The Lewis Report.

If you have even a remote interest in (a) education, (b) history, (c) engineering, (d) MIT, or (e) things of interest to me — and I assume you must, otherwise why read this blog? — you should take a gander at The Lewis Report (by which I mean you should read the thing, or at least the introductory chapters), the report of the 1949 Committee on Educational Survey, chaired by Warren Lewis, that reevaluated MIT’s education and direction in the wake of World War II.
It’s a document I’ve been meaning to read for years now, particularly since the formation of the Task Force on the Undergraduate Educational Commons last academic year. In fact, McGann has long recommended it to me, and I’m ashamed to say it’s only now that I’ve gotten around to it. The most recent motivation came from a set of readings for the STS.464, The Intellectual History of Technology, which I’m auditing for work: this past week included selections from Veblen and from David Noble’s America by Design. Discussion of the history of engineering education got me thinking (as, considering my recent employment, it’s a topic I’ve spent a lot of time contemplating seriously over the past few years), and I thought Noble’s summary might benefit from a bit of source material. So I printed off the Lewis Report and started in.
Last spring, as we sat in the Bush room listening to the GIR Committee (a more convenient and parseable foreshortening of the Task Force on the Undergraduate Educational Commons, since we call them GIRs and not UECs) present to a meeting of the Corporation, McGann leaned over and whispered to me, “Have you read the Lewis Report?”
I shook my head.
“You should,” he said. “It’s wonderful.”
He’s right. It is wonderful. I care deeply about MIT, and so perhaps its effect on me is more emotional and pronounced than it might be on the average person, but I cannot imagine that this impassioned document would fail to inspire anyone who cares about education and the betterment of mankind. I know that “The Report of the Committee on Educational Survey to the Faculty of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology” doesn’t sound like a very compelling read, but it’s marvelous. A taste of the introduction might compel you:

IN JANUARY OF 1947, the Faculty of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology appointed the Committee on Educational Survey to review the state of education at the Institute. The committee was instructed to reexamine the principles of education that had served as a guide to academic policy at M.I.T. for almost ninety years, and to determine whether they are applicable to the conditions of a new era emerging from social upheaval and the disasters of war.

Our study has consumed more than two years, and we have at times been appalled both by the magnitude of our task and the slowness of progress. We have given little attention to the details of curricula, for we have believed that major revision should be undertaken only after a basic reevaluation of our educational philosophy. We have, however, examined the concept of professional education upon which this Institute was founded and reassessed our way of teaching. Our task, as we have seen it, has been to determine whether the Institute must alter the direction of its effort, or broaden its base, or apply its methods in new ways and to new areas.

A long tradition of leadership in professional education at M. I .T. has culminated in a magnificent record of national service. At no time has the Institute stood so high in the public esteem. One senses a feeling of confidence and power. The frontiers of knowledge are being attacked with boldness and enterprise. We take pride in our fine body of students; our relations with industry have never been more cordial; and we have been called upon to participate in national planning and defense on an unprecedented scale.

Why, then, was there felt a need of critical appraisal at a time when the Institute was conspicuously healthy and vigorous? In formulating questions to guide the deliberations of this committee, the faculty has indicated concern about the educational implications of changes that have taken place both in the Institute and in the society that it serves. Our studies have revealed apprehensiveness among our staff and alumni that in an exciting inflationary atmosphere, when money was easy and physical expansion tempting, we may have yielded uncritically to temporary pressures and lost sight of long-range educational goals. These misgivings as to the wisdom of some of our current enterprises are clearly tempered by a reluctance to abandon them. We find also a fear that we are complacently adhering to a kind of education that proved successful a generation ago, without taking into account significant changes that may have made this kind of education obsolete.

Forces are at work that appear to be bringing about subtle and profound alterations in the very character of the Institute. There has been an enormous expansion of physical plant, and a corresponding growth of staff. We continue to proclaim that our primary mission is to teach, but other activities have assumed an unprecedented role at M.I.T. Service to the community and to the national government has always been recognized as a primary obligation, but now the dollar volume of government-sponsored research amounts to far more than the academic budget. Postwar government funds have been used to maintain a very large technical staff without privilege of
tenure, and a major part of the Institute’s personnel is now dependent upon the continuation of short-term financial support. Government money has made available to us magnificent facilities that have become a permanent part of the Institute, and that involve continued responsibility for their maintenance.

This committee has no desire to recommend change for the sake of change, but it also believes that there is no road back. The world of 1950 is not the world of 1940, nor can this institution ever again be the same sort of place it was before the war. We are faced with certain accomplished facts that cannot be ignored. All of our future planning must take these changes into account.

Many of the changes that have taken place in the Institute reflect new conditions in the world about us. The release of nuclear energy is having a profound effect upon the course of human events, but other forces are also at work on society. They were beginning to modify our way of life long before the atomic bomb.

We are awake now, at last, to the knowledge that our rich and prosperous nation cannot withdraw into isolation. We have discovered that the social institutions of the United States are subject to forces similar to those that are molding the destinies of Europe and Asia. The very concepts of democracy, of equality of opportunity, and of leadership are shifting and developing in the American mind. The utter waste of two world wars confronts us with the necessity of considering the finite limits of our national resources. Even more significant, and perhaps more threatening to our present
form of democracy, is a persistent tendency to growth and centralization of control in all organizations and institutions, industrial, financial, educational, and labor. There is a concerted effort to increase the efficiency of management and to eliminate fluctuations in economic and social status. One must at times wonder whether the price of some of these changes may be an ever-diminishing premium placed on the man who is different, on the function and qualities of imaginative and creative leadership.

Democracy as we have known it for more than two hundred years is the fruit of leadership that rises from the initiative and individuality of the people. If this nation is to hold to a high goal, it must continue to cultivate a superiority of spirit and intellect. Since the war, there has appeared a new national consciousness of the responsibility for providing education to all of our young men and women commensurate with their ability. But in broadening the educational base, let us not stifle individuality by seeking uniformity; let us not fail to discern the gifted mind, to foster special talents, and to provide an environment in which these may flourish.

We believe that the mission of the Institute should be to encourage initiative, to promote the spirit of free and objective inquiry, to recognize and provide opportunities for unusual interests and aptitudes; in short, to develop men as individuals who will contribute creatively to our society, in this day when strong forces oppose all deviations from set patterns. We believe that the Institute should boldly undertake new experiments in education and new explorations into the unknown, withdrawing at the same time from ventures in which its leadership is no longer required. Our task, as we see it, has been to consider how the Institute may accomplish these purposes most effectively.

If that’s not a hint at how important an understanding of history is to the matters of the present, I don’t know what is. I’m moved just reading it.
And I’m moved to add item (f) to the list: The United States of America. As Noble says, engineering education as we know it is uniquely American in character. I’ve long been thinking about the connections between the culture at MIT and the wider American culture (or, rather, ideal); perhaps it’s time to start working on that article again.
I can only hope that the current Committee takes up their task with the same reverence and care that the Lewis Committee did. Suffice it to say that MIT is once again at a crossroads — and has been for some years now — and thisTask Force will likely have an impact equal to that of the Lewis Committee. Let’s hope they get it right.


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