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The Isolation Years: The Real Campus Division Is Between Generations

Anders Hove -- The Tech
Every member of an academic community has something to teach, and something to learn. Those toward the right of the graph have proportionally more to teach, while those on the left have more to learn.

Anders Hove

MIT students should be treated like adults.That's a phrase you hear over and over on this campus. It surrounds the entire issue of housing, of course, but it also enters into discussions of student activities and all aspects of student life outside of the classroom. The use of the phrase seems to presume the existence of two policy options regarding undergraduate life: The powers-that-be may impose stricter control or supervision over undergraduates in their living groups or activities, or they may leave them free to make their own choices, in the same way that "adults" are given wide latitude to govern themselves and their own life choices.

I continue to believe in the MIT system in which student groups and residences are given a great deal of power over their own destiny. Not only is choice and self-governance good in itself, but it fulfills an important educational role as well. By participating in and exercising responsibility over their own lives, members of society gain a sense of belonging, fulfillment, and self-mastery that is important no matter what age group they hale from.

That autonomy and choice are often discussed with reference to "being treated like an adult" misses the point completely, however. The biggest difference between undergraduate students and the outside world has nothing to do with how undergraduates are treated by their elders or whether they are closely supervised.

The biggest difference is this: People between the ages of 18 and 22 who live on college campuses interact exclusively with people their own age.

Throughout childhood and adolescence, children interact with a wide range of individuals: Children have parents, grandparents, and other extended relatives. Children attend school with children of the same age group, and they typically choose children of their own age as playmates. However, their social sphere includes people of all ages: They interact with their parents and teachers and with the friends of their parents and with their own neighbors of all ages.

True, adults continue to give children special treatment right through adolescence. Yet, although they may receive different treatment, all children interact with people from a wide variety of age groups.

Suddenly, at age 18, everything changes. A typical college-bound student leaves home for a residential campus, where he or she will spend the next four years of life. The student is immediately immersed in a world not of adults, of 18- to 22-year-olds. The average 18-year-old faces a kind of reverse-culture shock: Suddenly everyone is the same.

During the last few weeks, undergraduates have flooded administrators' e-mail accounts with messages imploring them not to build a freshman dorm. One argument students have made quite eloquently is that housing freshmen together would deprive them of the opportunity to interact with upperclassmen.

Yet the even bigger anomaly - one that neither students nor faculty seem aware of - is that segregating undergraduates away from the rest of society prevents them from interacting socially or professionally with people from whom they could learn even more than other undergraduates.

Interaction with one's peers is certainly important, and interaction with people of one's own age group will often be more natural and congenial than with people of different age groups. Generation gaps are real and pervasive. Nobody could ever expect professors emeriti to party hearty with the undergrads every Friday night.

At the same time, however, I think most faculty realize that undergraduates could benefit by increased interaction with people of other age groups outside the classroom. And I don't just mean undergraduate-faculty interaction. Academic administrative staff, for example, have often played a mentoring and teaching role greater than that of many professors and advisers, a role that goes largely unrecognized. Graduate students have also played a strong role in teaching and mentoring outside of the classroom. Again, the value of this interaction goes largely unrecognized, even by graduate students themselves.

Each member of our community has something to contribute to the educational mission. In my mind, each member of the community can be represented along a continuum by what they have to teach and learn from their colleagues here. On one extreme are the freshmen: They have much to learn and only a little to teach their new colleagues on campus. On the other extreme are the full professors, who have by no means stopped learning from their colleagues and students but who have far more to teach. In the middle can be found all the other members of the community: Master's degree candidates, doctoral candidates, post-doctoral researchers, junior faculty, staff, academic administrators, and even the lowly deans, provost, and president.

People complain that the current housing system promotes division and self-segregation. But the greatest division on campus is between undergraduates and so-called "adults." This division is as artificial as that between members of different living groups. Perhaps our community's greatest challenge, then, is not to heal the rift between fraternities and dorms, but to develop a real academic community where the participation of each member is commensurate with what he or she has to teach and to learn.