The following is a lecture from the founder and President of Polaroid, Edwin Land. Land presented this in 1957 at MIT. The title was “The Idea of a University in an Age of Science”.
Beyond his deep respect for the members of M.I.T.’s faculty and administration, your speaker brings to this review two primary ideas — love of science and faith in youth.
In the two weeks during which I was your guest here at M.I.T., I have had some twenty meetings with groups of the faculty and with groups of undergraduates. I have been to dinner at a Fraternity house. I have had graduate students and undergraduates come to dinner with me. I have seen the remarkable Survey of Scholastic Enthusiasm conducted by undergraduates in recent years, and I have had the advice of a student group of the Arthur Dehon Little Lecture Committee.
Nothing which I saw changed the latent conviction that I brought with me, that the freshmen entering our American universities have a potential for greatness which we have not learned how to develop fully by the kind of education we have brought to this generation from the generations of the past.
Everything that I saw strengthened this conviction. Everywhere I went there was the deep concern of the faculty and administration for doing the teaching job better. And everywhere I could sense a deep feeling in the undergraduates I met: none of them dared to express it, but every one of them felt, in his heart, that if a way could be found of nurturing the timid dream of his own potential greatness which he brought from his family and school, if somehow he could tie on to the greatness in the faculty and the administration, then his dream might be coming out differently.
The Age of Greatness
What do I mean by greatness as I have used it in the title of this lecture? What do I mean by the Generation of Greatness?
I mean that in this age, in this country, there is an opportunity for the development of man’s intellectual, cultural, and spiritual potentialities that has never existed before in the history of our species. I mean not simply an opportunity for greatness for a few, but an opportunity for greatness for the many.
I believe that each young person is different from any other who has ever lived, as different as his fingerprints: that he could bring to the world a wonderful and special way of solving unsolved problems, that in his special way, he can be great. Now don’t misunderstand me. I recognize that this merely great person, as distinguished from the genius, will not be able to bridge from field to field. He will not have the ideas that shorten the solution of problems by hundreds of years. He will not suddenly say that mass is energy, that is genius. But within his own field he will make things grow and flourish; he will grow happy helping other people in his field, and to that field he will add things that would not have been added, had he not come along.
I believe there are two opposing theories of history, and you have to make your choice. Either you believe that this kind of individual greatness does exist and can be nurtured and developed, that such great individuals can be part of a cooperative community while they continue to be their happy, flourishing, contributing selves — or else you believe that there is some mystical, cyclical, overriding, predetermined, cultural law — a historic determinism.
The great contribution of science is to say that this second theory is nonsense. The great contribution of science is to demonstrate that a person can regard the world as chaos, but can find in himself a method of perceiving, within that chaos, small arrangements of order, that out of himself, and out of the order that previous scientists have generated, he can make things that are exciting and thrilling to make, that are deeply spiritual contributions to himself and to his friends. The scientist comes to the world and says, “I do not understand the divine source, but I know, in a way that I don’t understand, that out of chaos I can make order, out of loneliness I can make friendship, out of ugliness I can make beauty.”
I believe that men are born this way — that all men are born this way. I know that each of the undergraduates with whom I talked shares this belief. Each of these men felt secretly — it was his very special secret and his deepest secret — that he could be great.
But not many undergraduates come through our present educational system retaining this hope. Our young people, for the most part — unless they are geniuses — after a very short time in college give up any hope of being individually great. They plan, instead, to be good. They plan to be effective, They plan to do their job. They plan to take their healthy place in the community. We might say that today it takes a genius to come out great, and a great man, a merely great man, cannot survive. It has become our habit, therefore, to think that the age of greatness has passed, that the age of the great man is gone, that this is the day of group research, that this is the day of community progress. Yet the very essence of democracy is the absolute faith that while people must cooperate, the first function of democracy, its peculiar gift, is to develop each individual into everything that he might be. But I submit to you that when in each man the dream of personal greatness dies, democracy loses the real source of its future strength.
