School of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences 50th Anniversary Celebration

Search transcript...



WILLIAMS: With awareness of our own mortality comes awareness that there is a larger collective story.

CHOMSKY: Conclusions about human nature are likely to have large-scale human consequences.

FEMALE SPEAKER 2: How to bring globalization into the domain of human choice and human decision.

DENSAI: I believe that real books must be children not of broad daylight and small talk, but of darkness and silence.

HARRIS: Tonight we honor both the history and promise of music at MIT.


KHOURY: Welcome to the 50th anniversary celebration of the MIT School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences. Since 1950, the school has been home to an extraordinary collection of scholars; Composers and economists, linguists and literary critics, historians, anthropologists, philosophers, and many others, who pursue topics ranging from the analytic study of human language, to market exchange and group conflict. From the interpretive examination of texts, histories, and cultures, to the imaginative exploration of human passions and relationships. It's my hope that after watching these video highlights you will have a deeper sense of the contribution to knowledge that comes from the MIT School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences.

KEYSER: Welcome to the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences version of, "The Three Tenors."


Language is a process of free creation, and I'm quoting, "It's laws and principles are fixed, but the manner in which the principles of generation are used is free and infinitely varied," end of quote. The quotation is from Noam Chomsky, and the import is that language, an important, perhaps the most important aspect of human nature, is quintessentially infinite creativity within a finite set of boundaries.

PINKER: The topic of this afternoon's symposium is of course of perennial importance, because everyone has a theory of human nature. Everyone has to predict how other people will react to their surroundings, and that means that we all depend on theories, explicit or implicit, on what makes people tick. I think the religious theory of human nature was replaced within 100 years ago and more by the doctrines of The Blank Slate, The Noble Savage, and The Ghost in the Machine. This theory is being challenged by the cognitive revolution and the revolutions in neuroscience, genetics, and evolution. It's seen as a threat to deeply held values, but I would argue that that threat is more apparent than real.

On the contrary, I think taking human nature into account can help us clarify these values. Specifically, it's a bad idea to say that discrimination is wrong just because the traits of all humans are identical. It's a bad idea to say that war, violence, rape, and greed are wrong because humans are not naturally inclined to them. And it's a bad idea to say that people are responsible for their actions just because the causes of those actions are mysterious. They're bad ideas because they imply either that scholars must be prepared to fudge their data for a higher moral purpose, or we must all be prepared to relinquish our values. And I would argue that is one choice that I hope we don't have to make.

PUTNAM: First of all, evolution had better not endow intelligent beings who are to have any chance of survival with reasoning patterns that lead to contradictions in daily practice. If we were always falling into contradiction in our everyday reasoning, we would be so confused we would not be around long enough to pass on our genes. Of course, there are parts of mathematics in which contradictions have a resident. A typical human mathematician makes mistakes. Evolution just has to give us a program which will enable us to succeed in our lives. If we do, then our mathematical concepts will admit, of some interpretation, under which what we say is right.

CHOMSKY: Conclusions about human nature are likely to have large-scale human consequences, and therefore they have to be advanced with scrupulous care, and with the recognition of how little is understood when we pass beyond fairly simple systems. For example, conflict over ratification of human rights conventions, or to take a current case, a very sharpened divide in the world today over unilateral military intervention for allegedly humanitarian reasons. I think the case can be made that these are the appropriate terms for comprehending history, and it's at least imaginable, though hardly imminent, that scientific inquiry might offer some guidelines for approaching the extremely significant issues that arise, and perhaps offering some answers to questions, but as far as I can see we can only speculate about today.

HARRIS: The question in the title of our colloquium, which is, "How do artist tell their stories?" in itself, I think, asks for further questions. Who's story? The artists? If not who's story, what kind of story? The counterpoint of art and technology at MIT tells us that art and design are inextricably linked. That a fragment or a flash of insight contains a story as much as a lengthy narration, and that art tell stories about itself, about the world, and about our place in it.

