Letter from the Director: “A note on free and open expression,” October 2022

Hello friends of the ESI,

I have reserved my privilege to address you through this newsletter primarily, and often narrowly, on topics of the environment and sustainability. Today, I write on a subject that is central to our work here at the ESI, but also extends well beyond our mandate.

The free expression of ideas is why I became a professor. I welcome controversial perspectives and uncomfortable discourse. I welcome disagreement and challenge. Free and open expression is essential to learning and therefore to the academy. I applaud the current effort to articulate and adopt a set of principles for free expression. Thank you to all at MIT who are engaged in this effort and I look forward to recommitting to this essential element of academic life.

In this spirit, I offer the words of two wise people.

In a 1959 interview Bertrand Russell was asked about his advice to future generations and said, “love is wise, hatred is foolish. In this world, which is getting more and more closely interconnected, we have to learn to tolerate each other, we have to learn to put up with the fact that some people say things that we don’t like. We can only live together in that way—and if we are to live together and not die together—we must learn a kind of charity and a kind of tolerance, which is absolutely vital to the continuation of human life on this planet.”

And in a 1963 profile of James Baldwin in Life Magazine, he was quoted as saying, “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.”

All of us are gathered at MIT to learn more about the world through books, experiments, engineering analyses, design proposals and so much more. Learning is a beautiful and sometimes difficult, and occasionally deeply uncomfortable experience that can connect us with all who are alive, who have ever been alive and—for the sake of a sustainable, equitable and biodiverse future—all who will be alive.


John E. Fernandez, Director
October 7, 2022