Idea of the University
I want to talk now about the ways in university life that seem, to someone looking at it a little from the side, to be the right ways in this generation. Let us consider together what university life should be like, to fulfill its function in this age.
The thing that we cannot realize in university life is the extent to which our natural concern with the past in what we teach has tied us to the past in how we teach. It is essential for the faculties of our universities to realize that we have not created this problem, we have inherited it.
De Toqueville enjoyed pointing out a peculiar characteristic of American democracy: it solves the problems that occur, as they come along, in a new way. What new ways, right for this generation, would we like to see in university life?
Attitude Toward the Undergraduate
My first proposal concerns the attitude of the university towards the undergraduate.
We find that in other areas in modern life, the attitude toward individuals is changing very, very rapidly. Thus, coming into a university from industry, one is surprised to see that entering pupils are treated as young and immature. To anybody on the outside it is self-evident that these boys coming in are not boys. It is self-evident that these men coming in are men. These are the ones who, at seventeen, would have been fighting the bears in the caves of old: who, at seventeen, would have been diverting the streams that came to flood their nomadic valleys.
The fact that civilization is becoming more intricate must not mean that we treat men for a longer period as immature. Does it not mean, perhaps, the opposite: that we must skillfully make them mature sooner, that we must find ways of handling the intricacy of our culture?
Now this error in attitude — mistaking these men for boys — permeates the whole scholastic domain, permeates it so thoroughly that it is hard for anyone within the domain to recognize it.
What do I mean by saying that a man is treated as a boy? I mean that he is told, the moment he arrives, that his secret dream of greatness is a pipe-dream; that it will be a long time before he makes a significant, personal contribution — if ever.
He is told this not with words. He is told this in a much more convincing way. He is shown, in everything that happens to him, that nobody could dream that he could make a significant, personal contribution.
He is given courses, he is instantly given tests, and he is given examinations. Now I ask you, if this is preparation for life, tell me where, where in the world, where in the relationship with our colleagues, where in the industrial domain, where ever again, anywhere in life, is a person given this curious sequence of prepared talks and prepared questions, questions to which the answers are known? Where again is he ever marked in this way? Where again is a structure of authoritarianism masked by the genuine friendliness of the democratic people who are his leaders? Where ever again is a person brought to the day of judgment every single week?
One may be inclined to say: After all, it’s just part of a system. But consider this: The first thing a mark tells you is whether what you said is true. When the professor says, “Hand back what I said,” the professor is telling the student that what he, the professor, said is true. Now the role of science is to be systematic, to be accurate, to be orderly, but it certainly is not to imply that the aggregated, successful hypotheses of the past have the kind of truth that goes into a number system.
If we wonder why so few pupils survive the university system in the country today — survive to come out asking the right questions, feeling free to question the authority of science although they have mastered the techniques — I suspect it starts here.
I say that our system of tests and grades, as it now exists, is one source of the low yield of great men from our universities. The marking system is a traumatic experience from which most students emerge with a deep determination never to get into a situation where they can be marked again. They just won’t ever again take a chance.
Another example of the attitude toward these incoming men is the honor system. In this survey of scholastic enthusiasm that I mentioned earlier, there is a good deal of discussion of the honor system, of its use in other colleges, and of whether or not we ought to have it at M.I.T. Is it too much to hope that an inspired undergraduate body would need no policing system, even that of its own “honor”?
One feels, when among our young students, that they are honest and honorable and full of ideals, that they come to the door of our universities with the dream of being our colleagues; that if we could provide them intimate leadership there would be no discipline to which they would not subject themselves and no task so arduous in the pursuit of knowledge and science that they would not devote themselves fully to it. But if we imply, as I believe we do by our present attitude, that we do not have this kind of faith in them, then their own strength wanes and they cannot believe the best of themselves. What then should our attitude be, and how might we express it?