DENSAI: Being the novelist here, I get to answer the question, "How do artists tell their stories?" at the most basic level of all. Apart from patience, one requires some equipment. In all my Indian years, I believe these to consist of three items: silence, secrecy, and cunning. And I never heard of a writing course, or a writer's workshop. Writing in solitude and secrecy, afraid, really, that the assaults of life would come too close, and damage the web that I was so nervously spinning. I believe it proves that real books must be children not of broad daylight and small talk, but of darkness and silence. Practice this long enough, the moment comes that TS Eliot called, "A sudden lifting of the burden of anxiety and fear, which presses upon on our daily life so steadily that we're unaware of it.

GLUCK: This is from a book called, "The Wild Iris." This is the title poem of the book, and the opening lines were the lines with which this book began. I hadn't written a word for two years. That's not, for me, uncommon, and increasingly I find that I write in kind of seizures, which sounds exciting. It sounds like possession, it sounds like the visitation of the muse, but in fact it's very complicated because there's no feeling of agency, so that when you finish, you have no sense that you've actually written the work. This is not to say that you think the muse wrote it. What it is to say is that you fear you have stolen it, that you have remembered it, that it's somebody else's and you've appropriated it. So you start sending these poems that were written suddenly, three, four a day, to your friends, asking if they recognize any of their lines, but you can't send them to everybody in the world.

HARBISON: I begin with a caution about how musicians tell their stories. We don't really, musically, most of the time, tell our stories with the aid of words, or sequences of events, or any mimetic kind of imitation of nature. But rather, we tell our stories in a more esoteric way, through the movement of harmony through the identity of motives and melodic ideas. Through associations, through contrast both large and small. The drive of this narrative is in the notes, and in the relationship between the notes. And it happens to synchronize, I hope at the right places, with an action and with a story. And I think an operatic storyteller hones their skills as much as anything in becoming very precise about the notes.

WILLIAMS: I want to welcome you to the third colloquium session. How do history and memory shape each other? With awareness of our own mortality comes awareness that there is a larger collective story. So what is that story and who is going to tell that story? Every year at commencement we see this here at MIT, when the students who are graduating, and I'm speaking here especially the undergraduate students, are all lined up and filing into Killian Court. Before they get to the court there's always a moment where the graduates confront the 50th reunion class. And it's a moment of great poignancy, because the 50th year alumni are looking at the students and they're seeing themselves, and the students are looking at the alumni and they're seeing themselves. And that's a moment when history almost becomes visible, becomes palpable.

BEER: One of the things I want to look at this morning is the ways in which our, if you like, mythological understanding of Charles Darwin has ignored, perhaps needed to ignore, some aspects of his work. His most famous work, the "Origin of Species" in 1859, seeks to make a history that both outgoes and forgoes human memory as a shaping presence. That is, he's here writing history that goes before and does without human memory. A world with no human memory in it. Not yours, not mine, not theirs. Indeed, a world perhaps without any memory in it at all, inhabited by instinctual creatures, possibly without what we would call consciousness. How Darwin would have rejoiced at the discovery of DNA with its demonstration of profound genetic continuities, and individualities.

MAIER: Our assignment here, as I understand it, is to reflect on the complex relationship of memory, myth, and history. After the war of 1812, a new generation of Americans had risen to power, and it was anxious to keep the memory of its revolutionary fathers from being lost. And a good deal of the testimony upon the evolution of the Declaration of Independence, a testimony upon which historians have relied, was given almost 50 years after the drafting had been done. And in the course of my research, I discovered that on point after point that testimony was incorrect. But try contesting notions that have been so deeply ingrained in our national myth.

When I published American scripture, some woman in Philadelphia said to me, "Don't we need these myths?" And maybe we do. And I suppose historians are always going to be against them in some way. We question them. We go back, we try to compare the documents to get a more accurate version of what really happened, and it doesn't always lend itself to mythologizing. So we are always, in some sense, going to be antagonistic. But I ultimately came to the conclusion that truth was more tonic than myth.

