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Commencement pladge is meaningless gesture

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Column by Mark Kantrowitz

A group of student activists wants a voluntary pledge of social responsibility to be incorporated into the MIT commencement ceremony, and is seeking support for the plan in an undergraduate referendum in tomorrow's elections. But though their aims are well-intentioned, the pledge itself would only divide graduation participants into two camps and would trivialize the issues the students seek to address.

Because not all students would sign the pledge, it would end up disrupting the unity fostered by the commencement ceremonies. Moreover, in failing to seek graduate student input, the pledge supporters have ignored half the graduating students. Would they distribute the pledge only to undergraduates, further dividing the commencement ceremony, or would they give it to graduate students without asking their opinion?

Furthermore, since the pledge is strictly voluntary, MIT could not incorporate it as a real part of the ceremony. Instead, it would be handed out with the graduation diploma, diminishing the spirit behind the pledge, and increasing the graduation day litter.

What has it got to do with commencement? An emphasis on social responsibility should begin freshman year, not at graduation when it is too late. Many colleges have all incoming students sign a precise and effective ethical code upon matriculation. MIT should inculcate an awareness of social responsibility issues earlier and not rely on an optional terminal pledge.

Commencement ceremonies at Humboldt State University in Northern California included the first such graduation pledge two years ago. According to Richard A. Cowan '87 and the Coalition to Humanize MIT, which proposed the introduction of the pledge to MIT's commencement ceremonies last year, the pledge would provide an alternative to the tradition of graduates turning around class rings, which they say is an "initiation rite to legitimize technocratic insensitivity." Manuel Rodriguez '89, organizer of this year's effort, feels that the pledge would result in increased social awareness by MIT graduates.

But what real difference would such a pledge make in a graduate's future decisions? By being deliberately vague, the pledge trivializes the issues it purports to support. For both students who sign and do not sign the pledge, it can mean whatever the student wants it to mean. As such it fails to provide any concrete standards against which students may measure themselves.

Though the pledge asks students only to "weigh the social and environmental consequences" of their actions, it is in fact motivated by the assumption that engineers and scientists are directly responsible for the problems of technology. But technology is neither good nor bad; it is a tool, a means to an end. MIT graduates are not culpable if the tools they create might be used for bad purposes. On the other hand, they have a responsibility to participate in the decision process, just like everybody else.

If scientists were to withhold inventions because of potential bad uses and side-effects, all technological progress would halt. There would be no textiles, automobiles, computers or other technology, because any tool, though morally neutral, can be used for bad purposes. By focusing on the decision to invent, rather than on the decision to use, the pledge fails to tackle the real issues.

Moreover, can any action or decision really be categorized as simply good or bad? The issues MIT graduates are likely to face will be much more complex, with the outcome of any decision not clearly defined.

The pledge makes an empty symbolic gesture. Vote no on tomorrow's referendum.

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Mark Kantrowitz, a senior in the Departments of Mathematics and Philosophy, is a contributing editor of The Tech.