Anne McCants: Beyond the Classroom – Why I Live With Students . . . .

As the debate rages about the value of the campus in the digital age, this essay in the MIT Faculty Newsletter by Professor Anne McCants, a long-time contributor to and friend of OCW, seems particularly timely.

Beyond the Classroom
Why I Live With Students . . . .

Anne McCants

MIT, like all institutions of higher education, has a basic mandate to teach our students how to engage in critical thinking, to communicate clearly, to conduct research, to master different modes of analysis, and to incorporate the most accurate information known to us about the workings of both the physical universe and the social world we inhabit within it. This program of study takes place in classrooms large and small, in laboratories, between the pages of books, and increasingly, in the digital environment and on a global scale. If every student who passed over our threshold were to master these skills we would be very pleased indeed.

Nonetheless, as a residential institution we have an opportunity to cultivate yet another quality that may well be of equal or even greater importance for the lives of our students than just the skills promoted by an education as conventionally understood: the ability to make good decisions in matters of everyday life, especially in cases where information is incomplete, or competing goods are clearly at stake.

This quality is sometimes dignified as discernment, at other times trivialized as common sense, as if it were easy to come by. But in all cases it represents the ability to take what we know and/or know how to do, and to apply that information to the hundreds of decisions, big and small, that we must make every day; and to do so in a way that promotes the values to which we collectively subscribe, whether fairness, loyalty, honor, kindness, empathy, efficiency, honesty, or courage, among others, and in varying degrees of importance for different people, of course.

Yet wisdom — for that is the essence of what I have in mind here – is not easy to teach. The claims of countless self-help gurus notwithstanding, there are not “five easy steps to a new and wiser you” that can be codified for dissemination on the page or in a lecture. Moreover, we know from our experience working with the incredibly smart students it is our privilege to teach at MIT, that being smart is not by itself enough to make one wise. Moreover, to be smart but not wise can actually be a dangerous thing, as our capacity to harm is so often inextricably linked with the capaciousness of our intellect. Read more.

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