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Nostalgia Redux

Arjun R. Narayanswamy

Fourteen months ago, I wrote a column [“The Obsessive Beaver,” March 1, 2002] that looked back at my MIT career and a bit forward to the future. I took a stab at a question that was bothering me at the time: “What does it mean to be an MIT graduate?” I spoke of the reputation of the college, our myth of the “hard-working, hard-drinking engineer” and the advantages our degrees give us in a depressed job market. I lamented the tendency of college kids to take themselves too seriously, the outside world too lightly and to be complicit in MIT’s systemically weak humanities program. That piece should have been titled “Nostalgia.”

What has changed for me since then? Quite a bit. I graduated, losing my undergrad status (with associated institutional mollycoddling). I moved off-campus and lost the dormitory environment (with associated pluses and minuses). I clean my own bathroom, and sometimes I cook my own food. And I went through a bruising series of interviews trying to find a job in the worst employment market in 40 years. I think I have a better idea of what it means to be an MIT graduate, both positively and normatively speaking. So let me revise myself from a year ago. What does it mean to be an MIT graduate?

First up -- if there’s one thing that I think the world expects of MIT graduates, it is technical excellence. We know our stuff. People know we know our stuff. We know people know we know our stuff. Hallelujah to that. MIT equals technical excellence.

Secondly, I often hear talk of us as “leaders of the world.” While it’s easy to dismiss it as “Sloan-speak,” it is important that every student in this school (including the ones that think MIT is beating down on them right now) understand it, and really believe it. In the grand scheme of things, we are really, really fortunate. We have things we can do -- in our lives, and in the lives of the people around us -- that are tremendously exciting.

I wrote about how MIT produces “builders” and not “thinkers”. However, the world of the future requires a particular kind of technical and entrepreneurial leadership that I think we develop very well at MIT. Ways to make better drugs, faster computers, cheaper eye-glasses, better projectors. Pioneering research work. Stunning educational initiative (Project Athena and OpenCourseWare). Not as high-flying as Kofi Annan SM ’72 perhaps. Nor as schmaltzy as Mr. Gates or Mr. Ellison. But, as my freshman advisor loved to say, technology moves so fast today that the landscape of many ethical debates of the future will be shaped by scientists, technologists and entrepreneurs. People like me and you will always flirt with the mantle of leadership -- why not actively pick it up?

Okay, let’s take stock. So far, MIT equals technical excellence plus leadership. What else could being an MIT graduate mean?

Let me take a normative position now. Graduating from a prestigious school such as ours should mean a sense of global social responsibility. For better or worse, the educational institutions of the United States of America are the intellectual capitals of the world. People who come here (especially for graduate school) are not the brightest kids in Nebraska, or in the U.S.A. They are the brightest kids in the whole wide world.

I’ll admit here that my perspective is skewed by being a student from a developing country, but sitting in the freezing rain of Commencement last June, listening to the much-reviled James Wolfensohn of the World Bank speak, there was a message that I hope everybody -- the students, the parents, the protesters, the troops in riot-gear -- a message that I hope everybody caught.

Wolfensohn said that the challenge facing the MIT class of 2002 was “the challenge of global equity.” It’s hard to argue with this logic. The last year has seen military actions in Iraq and Afghanistan in reaction to events in New York. A SARS epidemic has threatened people in China, in Russia, and in Canada. We live in a world that’s significantly more global than even the one I saw as a freshman in 1998. We’re all in this together but it’s stunning how far apart we actually are. As economist Joseph Stiglitz sometimes says, the cows of Europe are better off than millions and millions of starving people in Asia and Africa. There is hunger today, significant amounts of it, even in the United States. Is this really a good state of the world? Is it something that we should accept?

I’m not going to make a call for self-sacrificing martyrs here. However, it would be wonderful if every graduate at Commencement could keep alive this one spark, this one tiny bit of hope that the world could be a better place to live in, and that it does lie in our hands to make that happen. MIT must equal technical excellence plus leadership plus global social responsibility. And that’s my hope for the Class of 2003.

Arjun R. Narayanswamy G is a member of the class of 2002.