I would dream that when a freshman enters the university, he would become at once a member of a small group, perhaps of about ten men. He would be associated at once with a mature, established scholar whose first interest is the education — I use the word in its broadest sense — of this incoming group and of the ten who came in the year before. The functions of these scholars will appear as I go along. Let me just refer to him, for our present purposes, as an usher — someone who leads you through the door — and describe him as a scholar who has a warm feeling for teaching, has succeeded enough in his field so that he is emerging from the fast-flowing part of the stream of his career, past the exciting rocks and chasms of his earlier years, and entering onto the pleasant, broad part of the river where he can relax a bit.
One of these ushers would greet each group of ten men as they came to the university. He would associate them with him as his colleagues — junior colleagues, to be sure, but as men capable at once of behaving as men, capable of the greatness that I have described.
He would help these young colleagues look over the university, talk over the professors, talk over the courses; he would start them reading, and then start them going to some lectures.
And he would start each one on a personal research project.
The Personal Project
I believe each incoming freshman must be started at once on his own research project if we are to preserve his secret dream of greatness and make it come true.
I believe, indeed, that the scientific experience should come earlier than the first year of college. I would urge that just as democracy initially meant the right of man to defend himself, to have a sword, and then meant the right to write, and then meant the right to read — so, now, democracy means the right to have the scientific experience.
This does not mean that everybody is a scientist in the professional sense. It does not mean that, any more than that everyone who can write is a writer in the professional sense. But just as an English teacher in the high school can give an assignment to write an original theme, so a science teacher in the high school should give an assignment to do an original piece of scientific work. I hope to convince you that this is feasible, that it is as normal for the young pupil in high school, or even in grade school, to carry out an original scientific investigation as it is for him to write his paper about what happened to the black and white horse out in the barn.
The proper kind of respect for distinguished people and distinguished accomplishments can be acquired only by actual participation in scientific research — what was valid in their spirit and their facts — what was necessarily of transient importance — how they related themselves to nature — and how any scientist must relate himself to nature and nature to himself. None of this can be understood except by a person who has himself been a scientist. A contemporary man who has not participated intimately in actual work in science is, in my opinion, not a modern man. I believe that this experience in science should come early in the life of all of our pupils.
Now, I expect you to say that it is inconceivable that we could provide enough experiments for all these students. That objection, I think, arises from the fact that the teachers in a great university are distinguished people. They are in fields that have come a long way. They are in fields of great current importance. Each is working out at the farthest end of one predominant line within his field. Now, for a young man to catch up with all the distinguished workers along that line, to pass them, and to make a contribution is indeed an almost unthinkable thing. The ordinary tendency, then, of a distinguished person in any field is to feel that no matter how much he admires and respects the young man, he cannot impose on him the requirements of contribution in that line where so many great men are working.
What I would like to urge is then in between all of these major lines of scientific investigation there are vast areas as yet unexplored. What would be one? Consider the recent work of Von Frisch, which shows that bees find their way by the polarized light of the sky. Von Frisch’s work suggests the kind of project our young man could undertake.
We suggest to the entering freshman: Von Frisch has found that bees find their way by polarized light. Your problem is to find out what, if anything, in the bee’s eye, is the analyzer for that polarized light? Immediately, the first day the man starts on that problem, he is the world’s authority on it. No one else is working in his domain; he is on his way; he is a self-respecting individual; he is motivated in a hundred different ways; he is our colleague. Similarly he could have been the one to find out how bees talk to one another, how they take ordinary drones and somehow convert them into scouts that go out and find new sites for the hive and come back and tell the hive about them. He could find out what happens in the town meetings of the bees when the scouts come back and the hive votes on which scout to believe.
Thus it is apparent that there are areas where untrained people may work effectively and with limited equipment. Our pupil doesn’t need a big laboratory to do this, he needs freedom; he needs encouragement.
The next proposal I wish to make concerns the nature of the courses through which entering students are introduced to the various disciplines.
