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Being a nerd isn't everything

The world must be coming to an end. Nerds are finally "in."

In his letter ["MIT's glorious nerd heritage must not be forgotten," Jan. 10], Professor Hal Abelson PhD '73 tells us how wonderful it is to be a nerd. That is, he tells us how the "international competitiveness" of the United States depends on "intellectually intense" students.

In a way, he is right. If each American spent every moment working at a single task, the United States would indeed become a formidable competitor in the world market.

But at what expense?

In the Soviet Union, potential athletes and artists are identified at young ages. From their teenage years onward, they work at perfecting a single skill -- be it gymnastics, chess, or ballet. Those who cannot stand the pressure, or who aren't as talented as originally supposed, leave. Those who do stay, though, are lauded as geniuses and prodigies, and live long, happy lives.

Or do they?

World chess champion Gary Kasparov can play a great game of chess, to say the least. But chess seems to be the only thing he can relate to; the world to him is one gigantic tournament. The New York Times, in describing Kasparov's victory over Deep Thought -- the world's best chess computer -- quoted the grandmaster from several years ago: "If a computer can beat the world champion, the computer can read the best books in the world, can write the best plays, and can know everything about history and literature and people. That's impossible."

Have I missed something? Are computers that play chess about to take over the world? Is chess the last place on earth where man controls machine? Of course not. At least, any well-educated person wouldn't say so.

But that's just my point. Being the best at something, even the world's best at something, doesn't make you educated. It makes you an automaton, able to do one task extremely well. And MIT, for all the changes in admissions policies, still admits many automatons -- people who cannot see beyond their field of study. The world is simply an extension of their laboratory.

There are those who see nothing wrong with this. After all, they say, if I am going to spend my entire life in research, why should I waste valuable time studying other things?

My answer: Because you're human, that's why. And being human isn't simply getting up in the morning, making great discoveries, and going to sleep. Instead, it is thinking about ourselves and our fellow humans. It is using all of the emotions that we have -- and we have many of them -- to express joy and sadness, awe and excitement, as we interact with our world. And it is proving that we are unique, special, individuals, not merely small cogs in the machinery of the universe.

Some people at MIT have recognized this "human factor" for a long time. IAP is not "UROP Period," or "Reduced-number-of-units Period," or even "Catch-up-on-incompletes Period," but "Independent Activities Period" -- a time for each of us to catch our breath, explore subjects that we normally wouldn't have time for, and talk to other people at MIT as people rather than as professors and students.

Don't get me wrong -- research is certainly not a bad thing, and I am a very proud UROP participant. I just wish that people would stop thinking of UROP as the central MIT experience, when there are so many other things to do.

When I was first considering (and being considered by) MIT, my interviewer went to great lengths to tell me about the wide range of extracurricular activities. Unfortunately, he was one of the few non-students I have met who has actually supported my involvement in these activities. Professors appear -- at best -- slightly upset when I mention that I don't divide my time equally between Tech Square and problem sets. They don't seem to appreciate the need for personal growth in areas other than the sciences. Why should I suffer because I enjoy writing? Shouldn't the Institute be encouraging me to develop new skills?

Of course they should, and there is at least one place where that is happening. The Undergraduate Admissions Office has taken great strides lately towards "de-nerdification." No longer does your application to study at the world's finest science and engineering school depend on your science and engineering skills alone. You must also show some skills at dealing with people. There are hundreds of human calculators out there, but how many of them can function outside of the world of problem sets?

Professor Abelson does make several good points, however. Chief among them is that MIT should not try to make itself into a second Harvard or Yale. I agree. We should continue to expect the most from our students. And we should continue our long-standing tradition of producing some of the world's finest scientists and engineers.

Leonid Fridman, a founder of the Harvard Society of Nerds and Geeks, wrote last week in The New York Times that "the anti-intellectual values that pervade our society must be fought." I agree. And if being a nerd or a geek simply means being serious about education, then may MIT continue to attract the world's brightest and most capable nerds.

If, on the other hand -- as Professor Abelson would have it -- nerds are those who sacrifice personal development for the sake of a single, external goal, then I hope that Harvard does become more closely identified with nerds than we. Because a university's reputation is one of its most important assets, and I would hate to see Harvard come close to approaching ours.


Reuven M. Lerner, a sophomore in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, will be a news editor of The Tech next term.