The Tech - Online EditionMIT's oldest and largest
newspaper & the first
newspaper published
on the web
Boston Weather: 55.0°F | Fair

Problems with out protests

Column/Simson L. Garfinkel

I spent last weekend at Columbia University, where I saw the student blockade of Hamilton Hall. Students have chained the doors of that building shut and are staging a sit-in on the steps, to protest their university's investments in South Africa. They had been there for over two weeks, through cold and rain, and their protest has attracted national attention. They are there still.

We don't have protests at MIT the way Columbia does. Earlier this month, Boston-area students marched from Boston University, through MIT, to the Cambridge Common, protesting everything from Reagan to South Africa.

But that demonstration wasn't an MIT protest: Most MIT students didn't even see it. Every Columbia student has seen the blockade of Hamilton Hall. Of the nine students who were arrested in the Boston demonstration, only one was from MIT. There was another demonstration Wednesday on the steps of the Student Center. It, too, was ineffective.

Why are demonstrations at MIT so pitiful? Because most students don't care about the issues, and those who do care are too extremist to have any effect. Because they are such a minority, MIT extremists apparently feel compelled to adopt completely unrealistic goals, and make statements which do more harm than good.

The Columbia blockade is for one purpose only: to force the University to withdraw its investments from South Africa. The MIT radicals, on the other hand, call for an end to apartheid, an end to US imperialism, an end to Reagan -- and they never enumerate any means of attaining their goals.

For example, the radical MIT newspaper The Student called for militant subversion of the April 20 national demonstration in Washington: "...all revolutionary and progressive students [should] attend this demonstration and make it as militant as possible." While the blockaders at Columbia have the support of university students and the community, most of the MIT community have only ridicule for The Student and those students it represents. Columbia students learn how to attain their goals, while the MIT radicals merely learn how to make themselves look foolish.

It's important to understand why we can't have Columbia-style protests at MIT, and why our radicals have overreacted to [el-63p4]

this apathy in the manner they have. Many explanations come to mind, and with them perhaps the seeds of our salvation.

It's not that MIT students are so overworked that they don't have time to think about anything but their academic work, as a lot of people claim. I don't accept this explanation because students at other universities are just as overworked.

No, at issue is something far more tragic, and it will not be resolved at graduation when the course load is lifted. Many MIT students feel they lack control in the political arena. They feel that they will do great things in aerospace, biology, computer science and the like, but that they will never have the chance to contribute to the world of politics. Sitting around and talking about the latest in stealth technology is time well spent, since it might spark an idea in the minds of the participants. Talking about Central America, however, is just "flaming."

Another factor which closes the average MIT student's political conciousness is what I call the "mercenary syndrome." MIT students feel a tremendous urge to Get In, Get Good Grades, Get Out, Get a Job and Get Rich (and somewhere Get Soaked for financial aid).

Students at MIT tend to come from families with incomes lower than those of students at Harvard, Yale, and Columbia. Many at the 'Tute feel that mastery of technology is the key to riches, and they intend to master technology as far as their abilities permit them.


This attitude doesn't leave much time for political awareness. It doesn't leave much time for anything else, for that matter.

An unfortunate consequence of MIT's apathy has been the formation of small radical groups like The Student which seek to make up for the lack of general political involvement at MIT by, unfortunately, going overboard the other direction. Members of these groups find it possible to act only by over-acting. It is terrible that their talent has been channelled to such a wasteful end.

Is this a situation that needs rectifying? And if so, what is to be done?

We have to fight the trend toward political apathy at MIT, if not for the sake of the society, then for ourselves.

An MIT education equips us to deal with many issues of the time: arms control, world starvation, technology transfer to the Third World. Yet these issues remain in the hands of those who are technologically incompetent: graduates from Harvard and Yale who brag about not being able to perform simple calculus.

Political experience in college is apparently a prerequisite for future political action. Students must be allowed to practice politics, to take up positions and causes which would be political suicide in the real world. This is what students at Columbia are doing now; they are also furthering a worthwhile cause. By not taking part, MIT students not only forsake the world of today, but we give up tomorrow.