Campus, the Cauldron of Conservatism
Recently, the debate about freshman housing has subsided as students become consumed by the new semester. Housing is not a new issue; it has flared up periodically throughout my time in school. To me, the most notable part of the recurring discussion has been a statement offered by several different faculty over the years: "MIT students are the most conservative element on campus." This is the polite version of the idea that students are reactionary and the main obstacle to improvements in student life at MIT. Usually, the debate usually dies down too quickly to examine these statements closely. This statement needs a reply; I will take this time to answer from a student perspective.
Students are opposed to change in the housing system, but not from from an ideological standpoint. Students are opposed to change because they have built a life within the current system. They have worked hard to find friends and a sense of community in the prevailing social landscape, and they do not want to discard it.
Fear of change is not the only cause of their opposition. Students are forced to oppose change because they are given no voice in how it should occur. The rhetoric of the housing debate seeks to denigrate students for not being open to constructive change, but it takes no account of their lack of influence. If their view is worthless, why should theysupport change?
Some faculty members ignore the distress of students; they merely note that their proposals are in line with the practices of many other colleges, and express a belief that change is necessary to promote a more academic environment at MIT. For them, student life is to be arranged for students' greater good, whether they like it or not
This belief is the root of the problem in the housing debate. Many people believe that students cannot be trusted to make reasonable decisions about their life. They think students are incapable of seeing the bigger "educational picture," and are simply looking for the easiest route through college.
Naturally, Itake issue with this idea. There is a broad range of maturity and apathy within the MIT student community; some students don't care about their education and some feel very strongly about it, but most lie somewhere between the extremes.
When a substantial majority of the student population opposes a change, it is facile and a little stupid to suggest that it is because students are all beer-crazed layabouts whose main concern is to protect their little comforts. It is wiser to look at their reasons and amend the change.
Some good ideas have run into practical difficulties that could have been solved by trust, goodwill, and a problem-solving attitude. But the faculty and administration have not earned the goodwill of the student body. Too often students have seen unilateral and unwanted changes imposed from above. As a result, the students have no confidence in change, because there is no record of commitment to solving the detailed problems of student life.
This is exacerbated by the small number of faculty and administrators living on campus. If half the faculty had to walk home to Next House every night, I'm sure there would be greater confidence in their ideas for creating a less fragmented community. Likewise, if more people had to live within the community that their proposals will produce, then I suspect they might be a little more conservative too.
Faculty do not seem to understand how highly students value existing communities. After all, most faculty members have not been students for many years. I believe that this is why they can think that change in freshman housing will not affecting other students. It has been so long since they lived in such a community that they cannot see how the community would be affected by the loss of its youngest members.
The doom and gloom I have been expounding is a product of hearing professors tell me that their plan is fine, and then get in their cars to return home to Brookline, New Hampshire or Newton, not an on-campus residence.
However, things can change. Some faculty already serve as housemasters in dormitories; perhaps a few more who are horrified by the rising cost of living might be persuaded to form a community in a graduate dorm. Then, senior administrators could be given six weeks of 6.001, 2.007, and two other classes of their choice. Of course, while taking classes, some would be housed in a Baker quint and the rest in a MacGregor single.
If such notions are too radical, then the Institute can fall back on a curious notion. It can listen to the ones with the experience, the students, and find what they value in their life. If they are given input, the administration my find that students won't turn out to be so conservative after all.