DOWER: A couple years ago, a number of years ago, I was asked to talk about war memory in Japan, and it was in Washington, DC. I went down, and in the evening before the talk for the first time I went to see another war memorial, the Vietnam War Memorial. I had not seen it before, and I look at the wall, and I'm profoundly moved, as everyone is. You move very, very slowly. You zero in on a certain name, for some reason, and it's a very strong image of victimization.

But if you take the concept of victimization, it moves in various directions. One is to say that we'll never do this again, so it feeds anti-militaristic, anti-war sentiment. The other is, you forget how you victimized others. You forget how you were victimizer, and the same people, person, community can be both victim and victimizer.

COHEN: Our question for this final session is, "Is capitalism good for democracy?" Or, we could put the question more colorlessly as, "What is the relationship between capitalism and democracy?"

SOLOW: The trouble with unregulated capitalism is that political power gets absorbed by economic power to a larger or lesser extent, but sometimes to a very large extent. And so we run the danger of ending up, from this point of view, where socialism ends up, only by the back door, but with economic power and political power sitting in the same hands. And this suggests to me that probably the best we can do for Democracy is a partially regulated capitalism.

ARROW: If capitalism is good for democracy, one might expect that more capitalism, I'm saying there may be degrees of capitalism, should lead to more democracy. Well, of course, there's a lot of problems. What do I mean by more capitalism? Well, one test is the size of the state. What percentage of the national income of a country goes through the state, what would be the tax bite? And as Bob has already pointed out, there are countries like Sweden, which to this day over 50% of some of the that actually goes through the state. And nobody would allege that they're less democratic.

Now, there seem to be some arguments, some sense, although it may be perverse sense, state ownership may increase democracy. And we have state ownership, one of the things you find every time you have state ownership, is that the employees, and managers too, for that matter, start exerting political power. It's sort of energizes the Democrats. People get involved.

BERGER: But I think the even more difficult question in a world with an international economy, but no international government, is how to bring globalization into the domain of human choice and human decision. Now I think one solution to this dilemma could be to provide individuals with resources that would allow each person to protect himself in the new economy. And that way we would reduce the burden of expectations on what governments need to do.

What kind of resources would we want people to have? Well, the kind of education and training that would allow a person to reinvent herself and her job over the course of a lifetime. We'd want people to be able to diversify their assets, so as to spread family risks, so that for example, an average family's life savings and wealth would not be so heavily concentrated in the ownership of a house, a home, whose value depends on many factors outside an individual or the family's control. And I think such policies would be major gains in our society, and they're policies on which most of us can agree.




HARRIS: In establishing the School of Humanities, MIT acted on its belief that it could not educate the best scientists and engineers in the world by only teaching them science and engineering. Tonight we honor both the history and promise of music at MIT. With more than 200 currently enrolled students in performance on the stage.










KHOURY: Occasionally MIT honors individuals of great distinction from outside the MIT community. I'll give you two examples. In 1949, MIT honored Sir Winston Churchill by giving him an honorary lectureship.


And a very different kind of example, in 1993 our school honored the writer Salman Rushdie by making him an honorary visiting lecturer in the humanities.


We're honoring four very special guests, but by their very presence here this weekend, they truly honor us.


VEST: We're entering an age in which science and technology will play an increasing role in an ever-growing number of dimensions of our lives. MIT, as an institution, and MIT as a teacher of the young men and women who will lead in this age, must sustain the excellence of its School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences. You must always be an integral and essential part of that core which makes MIT a great and unique institution of higher learning.

I have come tonight to announce a decision. Is my honor to announce to you the Kenan Sahin Fund for the MIT School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences.



SAHIN: Humanities is what we're all about, humanities and social sciences, and I'd always viewed science and technology as humanizing in a true way, because it's through science and technology that we remove the tyranny and the veil of ignorance that fosters so much oppression, and so much fear and anxiety. It's only when those negative feelings are removed and lessened that we understand our full humanity and expression.


KHOURY: I think I speak for everyone in this room. But certainly, for my colleagues in this school, this is just too good to be true.