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It May Not Be Right, But is it Even Wrong? Why We Don’t Read

By Dan Scolnic

features columnist

Our buildings and classes go by numbers. No one ever says the “Green Center for Physics.” We never say “Computer Science,” we just say “six.” We’re all used to it by now and we only realize how weird it is when people visit and say “Hey, your buildings and classes all go by numbers, that’s pretty weird.” For us, it’s just one less thing we have to read in a place where we don’t read anymore.

We go to bookstores and head straight to the textbook section. When we make the effort to read, we get bored right away because there is no formula to summarize everything. Some of us even attend English classes because we want to be forced to read. Our English brain dies -- we feel it at first but soon we move on to what we consider much more important things.

But are the things we do that much more important? Most of us would say yes. Many of us even say, possibly jokingly, that we came to MIT so we wouldn’t have to write any more English papers. We feel like we can learn much more from a great textbook than a great novel and that’s how things are at MIT.

Professor of Brain and Cognitive Sciences Jeremy M. Wolfe once illustrated this point when he said, “the difference between Princeton and MIT is that at Princeton psychology is a science class and at MIT psychology is a humanities class.” But as much as we love this difference, a lot of people say that too many MIT graduates work for Princeton graduates.

So one has to ask, if this is the case, is it because Princeton graduates read “A Tale of Two Cities” and we did not? The answer is obviously no. It is not that they read something that we did not but that they wanted to read something that we did not. So many books that we do not read deal with fiction, about how the world does not work or could possibly work. And this turns us off from books.

In our freshman requirements, we take calculus, physics, biology and chemistry. We learn about how the world works and we learn from the experts, but we miss out on the different ways of thinking about all the different worlds. We just want to know how the world exactly works and disregard all the amazing ways it could work.

It is not just reading. No one watches television anymore. It just does not have the appeal it used to have. We never get lost in commercials or get addicted to our favorite spy show anymore. We have no clue what is going on in the outside world. Ben Affleck and J Lo broke up; I did not know that. I would have been the first one to know last year. I now have no clue what Bush is doing. I do not even know enough to understand people’s jokes when they make fun of him.

We just get stuck in a world created by MIT. It is a world we choose to be in. We do not have the time or the energy to be in any other world. We get institutionalized. We get the best education one could get, but we miss out on something. We miss out on all the other worlds out there.

Now I can’t ask for a revolution. Our buildings and classes go by numbers; that’s the way things are. We aren’t going to start reading just like that. We aren’t going to start watching television just like that. But maybe, instead of becoming more institutionalized, we can take the knowledge we receive here and use it to explore new worlds. We can use our education not only to find new fields or ideas that have never been discovered but also to find our own place in the world.

Maybe someday, after learning in a place of numbered buildings and numbered classes without names, we can come out with our own names.