It seems to me that the introductory courses which are designed, supposedly, to teach the whole freshman class about chemistry, and physics, and mathematics, to serve as background in these fields, have instead a tendency to be given as survival courses. That is, a man who is inherently a chemist will survive an introductory course in chemistry; a man who is not inherently a chemist will not want to hear of chemistry again.
Similarly, I think a physicist, looking at a student, does not ask, “How can I help this boy become a great man in some field?”, but “Is this boy potentially a great physicist who will some day work in my field? Is he someone with whom I might identify myself, and to whom I would be proud to pass on what I know?” While this is an understandable attitude, it doesn’t solve the problem of how we make chemists and mathematicians have a deep feeling for physics. I think the “school science” approach does; and I think the general education course at its best does also — where by the best we mean the brilliant presentation of the most precisely delineated ideas, and I think we must say this to each department: “Sharpen up the edges of ideas for the students in fields other than your own. They will not have years in which to find out what you meant, years during which they might achieve a sense of rich insight into your domain. But they are intelligent, they are earnest in their own department; they will profit all their lives from one year of brilliant teaching.”
Now this takes time, patience, and talent, and the question immediately arises: How can we find the time?
One proposal that interests me is to take the good lecturers at the moment when they are most excited about a new way of saying something, or at the moment when they have just found something new, and make moving pictures of them right in class. “Can the lecture with the vitamins in!”
Although I have not been in a university all my life, most of my friends have, and many a wonderful evening has been spoiled because a friend had to go home to do his lecture over. The same lecture? Yes, the same lecture. Why did he have to do it over? Because he had a little new insight. And so he redid that part, and became excited, and when he gave his lecture the next morning, everybody saw that he was excited, and the lecture was wonderful. (Actually, when he redid his lecture, he dropped out the idea he was excited about the previous year, which was just as important — but he couldn’t get excited about it again.)
With the movie we can capture the excitement, as well as the substance, of the best lectures. The lecturer can be freed of much of the burden of the total review of his field every year. He can devote himself to what he is excited about this year; to the new discovery, to the increment in knowledge, to correcting what he said before, to a fresh statement about an extensive new area.
When our new, mature freshman comes in, then, to the new regenerated university of the 1960’s, he will find a building which combines a series of movie theaters with a storehouse of great lectures. In these theaters, groups of students see many of the lectures that today must be given, in person, by their professors. Later, each student can see these lectures over again, whenever he wants to.
As you watch these movies we are about to show, you will find, I think, that in several respects the movie can actually be better than the lecturer in person. One can see, in the movie close-ups, what actually occurs in his demonstration.
You will also observe in yourself a curious objectivity. In an actual lecture, there is often a high and somewhat irrelevant emotional content, one way or the other, positive or negative; either one is too sensitive to the teacher or one is too insensitive; either one is too wide awake or one is too sleepy. One senses the presence of the man, in addition to, and outside of, anything that he has to say about the subject of the lecture. I think you will find in these movies that while you can feel the warmth of the personality of the lecturer, you can at the same time retain a relaxed objectivity that should speed the learning process.
These movies represent three different experiments. In one, Professor Hans Mueller, a very popular and effective lecturer, talks in his field of optics about the scattering of light. In this experiment, the movie camera was brought in while he was giving his lecture. Just a fragment of the lecture is shown.
The second film is of Professor Ernst Guillemin. He has just described how an abrupt truncation of the band width affects the transmission of a signal and he is about to describe how this effect may be minimized.
The third was prepared by Professor Jerrold Zacharias and Professor Tom Jones as part of their school science work. It is a complete lecture-demonstration about the pressure of light.
The movies were then shown and Dr. Land proceeded to his concluding remarks.
In our reconstitution of the university of the future, we have made these proposals:
- The university would accept the young men coming to it as men, and in the course of doing so, it would discard the present grading system in favor of one which would enable the student to check his accomplishment but would not encumber the relationship between the student and his professor.
