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The Obsessive Beaver

Guest Column
Arjun R. Narayanswamy

What does it mean to be an MIT graduate? This is a question I find myself being asked again and again, now that I’m a final semester senior. Does it mean I’m smarter than thou, tougher than thou, or just plain luckier than thou? Graduating from a college that’s a 140-something years old, and with an impressive reputation to boot means that every so often you run up against this question. Let me discuss some of the explanations I’ve heard over the years.

First off, let’s be honest. Graduating from a big-name school is a huge advantage in a depressed job market. Among big-name schools, MIT too has its own cachet. It’s a mythology based on the hard-working, hard-drinking (once upon a time) engineer. There’s an enormous amount of respect out there in the job market for somebody with an MIT degree, and this is something that every smart senior learns to play up to. We are smarter than you. We can work harder than you. Never mind if we actually spent four years skipping through college with the lightest load possible.

Not that there’s anything wrong with having a good time in college. In fact, quite the contrary. The number one reason that I’m eager to graduate is to remove myself from the company of bright young undergraduates clamoring to impress. The framework of a bachelor’s education is stretched and pulled in every which way possible as ambitious young men and women struggle to differentiate themselves as much as possible. It’s a classic signalling argument, except that it’s carried out in a framework that was never intended to support that sort of differentiation. You have to ask yourself; is an environment where people tell you which classes you have to take to graduate meant to foster any serious intellectual effort or differentiation? The answer is no, and I wish a lot more bright young undergraduates would learn to take themselves a lot less seriously.

But let me get back to my point. The last time somebody asked me something along the lines of “What does it mean to be an MIT graduate?” I was having dinner with 40 other seniors at President Vest’s house. The question was meant to be discussed at every table, and I knew right from the beginning that nobody would want to hear my answer. I heard other seniors talk about the diversity of the student body, and of four years of pain, and of the respect they earned in the marketplace. All true, of course, but missing one point.

For me, graduating from MIT also means that I’ve spent four years in a college with the least degree of social awareness that I know of. Wandering elsewhere, I’ve been able to have reasonably informed discussions about local and global socio-economic conditions and geo-political events. I’m no expert on American colleges, but I’d be willing to bet that you could have similar conversations with students from any of the top 50 or top 100 colleges. The state college kids might know less, but they would fill this in with an understanding as complete as possible for that person. This is not something you will find at MIT. Here, we choose to ignore the world. In fact, the closest parallels to an MIT education that I’ve seen are in the ubiquitous engineering schools of India (the name IIT ring a bell?). The premise is the same: gather together a group of extremely capable young men and women, and train them all to be engineers of some sort. Nothing else matters. Nothing else is worth caring about.

Need proof? Ask yourself if you’ve participated in any social protest of any sort. Prior to Sept. 11, ask yourself how often you looked at a newspaper (Wall Street Journal excepted). Look at the political discussion groups on campus; ever been to them? From my personal experience, I’ve seen friends of mine shrug off some of the most disturbing injustices on this planet. It’s always business as usual, let’s go work on the next problem set. Pre-meds train to be excellent pre-meds, chemical engineers study chemical engineering, computer geeks live and breathe computers. There is very little effort expended on working out an ethical bearing for oneself, very few students attempting to grapple with the world.

It’s a bit of a tragedy, actually. But I dare say it’s a tragedy that the administration knows and is comfortable with. Just look at the lopsided profiles of the School of Humanities and the School of Engineering. Who are we kidding? We are trained to be engineers here: builders, not thinkers. And that’s not something you want to say at a graduation dinner.