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MIT: The infinite corridor

Suggested hed: The infinite corridor

or Beyond the infinite corridor

When a child thinks of a day -- of 24 hours -- he sees an almost infinite expanse of time. An adult views that same period in terms of his daily calendar, and sees limits to what he can do in 24 hours. An MIT student, it may be said, sees little value in what can be done in a day. For him, weeks are viewed as limited time-frames. Few students outside our little haven in Cambridge will map out an entire week's worth of assignments, only to realize that come very early Friday morning, all will not have been completed.

Limits are a salient feature of an MIT education. That is why some compare an MIT education to trying to drink from a firehose. Perhaps it would be better characterized as trying to make your way down an infinite corridor (for that is what we are subjected to several times a day).

However it is characterized, the MIT education is basically a test of human endurance. Professors pile the work on, and the student returns the favor by taking as many hard courses as possible. There is that obvious masochistic quality to the MIT undergraduate, who enjoys telling tall tales of sleepless nights and endless problem sets. It stems from the silent battle between student and Institute (which also brings forth MIT's only worthy contribution to collegiate shenanigans -- hacking).

So the MIT student leaves Killian Court with a diploma and a slouched set of shoulders. He enters the world with skepticism and perhaps a bit of cynicism; he is a realist; he understands the limits -- the actual physical constraints -- to his own productivity. At the same time, he feels that, after having escaped hell, a great burden is lifted, a Herculean task accomplished. Surely the rest of life, he thinks to himself (as he walks down Memorial Drive, eyes fixed to the pavement), must proceed downhill from here.

In some ways, this realist attitude is good. History holds in its records the names of countless overreachers, who, if popular or simply born into positions of influence, lead entire nations to death and destruction. History also records (though somewhat less emphatically than Napoleon, Hitler, Saddam Hussein) the names of countless phonies who use a little superficial knowledge to feign wisdom. Rarely are MIT students accused of promising too much of themselves, and less often are Techies found gabbing ridiculously at cocktail parties. MIT students, then, are neither threats to our constitutional democracy, nor burdens on our welfare state.

At the same time, I cannot help but wonder if the MIT graduate does not at times confuse the limits on his productivity -- an essentially physical constraint -- with the less evident or quantifiable limits on his potential. Potential is defined not only by what may be produced but what may be conceived. A creative element is absolutely necessary to the craft of the scientist or technologist; it is a nontrivial component of his potential. I cannot help but wonder if the MIT student, having been beaten down by scores of problem sets and lab assignments, loses some of that ability to create something out of what was previously considered to be nothing.

A very successful professor once told me that the main difference she noticed between MIT students and those from traditional (read: Ivy League) institutions was one of confidence. MIT students, while trained like no others in the intricacies and subtleties of their trades, viewed the world at a much smaller level than their Ivy League counterparts, whose "broader" education enabled them to see no limit to their potential, their ability to leave their mark on society.

Confidence, if it does give the ability to expand one's vision of one's own potential, may very well be the key ingredient missing in the MIT education. I know some MIT students who say they have never been able to come from a test completely sure of their success, despite a regimen of preparation that typically includes countless hours of review and "mastery" of the course material. Indeed, few MIT students graduate without having been humiliated by at least one exam. The lesson instilled by such horror is that you can never completely be sure of yourself or your knowledge. There is always more, though you will never have time to learn all.

That there is an ingredient missing from the MIT education is, of course, a debatable subject in and of itself. While there will never be universally acceptable criteria for judging the quality of curricula, some may argue that the grind that MIT's students undergo yields precision in a way no other style of education can match.

Perhaps. But that is not what MIT's own administrators and faculty believe. (And judging from student flamage, that is a far cry from what students believe.) Corporation Chairman Paul E. Gray '54, when president, emphasized the necessity of broadening the MIT education. The inclusion of more humanities, he and many others argued, would make the MIT technologist more aware of the social context of his work, thereby enabling him to become a more effective leader.

While it is true and indeed lamentable that MIT's scientists and engineers often end up working for Ivy League grads, correcting that mistake should not be the primary focus of an educational reform initiative. The real purpose of broadening the MIT education should be to expose the budding scientist or engineer to the importance of creativity and originality, of challenging the orthodoxies of the day in an effort to alter what may have once been thought to be intractable.

Such ideas are not subversive. Because they may only be pursued in a culture of freedom, such ideas must inevitably support the system that we in this country have come to cherish and that others have recently come to embrace as well. The innovative spirit, in fact, is what sustains our system of liberty. In that way, technology and social and political progress in a free society are inextricably linked. And it is from that view that MIT should consider broadening its education and improving the confidence of its graduates to pursue genuinely innovative ideas.

What would be the consequences of an education that further emphasized creating solutions to problems, rather than reallocating the existing pool of resources? This question becomes all the more pressing as problems concerning our environment, economic competitiveness, domestic cohesiveness, and geopolitical security continue to threaten our very existence on this planet. Solutions, as our past has shown, will rest not on our ability to mastermind a politically correct redistribution of resources, but rather on our success in designing whole new mechanisms and products.

Our past success in dealing with new generations of problems may in some ways support the view that MIT's education is done properly. But just as new problems require new approaches and altogether unique solutions (the founding of MIT being just one example), a new era requires a new educational paradigm. Committees talk of more humanities, more biology, more exposure to the rest of the world -- in short, more diversity. In part, new attitudes toward admissions have reflected that emphasis on diversity.

The Class of 1991, which graduates today, is a product of many of the reform initiatives begun during the presidency of Paul Gray. New President Charles M. Vest has pledged to continue many of the initiatives of the Gray years and come up with some of his own. Administrators and faculty will debate the benefits of change -- of whether there are too many or too few limits, and, correspondingly, whether there is too much or too little creative inspiration. In evaluating the success or failure of such programs, the Institute should not hastily draw conclusions, but watch closely the successes and failures today's graduating class encounters in the life beyond the infinite corridor.


Prabhat Mehta, a graduating senior in the Department of Economics, is an opinion editor and former editor in chief of The Tech.