Come Out of the Bubble, Wherever You Are
Today, several hundred bright-eyed freshmen will be packed into 10-250 in the early hours of the morning, calculating surface integrals and impulses for 18.02 and 8.01 advanced standing exams.
In the test-taking spirit of the day, I’ll make up a test too. No integrals, no derivatives even -- just international affairs. Our very own President-by-court-order George W. Bush failed such a foreign policy test two years ago. But this one has only two questions, plus it’s open-ended.
1. Why did a couple of women just get sentenced to death by stoning in Nigeria?
2. Give the history leading up to the eviction of white farmers in Zimbabwe.
Now grade yourself. How well do you feel you know these topics? How well do you feel you know the world in general? Now consider: how well do you want to know these topics?
The answer to any one of these questions could easily take several pages to explain, but here’s an all-too-brief summary of each situation:
Nigeria, which was once governed dictatorially, has now loosened up and some predominantly Muslim regions have instituted Islamic law. Several women have been convicted and sentenced to death by stoning for sex out-of-wedlock, causing religious tension between the nation’s Muslims and Christians.
Zimbabwe has had a rocky road to independence, starting in the 1960s, back when it was known as Rhodesia and an all-white government declared independence from the British Empire. This government only gave up power to blacks two decades ago, and only for guarantee d white seats in Parliament, but those guaranteed seats opened up at the end of the 1980s and now the government is also attacking the economic legacy of imperialism.
Of course, these questions happened to be completely random -- whatever popped into my mind at the moment. They also both deal with Africa, but I could just as well have asked what the economic situation in Argentina is right now, or why there are so many Muslims in Germany.
How well did you do? How well did you know these topics, and how well do you want to know these and similar topics in world affairs?
My answer would’ve varied quite a bit between the start and the end of the summer. I didn’t know either of these topics nearly as well as I do now at the beginning of summer.
The reason for that is MIT. This Institute of ours, alternately loved and hated, has a tendency to envelop its students. Between work, life, and sleep, twenty-eight of a day’s twenty-four hours are accounted for. Hence the famous MIT bubble which keeps us mostly clueless about things outside a three-mile radius.
The whirlwind events of the past year, of course, have changed this quite a bit. Many of us were personally affected, and anybody who, like Bush, was clueless about Pakistan a year ago is now bombarded by news of what Musharraf is doing. The average American probably knows Afghanistan in far more detail than they did even during the Soviet invasion two decades ago.
But the news only goes so far. Reciting statistics about Russian helicopter crashes is one thing, but providing a balanced picture of the Russian economy is another. To really understand the news, it is necessary to dig deeper.
Even matters between these shores, or even just down the river, are important. You may be voting in a state where Democrats don’t hold all ten House seats and both Senate positions. However, local politics easily reach down into MIT. The high density of educational institutions around Boston causes lots of tension between town and gown. Anyone moving into Simmons now can do so only because the City of Cambridge granted a permit. The city and MIT have had numerous dealings, including actions related to underage drinking at fraternities, which is of course related to the current freshmen-on-campus policy. It’s all related, and you can’t hope to understand one action without knowing the general framework.
Oh, it all seems so boring now, especially when compared to The Week Formerly Known as Rush. And pretty soon classes will start eating into your time. But at least try. You may slip a bit in the news, but if you try your best to keep up and dig deeper when necessary, at least you won’t emerge from your coccon in May and ask, “What happened to the world in the last eight months?”