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Take Pride in Tech

Ken Nesmith

As this year’s graduating class walks away with MIT degrees, it’s worth considering what those degrees represent both for those who are done with their work here and for those for whom toil remains. At commencement ceremonies all over the country during this graduation season, institutions awarded honorary degrees left and right. MIT, as we all know, does not issue honorary degrees. For the same reason MIT resists grade inflation even as it explodes rampantly throughout higher education, we choose not to award degrees to visitors of wealth and standing who have not done the work required to earn a degree.

At this school, we refuse to deny the truth that a grade or degree is not merely a letter or piece of paper to be awarded to friends and favorites of some favorably positioned administrator. Instead, we stand by the principle that an MIT degree is built by years of hard work, study, sweat, tears, and most importantly, thought: it is truly the product of our mind’s effort. Grades are representatives of that hard work. We deny that either can legitimately be invented by mere wishful thinking.

Graduates arrived at this day after years of work at an institution that approaches education from a different set of values and practices than peer institutions. MIT, perhaps more than any other, is a school driven by innovation. In biology, chemistry, and physics labs, in engineering workshops, at Athena computer clusters, we students dedicate immense energy to solving problems, working efficiently, and overcoming obstacles. Our efforts yield truly remarkable results, and the world is grateful -- when they use the products that veterans of this place have created, when they gain employment thanks to the innumerable entrepreneurial undertakings built on work done here, when their ability to keep living is made possible by control of reality’s physical constraints, via methods learned in these classrooms.

Many of the world’s foremost universities are held in high esteem for very different reasons. MIT is indeed their peer institution insofar as its reputation and caliber is recognized as the among the world’s best. It is not, however, another cookie from an ivy-shaped cutter, and neither are its graduates. Harvard is an easy and proximate foil for the purpose of comparison of undergraduate education. (To exonerate myself of charges of bitterness, I’d like to note that I didn’t apply to Harvard.) The schools approach education very differently. Harvard places central value on social position and class. Its admissions process treats legacy status as one of the most important criteria for admission. Wealth, power, and status (and not necessarily ability or merit) are tickets to admission.

In contrast, MIT’s admissions process approaches a rather well-structured meritocracy. Without exceptional ability, neither legacy nor wealth will procure admission here. MIT values openness in education. The OpenCourseWare project, currently well underway, will put the university’s entire world-famous curriculum on the Internet, freely accessible to the world. The materials are available to any who wishes to use them. At Harvard, in contrast, access to nothing more than the school library is severely restricted, even to other academics, and requires an extensive paperwork process just to step in the front door.

In social life, MIT’s fraternities open the doors of their mansions in Boston and Cambridge to students from schools all over the area, hosting massive parties on an almost weekly basis. Harvard’s Finals clubs, the Crimson analog of fraternities, tightly regulate access to social events, and even upon entrance, one finds only a drecky rendition of a full scale fraternity party, with fewer people and more insipid music. MIT’s Saferide admits any passenger for transport around the Cambridge and Boston areas; even empty Harvard busses will not deliver passengers across the bridge without proper Harvard identification. Grade inflation at Harvard has meant that the grade scale extends barely from A to B; at MIT, professors continue to note that C-level work done here would earn an A elsewhere.

Innovation and progress are the hallmarks of Tech. It has been tireless pursuit of these values throughout history that has enabled the leisurely study of the liberal arts. Even today, such study is supported by those who choose to pursue progress and productive work; the foundations built on the wealth they generate fund a huge part of those activities, and the taxes they pay subsidize the professors and students who fill these classrooms -- even those who condemn progress, commerce, and production and call for its end.

Instead of social tradition, MIT is a vanguard of progress; instead of heritage, growth; instead of political or societal status, ability. The work done here, historically and currently, makes the world turn. It is the work that lets political leaders, trained and bred to speak well elsewhere, take credit for jobs created and economies grown.

Do not think, though, that MIT merely trains money-grubbing businessmen or unthoughtful techies and fosters ignorance of the conventionally dubbed important work, aid of the world’s suffering. To the contrary, the work done here does more for the world’s suffering than scads of NGOs, social coalitions, and government initiatives could ever hope to achieve. This work feeds the world, cures the sick, fights disease, simplifies daily life, and grants billions the ability to live in an environment strained by an ever-growing population.

A casual survey of the projects and production that come out of these labs reveals the point more concretely. Alongside the gadgetry, rocket engines, software projects, and other innovations that will power the next century, observe the inexpensive eyewear production system recently created here which enables vision in poor nations and replaces clumsy eyeglass donation systems; observe the work on clean energy production that will continue to reduce worldwide pollution; and observe the creation of inoculations and drugs that are both marketable in America and address plagues that ravage undeveloped nations. Don’t take my brief word for it: read MIT Technology Review, lab reports, or Tech Talk to see the constant and tremendously impact of invention and progress that goes on here.

An MIT degree represents the successful defeat of the tests and challenges posed by education here. It does not confer upon its recipients anything they do not already have. It only recognizes their progress. The name of MIT can’t legitimately grant us anything; instead, we have to continue to build the name of MIT by the work we do here and beyond. That work, and the years of college some of us are concluding today, are not typical of higher education. The pride we take therein is hard-earned and well-deserved.