success—from efforts to achieve equality and a decent life for all citizens.

Social Feedback at Work

Science and technology have helped create our present predicament by extending to most of us options in modes of living and working that were previously reserved for a privileged few. For too long we have been totally hypnotized by what we could do. Until recently, people in the "advanced countries," as we like to call ourselves, have assumed that any application of technology that expanded mastery over nature was desirable, and we have ignored the implications of this power. Rarely before this decade was the relationship between technological change and man's social, biological, and physical environments examined; only obvious benefits were considered, and only immediate costs. Little consideration was given to the "ecological" dimensions of innovations—physical, social, or psychological. It is precisely the chasm between our tremendous power to change and our apparent inability to guide these changes for the good of mankind that has led to the feeling of desperation and the loss of confidence in the scientific approach.

But if we look at recent events with some detachment, we can see some positive responses to these problems. The social feedback systems are working.

Not long ago the environmental hazards were recognized by only a few experts whose warnings were completely disregarded. I recall how violently Rachel Carson was attacked in 1961 for her statements about the deadly consequences of the indiscriminate use of pesticides, and a panel established merely to look into her allegations was strongly criticized. The use of many of the chemicals she warned against is now prohibited. Likewise only a decade ago man-made radioactive poison fell from the sky with every rain, doing incalculable damage to living beings everywhere on the planet and jeopardizing hundreds of future generations. The nuclear test-ban treaty of 1963 almost completely stopped that poisoning of the atmosphere.

Today, protecting and improving the quality of the environment is a major national goal which almost everyone accepts and is prepared to pay for, and the human, social, scientific, and political issues involved are receiving concerted academic study.

Another major response to current dissatisfactions with the status quo was that mounted by the country's educational system. As I think of it, it has been the most massive reaction in my memory to a social crisis. At all levels and in every kind of school we see new programs and experimentation, a reaching upward in a continuing search for a "better," more engaging and significant education. However, the good intentions unfortunately—to date—outrun the accomplishments.

A Renaissance: Man Replacing Machine

Nowhere, I believe, is the fervor for educational innovation and for undertaking inquiries into society's many needs greater than here at M.I.T. And an important reason for this educational ferment has been the students themselves. They are knowledgeable, and they are mature. They insist upon a chance to think about who they are and why they are doing what they are doing and where they are going. They want to develop broadly in all spheres—moral, social, intellectual and political—and they do not want their lives compartmentalized. They are eager to work hard and anxious to learn, but only in connection with a faculty and an institution that they can respect for its values, its commitment to society, and its attention to the individual. To a far greater degree than his counterpart of a decade ago, today's student contemplates a career in some part of the public sector or in an industry that is oriented to social responsibility. This is indeed a heartening sign.

We have begun to break the academic lockstep—to make it possible for a student to learn in a style that suits him, at a pace that he chooses, with the freedom to tailor his own academic program. The project laboratory, the seminars, the undergraduate research involvement, the Experimental Studies Group, the Unified Science Studies Program—all add new dimensions to undergraduate educational opportunities. These accomplishments have been accompanied by the development of a deep and sustained interest on the part of students and faculty, in the educational process itself as a discipline worthy of investigation and study, in which are joined a regard for subject matter, a broad knowledge of human beings, and an appreciation of the possibilities of technology.

There is still much to learn. How can M.I.T.—any university—more fully engage the outstanding young people it attracts? How can it help them discover themselves? How can it organize its programs and utilize the promising new technologies to permit faculty members to spend more of their time and efforts in direct relationships with students? How can M.I.T. make effective use of the educational potential in industry and government? How can it respond to the hopes of many alumni for a more intimate and productive association with the Institute through periodically renewed contacts for learning? And how would such continuing educational programs alter the time and substance of the formal university experience?

This is a unique moment to pause and re-examine our educational policies, for the walls of the professional departments—especially in engineering, architecture, and urban studies—are breaking down to make room for the evolution of new unities. Professional faculties and their students are reaching out to the society—the neighboring community, government, and industry—in order to make a conscious contribution, through understanding and action, in the fields of environment, health, urban studies, architecture, educational innovation, and international understanding, and in the management of science and technology itself.

This movement can stimulate a renaissance among the professions in which man will replace machine at the center of the stage. New cooperative ventures involving the social sciences and humanities should draw disparate disciplines closely together and in so doing provide opportunities to create exciting new forms of professional education. Thus—by integrating science and technology with the study of man and his culture—can we recast the concept of a liberal education in a contemporary mold. Perhaps then, too, the history and philosophy of science and technology will become a significant aspect of humanistic studies.

