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Adios, But Not Goodbye

Khoon Tee Tan

The time to leave is near for those of us in the first batch of the CMI exchange program. How strange it is to return to a place so steeped in tradition as Cambridge, England, from a young and all-too-enthusiastic tech school of New England! And how much stranger to return from no less a place than Senior House to a place where neatly manicured lawns are off-bounds to petty ones, a place where only a select few may tread on the grass at all times of the year, whereas others are presumably allowed to float over, in the parlance of Harry Potter. I miss the good old Cambridge.

So the time has come, for someone who has had much to write about, to wrap up those thoughts that have appeared in these very pages. Over the past weeks, I have voiced various opinions on an assortment of social, political and economic issues. None of the views offered were targeted to arrive at populist or ideologically based conclusions on complex issues. These pieces have been written with the intention of encouraging thinking and discussion on a variety of issues which I personally deem important and on account of this, I hope you agree. In attempting to write, I have been forced to think hard, to question my own views and assumptions -- internal debates are a healthy thing, if not carried to the extreme.

One who makes any serious attempt at separating the real issues from the symbolic ones, which usually manifest as selective historical “facts” interpreted exploitively, is less likely to assume superiority of morals or wisdom based on a jaundiced view of the world. Indeed, at the heart of many present-day conflicts lie real, legitimate, present-day issues, not abstract symbols. Of course, in delving deeper into issues, one is likely to form opinions, but I also like to think that none of my views were made on the basis of narrowly defined identity or ideology. Our faiths must lie in reason and rationality, while realizing that these are luxuries not often afforded by those in infinitely more dire straits. I am confident that those who are not blinded by hatred, colored by prejudice and are truly free to think for themselves, would be able to find common ground on broad principles of justice and fairness, without perfectly agreeing on how to set about achieving such ideals.

The events of Sept. 11 horrified all Americans and shocked the world. The images of the WTC towers collapsing and the Pentagon in flames that morning are indelibly etched in my mind. That no one deserves to be met with such barbarism goes without saying, and those who carried out such acts must not, and have not, been allowed to get away with them. While the anger is understandable, I have also been impressed with the swift and most rational response of the MIT administration in strengthening the sense of community on campus, rather than allowing events to sway the mood to the extremes. It was for those unthinkable scenarios, rather than those we can imagine, that such action was essential.

Enough said. How about my time here at MIT in general? To say the least, I have had a good time. I feel that I have learned much from my teachers, and from my peers. I enjoyed my lectures and labs at MIT. Of course, we all know how randomness affects everything, so we are forever subject to the ups and downs of life; but the mean, if you will, has been that of overall enjoyment. Having experienced both the Cambridge and MIT systems, one cannot help but make critical comparisons.

Some see the relative freedom given to MIT lecturers to shape their own courses as a boon, and to others, a bane. Teaching styles do vary across the board, in any university. Some see standardization, via a committee that decides on the syllabus, as a way of maintaining a certain standard of teaching without being overly taxing on students. This is a good way, it works, but the essential element is collective feedback from both teachers and students, so there is no reason why a course should suffer simply because a committee of people are not meeting to decide on what is to be taught. While important, it is unfortunate that feedback at MIT should be done once off at the end of the semester, via an anonymous form to protect the identity of those students who complain the most. Maybe anonymity is important, but filling in forms at the end of a course is, I find, less effective than engaging in direct conversation with people.

Is there a third way? Cambridge University has a system in which online feedback forms can be filled on the go, that is, as the course runs. Such comments are relayed to the lecturer anonymously. Still no conversation takes place, but it is probably better than only having feedback at the end, when specific details are often left out, completely forgotten and hence, nothing can be learnt from them. To be fair, in one of my MIT courses, this is already being practised in the least complicated of ways: using scraps of paper to fill in at the end of each 2.06/13.80 class.

As for having graded problem sets, I am unpersuaded that having my learning curve graded is essential for me to learn new things. But then many people tell me that without such “incentives” to work, most people just won’t work. Is that true? Perhaps. We don’t have graded problem sets in Cambridge, and maybe that is why Cambridge students strike me as somewhat more casual towards work, but then again, many are simply loath to admit to doing work, curiously seen as some social deficiency.

The most successful academic system is one that fosters intellectual curiosity and encourages thinking and experimentation, while providing the basic analytical tools to understand the world around us. The ability to learn new things on our own, to draw the correct conclusions from our observations, and to adapt to new and challenging circumstances, are essential elements of human progress. The forte of Cambridge scholarship lies in its rigorous theoretical grounding. The strength of an MIT education lies in its broad educational philosophy, involving subjects outside one’s major, as well as its emphasis on experimentation.

It is my great fortune to have had the opportunity to experience the best of both worlds. To think that as a secondary school student in Malaysia, MIT was my dream university! How intricate the ways of the world must be that I should come here, eventually, from one Cambridge to another.

Well, to those of you who are visiting Cambridge University next year from MIT, we look forward to seeing you. And as for the rest, I bid you farewell, but this is just adios and not goodbye. For our paths may well cross again some day.