Speakers present views on MIT environment
By Irene C. Kuo
and Niraj S. Desai
When they first come to MIT, students who had been "the hottest thing Abe Lincoln High had seen in 20 years," suddenly find themselves to be no longer special, said Associate Professor Jeremy M. Wolfe PhD '81. The need to differentiate themselves thus becomes very important to MIT undergraduates, he said.
Wolfe's comments came as part of Wednesday's Institute colloquium on "How to be Different." Professor Tunney F. Lee, Professor William B. Siebert '46, and Wolfe were the principal speakers at the afternoon session of the colloquium, which was attended by more than 1000 people. Evening discussion sessions in 30 living groups followed the speeches in Kresge Auditorium.
Students too often judge themselves by how well they do academically versus other MIT students, Wolfe said. Such a test, however, typically labels about half of students as "below average," and gives previously first-rate students an unfounded insecurity about their academic talents. "There are very few bad students here -- at least when they start," Wolfe noted.
Finding they cannot distinguish themselves through academics anymore, students often choose other ways in which to differentiate themselves, according to Wolfe. One way is by the way a student lives. An undergraduate fresh from high school is normally away from home and parents for the first time in his life, and may think that living his life in his own way makes him different, Wolfe said. But this freedom is partly an illusion, he added, because students are subject to cultural and physical constraints -- people cannot really play their stereos as loud as they want if they have roommates; people cannot stay up for an infinite amount of time.
Others at MIT try to distinguish themselves, according to Wolfe, through a macho attitude of "I can tool longer than you can tool," taking pride in doing six problem sets between 3 am and 4 am.
Such attempts can be self-defeating, Wolfe concluded. Rather it is important for MIT to abandon what he called the "fallacy of linearity" -- the idea that adding two good things necessarily produces a good outcome. Under this fallacy, people assume that because MIT mixes good students with a good environment, a good thing must result. This fallacy, Wolfe said, has led some to conclude that, because not all students are happy with their MIT experiences, something might be wrong with the type of students that are admitted.
Rather than thinking there is something wrong with students, people at the Institute should not try to rank students by illegitimate standards, Wolfe said.
Lee: MIT must celebrate
"Why is being the same so bad?" asked Lee, who is active in the Chinese-American community. He pointed out unlike American culture, which attributes negative qualities to sameness, Asian cultures do not regard sameness as being necessarily bad. The Japanese have a saying that "the nail that sticks out gets hammered in," he noted.
Being different from others simply for the sake of being different is not really important. Rather, it is important for people to recognize the ways that makes people different, and to celebrate those differences, according to Lee.
MIT has one of the most diverse student bodies of any university or college in the nation, with a vast representation in terms of nationality, race, and cultural background, Lee said. And there are faculty and staff working in a large number of different fields. Being at MIT, a varied community of talented people, affords one a significant opportunity to meet and learn about people different from oneself.
People should feel "privileged to be different in the way we are different," Lee said.
Lee, who is housemaster at East Campus dormitory, argued that MIT's living group system in its present form encourages people to learn about others. Much of what students learn at MIT does not come from classrooms, but by living with other people, some of whom are very different from themselves, in dormitories and fraternities, Lee said.
But the administration may not understand "what is happening in the living groups," Lee feared. In particular, he criticized a suggestion that freshmen be housed separately from other undergraduates as a way to increase "school spirit."
"Giving to your dormitory doesn't mean that you take away from your school," he said. "It is a mistake to think that `bonding' a finite amount."
Siebert: founder's vision
of MIT is outdated
Siebert, professor of electrical engineering and computer science, said that the goals of a four-year balanced "science-based-practical-knowledge-plus-general cultivation" entry-level-engineering education that MIT founder William Barton Rogers envisioned 128 years ago, may "no longer be realistic," in the face of expanding technological knowledge and growing realization of the importance of topics like modern biology and physics, management and economics, law and government, safety and the environment.
Siebert proposed two ways that entry-level professional engineering programs of longer duration might be organized. One idea might be to extend current undergraduate programs from four to five or six years. This program would provide a balanced education for entry-level engineering professionals and would be highly structured. He added that the need for "substantial structure" in a professional curriculum tended to make engineering faculty more concerned about mechanisms that "appear to undermine structure," than faculty in non-professional programs.
At the same time, Siebert said he realized that implementation of such structure would be difficult, especially since one-third to one-half of MIT's undergraduates are not in professional programs (i.e. are not engineering students). He attributed some problems in educational reform to this "fundamental professional/non-professional conflict."
An alternative engineering program, which Siebert favors, might consist of stressing liberal arts in the undergraduate program, leaving "practical knowledge" for a highly structured professional engineering school at the graduate level. An MIT of this sort might offer a mix of science, technology, arts, and humanities "better matched to the needs of modern societies than the often medieval emphasis of the typical Ivy-League college," he said. However, he raised the problem of gathering support from present engineering faculties, "who have been selected on other criteria."
Siebert concluded that it would take skill to redefine goals, energy to create new programs for the future, and courage to introduce programs that may differ radically from those offered now and on which MIT has built its "considerable reputation."
Outpouring of student
grievances after speeches
During the question-and-answer period, admissions counselor Robert Weinerman '87 asked why MIT was "giving up on the pioneering spirit" that developed freshman pass/no-credit grading and a Residence/Orientation Week during which students chose their living groups. He asserted that MIT should consider such developments as experiments, not as failures, and asked, "Why are things that are attractive to 18- to 22-year-olds coming under attack from 40- to 50-year-olds?"
After interjecting that he was only 34 years old, Wolfe reasoned that the results of the "experiment" were ones that people didn't like or expect.
Another student contended that he had been misled by application brochures that portrayed MIT as wanting well-rounded students. "They changed the students without changing the school," he said angrily. He added that his advisor had even asked him why he was at MIT since he was not going to become an engineer.
Wolfe sympathized with the student, referring to the brochures as examples of false advertising. "MIT's mistake was that it failed to follow through on an obligation to students" not interested in the "monolithic" route.
"MIT doesn't make it easy," he acknowledged, "but if you push the system, you can do fine."
Siebert agreed that he had seen brochures that did not stress science or engineering at all, but said that MIT's mistake lay in trying to attract such students in the first place.
A third student complained about his advisor's incompetence and lack of sensitivity. Wolfe replied that a first-ranked research university inevitably hired professors whose primary or even secondary interest was not teaching.