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MIT class of '65 survey shows alimni develop after graduation

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By Anu Vedantham

What does an MIT education mean to alumni twenty years after graduation? Benson R. Snyder, professor of psychiatry at MIT and former dean for Institute relations, recently finished interviewing a random five percent sample of the Class of '65. Snyder's investigation came as a follow-up to his earlier 1961-65 study of the same sample of students in their undergraduate years.

Although the study has not yet been collated, Snyder said, "one of the preliminary things that has come out is that MIT puts a very, very high premium on one way of knowing -- looking for cause and effect, minimizing variables, looking for the one right answer."

His study group found that the bulk of students interviewed in 1961-65 based their sense of personal worth on their skill in this mode of thought. But he said this way of thinking "is very unlike human behavior, [in which] knowing allows for ambiguity.... MIT was very rigid and made no allowances for such creativity."

"However, the majority of the same sample, fortunately ... by the time they are in their mid-30's, have developed some real facility in both ways of knowing.... Those that didn't, I found to be more isolated from society." Out of the 50 alumni, 11 have made what Snyder feels are significant contributions to their fields. He felt that 10 used both methods of knowing successfully.

The studies began in 1961. Margaret L. A. MacVicar '65, dean of undergraduate education, said, "I remember taking this giant aptitude test during R/O week; that was [Snyder's] baseline."

From this test and other psychiatric tests, Snyder selected students representing different socio-economic backgrounds. These 54 students were interviewed every year of their undergraduate careers. Snyder's 1971 book The Hidden Curriculum relates the results of this study.

Snyder has revisited 50 of the original 54 in their workplaces to interview them 20 years after graduation. He traveled over most of the United States and some of Europe.

"I had planned from the beginning to follow up. ... I was interested in the very different ways people describe themselves and the language they use to describe themselves," he said.

A number of students

are ill-prepared

Since 1965, the MIT curriculum has developed freshman pass/fail, a greater choice of courses and the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program. Nevertheless, Snyder believes, "We have a number of people going out who are ill-prepared to think sensitively about the human world. Many people let MIT define them as individuals -- by grades, etc. ... The irony today is that with the change in humanities requirements, people can graduate without ever experiencing another mode of thought, taking courses such as statistics or economics."

On the positive side, MIT alumni "learn an ability to discern the right question.... They see this as a positive and important skill.... Also, a lot of them felt that a mix between hands-on practical experience and theory was very important. But [in 1965] they had much more of such a mix than today's students."

Alumni feel that the MIT experience is "kind of rough, but it's worth the trip," according to Snyder.

William Hecht, executive vice president of MIT Alumni Association, agreed: Alumni "feel the place was important to them and is important to the world.... It's not the same kind of affection that you might find at the Ivy Leagues or Stanford, but rather pride and respect. Younger alumni feel they have gotten a broad education."

Hecht thinks "unequivocally that a student today will have an easier time getting a good education here at MIT than a student of twenty years ago. The freshman advising system is very helpful."

But Snyder said, "They're trying to compress a two-year course of 20 years ago into one year or less. It is a very critical issue of how much you're going to cram into a limited period of time."

Studies such as Snyder's are "extraordinarily valuable," MacVicar said. "They help to inform us about what kind of rationale we used in the past and how it served, as well as the kind of effects, often unintended, that our education has." She said MIT has no plans at present to continue such long-term studies.