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Abandoning Etiquette for Apathy - Absence of Charm School Reveals Administration's Indifference

Zareena Hussain

During the last lecture of 6.034 (Artificial Intelligence), Professor Patrick H. Winston advised his students of what classes they should take after having completed his course.

Charm School was first on his list.

But what Professor Winston probably didn't realize when he gave his lecture was that no student or administrator had stepped forward this year to help organize the crash course in charm and grace.

When students come to MIT, some lose their social savoir-faire; some never had it in the first place. One thing is clear, however: They a need a place to brush up on their social skills and learn how not to become total losers.

Maybe that is why so many students, and evidently faculty, took it for granted that Charm School would be offered this year. When I went up to people asking them how they would feel about Charm School's absence, many thought I was mistaken.

How could there be no Charm School basement? Where else would one learn that only about a third of people wash their hands after going to bathroom when no one is looking, and that only about two thirds do so when someone else is around? And where would one learn that it's not polite to write entire e-mails in capital letters - even for emphasis. It seems that the rules on how not to be a loser will be lost on the next generation of students.

Charm School served another purpose as well. It was an event in which members from all areas of the MITcommunity participated. It gave a curious sense of pride to many who were part of something unique. The stereotype that MITstudents lack interpersonal skills could be worn as badge of honor by participants.

The widespread media coverage didn't hurt either. Yes, CNN would broadcast interviews in which students from Harvard took potshots at MITstudents, but who cares about what Harvard students think anyway?

Furthermore, Charm School was becoming something of a tradition, like the Engineer's drinking song, or the words "let the rush begin!", which are uttered at Residence and Orientation Week, another soon-to-be lost tradition.

It was something in which a variety of people participated, as opposed to just one isolated group. Bringing all members of the Institute together has always been a value here, although rarely achieved. This was greatly evidenced by the Infinite Buffet, or as some affectionately termed the "Infinite Disaster." If it was ever apparent that we needed Charm School it was that weekend before Thanksgiving - the etiquette displayed there was a whole lot worse than putting your elbows on the table.

So why did the Charm School tradition, which has played such an important role at MIT, disappear?

Well, there are many reasons. The past organizers of Charm School would say that the disappearance occurred because no student was willing to step forward to organize it. But I think the reason lies far deeper than that. This year's omission of Charm School is merely a symptom of the greater lack of commitment by the Institute to ensure the social well-being of its students.

Even failed efforts to resurrect Charm School this year spoke to this lack of commitment. Ads were placed in The Tech for a student to rise from among the ranks and organize a team to plan the event. If no one in the administration was willing to plan Charm School because of the enormous time commitment, how can those same administrators turn around and blame students, who often carry a courseload during IAP, for their lack of commitment to continuing the event?

Charm School itself wasn't a cure-all for the ills of the Institute. There are many other problems that take priority to Charm School: the dearth of counseling deans, the ongoing debate over affirmative action, and the scrambling to achieve reasonable alcohol policies. However, Charm School in its small way played an important role, attracting freshmen back during IAP and entertaining students while teaching them a few interpersonal skills in the process.

But maybe another problem is the desire to find a cure-all, and more unfortunately the willingness to discard everything that doesn't fit the bill. No one thing solves everything; but that doesn't mean we have to get rid of everything that doesn't.

What's worse is that this year's failure to hold Charm School sends a very disturbing message from the administration to students that endeavoring to improve students' overall quality of life is simply not worth the effort. Learning should head all student priorities, but learning also happens outside the classroom.

Meanwhile, however, students need to show that this message has not been taken to heart. The Undergraduate Association should appoint a committee specifically designed to organize Charm School. The Alumni Association needs also to get involved to show students that there is more to an MIT education than a piece of paper.

One reason for the failure of student-inspired and student-organized events (other than rush) that seek to incorporate the entire community is the lack of administrative clout and backing. The failure of these events leads to the false impression that no one really cares. Or maybe it is true no one does care.