Midcourse Guidance: Toward Integration

Last year William Arrowsmith, the classics scholar turned educational innovator, surveyed the spreading dissatisfaction within liberal arts institutions and responded with a not-dissimilar vision of a new educational synthesis flowing from the impact of current social turmoil on the professions.

He said: "We have integrated problems and disintegrated skills. And the alienation of knowledge and the liberal arts from the crisis of the professions is no longer a tolerable luxury. If the liberal arts attempt to maintain their traditional aloofness, their devotion to pure research and contemplation, their subject matters will simply be appropriated. The professionals have no alternative; they are too close to society, to the convulsive chaos around us, to escape responsibility for change, for rational and humane action." And he went on to say: "The professions, I am suggesting, have encountered the ‘other’; a new humanism is already taking shape among younger professionals in response to the desperation of those who depend upon the professions. And because the professions cannot do without the arts of knowledge and the liberal arts, their encounter will eventually spread to education too."

Twenty-two years ago a faculty committee of which Julius A. Stratton and I were members concluded its recommendations with the hope that "the Institute may become known as a place where the professional training and the general education necessary for professional leadership are integrated." To assist in achieving this goal, the committee recommended the establishment of M.I.T.'s School of Humanities and Social Sciences. Though the school has become a most distinguished and vital component of the Institute, the integrated education we dreamed of did not emerge. Partly this was because the goals were not clearly articulated, certainly not generally understood, perhaps ahead of their time, not even quite believed in, perhaps even impossible. Perhaps we failed to appreciate the difficulty of the task—it is easier to teach facts and problem solving skills than to teach the expressive and appreciative skills. Despite the fact that some of these objectives have eluded our grasp, we know that we have great strengths in the School to support our new initiatives. What I have explored here today is in the nature of midcourse guidance for our academic flying machine.

Campus and Community

As I close, I would remind us of our immediate opportunities to enhance the quality of life close to home—on the campus and in the neighboring community.

First, to make careers in science and engineering more attractive and accessible for members of minority groups and women, through opportunities as students, faculty and staff employees at M.I.T.

Second, to contribute through our actions and support to the well being of the community in which we live.

Third, to seek new ways of collaboration with our sister institutions of the area. Our joint programs with Harvard University, Wellesley College and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution already play a major role in the lives of many students and faculty, both through collaboration and the sharing of resources. The interchange of students and faculty enriches far beyond the scholarly opportunities thus provided.

Lastly, charity, they say, begins at home, and we must remain committed, in spite of severe fiscal constraints, to continue our recent efforts to improve the quality of the campus environment.

Toward a Future as Brilliant as the Past

Now, let me recapitulate the thread of my thoughts. Our first responsibility, as I have said, is to learning itself. Our second responsibility, since ours is the world's foremost institute of technology, is to understand what our learning and discoveries may do to man and society, and to transmit that knowledge to new generations—to men and leaders who may be wiser than we in applying it, or wiser in judging how slowly or rapidly these technologies may be absorbed.

I conclude with a humility forced on me by the contemplation of my own experience and the experience of our country in these times, with the realization that our central problem is man himself. If, through our quest for learning, we can help develop wise men; if, by our research and study, we can deliver leaders trained in the study of nature's evidence and nature's promise; if we can shape young people who are fully aware of their own powers of mind, who have the courage to stand alone; who are committed to justice and to humanity, people modest enough to know that men trained in other disciplines may understand America as well as they—if we can do all this, then M.I.T. may face a future as glowing as its past.

As an institution within a larger community, we must respond to national needs. We hope to educate men and women here who will help, when they leave and as they mature, to define what those national needs are—who will work, not as elitist specialists but as individuals, among 200 million Americans, to bring about the necessary improvements in our society.

Our country presently is full of public mourners, of dour analysts of the future. I do not count myself among them. The times are hard today; no one would see this as a moment ripe with the full flowering of the American spirit. Yet the times have always been hard for men who seek to change, whose occupation and calling is the forecasting and the fostering of change. For those of us who see problems as challenges, these times may be one of the rare opportunities in history when men of our kind may contribute their most. I am thankful to have, at my side, one of those men, Paul Gray, my long-time colleague, as Chancellor. I take pride in this new opportunity; I am hopeful for what lies before this community; I rejoice in the adventure which, all together, we can look forward to sharing.

Many years ago Mr. MacLeish suggested that civilization would not be healed until people could see and know feelingly. His words should ring in our memories as we go about our tasks, and if he will excuse my presuming this once to invade his craft I will conclude thus:


No equation can divine the quality of life, 
  no instrument record, 
  no computer conceive it. 
Only bit by bit can feeling men 
  lovingly retrieve it

Technology Review 74, December 1971, pp. 15-18.


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