- It would cherish and nurture the dream of greatness that these young men bring with them when they come to the university, in particular by giving each of them, from the start, a research project of his own.
- It would introduce them to the several fields of science through courses designed nor to screen out nonspecialists, but rather to give them the essential insights and ideas in these fields.
- It would give them, in their introductory courses and in all of their courses, the best teaching of the best lecturers, by preserving and multiplying these lectures in motion pictures.
- It would give them intimate association, from the first, with a mature colleague — the usher.
The Function of the Usher
I have saved till last my discussion of the usher.
Why do we need the usher? What do these ushers do? What are they like?
Their function is to take these young men as they come to the university and see that they become, during the first two years, sophisticated in science generally, and sophisticated in the world of literature and the arts generally. They would see that these first two years are dedicated to a deliberate program of induction into mental maturity.
Just as the ages of five, six, and seven are when a child learns languages quickly, the years from seventeen to nineteen are peculiarly the years in which a man reaches out to try and understand the universe in every possible way.
The ushers encourage this reaching out, stimulate and guide it. As they acquire insight into the personality and the needs of the incoming man, they open the doors of the university to him…the right doors, at the right time. They build, with each man, a program of reading, of lectures, of seminars. When the usher feels his group of students is ready to talk with a great professor, he arranges for the meeting, seeing to it that the students are prepared ahead of time to ask the right questions.
We have already seen the usher starting his men on their personal research projects. As each man pursues his investigation, his usher is the trusted and trusting friend, the master whose criticism he can ask for and take without losing face; he is the senior colleague who knows his way around in all of the fields that the investigation will inevitably come to involve.
But perhaps the usher’s greatest contribution is merely to be what he is — when he is not being consciously and explicitly a guide and counselor. The usher, remember, is a great man in his field. He has not dropped his career. He is actively engaged in his own field, contributing to it through his own first-rate research.
Can we find such men? For a university of the size of M.I.T., we would need ninety of them. Could we find enough of these great men to go around? I think we could.
I think that there comes a point in each career where a man begins to get as deep satisfaction from bringing younger men along as he gets from making scientific contributions to his field. There comes an age when suddenly this, too, seems to be fun. It comes, I think, about the time that presbyopia sets in. At that moment, the things to which he has been devoting all his life — the finding of a great law, the isolation of the compound, the working out of the structure, having more and more graduate students, working for one academy after another and then for the Nobel Prize — all of that is very important, but instead of seeming of cosmic importance, it seems important only if he can do it in a happy, healthy world, only in a world in which he is deeply concerned about people.
You will find these ushers, I would say, by searching among the great scientists who have arrived at this stage.
These ushers would be well paid. Because they would be well paid, they would only have to take those consulting jobs that appealed to them. They could be made exempt from serving on committees.
In thinking about what the human animal might have gone through in the evolutionary process, have you wondered how some of the small changes which must have occurred could have had survival value? Haven’t you wondered how they could have survived, when, in all of our experimental work every small change we make dies? I think that each of us, in each of our fields, has come to this conclusion: that every once in a while, after we have tried a multitude of little changes, each of which dies, we make a little change that gives an important result in terms of the whole. We make a little change in one of the independent variables that gives an enormous change in a dependent variable that controls the behavior of the whole structure.
How many changes must have occurred in the human eye, occurred and died, before one change came along — an apparently trivial change like a little red-sensitivity in the retina along with the black-and-white sensitivity — that gave the whole animal a significant increase in its power to perceive and hunt down its enemies and find its food. This is the kind of change that survives.
In my opinion, neither organisms nor organizations evolve slowly and surely into something better, but drift until some small change occurs which has immediate and overwhelming significance. The special role of the human being is not to wait for these favorable accidents but deliberately to introduce the small change that will have great significance.
To treat young men like men; to use modern recording techniques to capture the moment of exciting teaching; to gather ninety great men out of our one-hundred and seventy million — these, in retrospect, will seem like small changes indeed if they succeed in building a generation of greatness.