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Smart vs. Art

Krishna Gupta

Why am I here? I was discouraged from every direction to come to MIT. I told them I wanted to go into the business world; they told me to go to Yale. I told them MIT would make me smart, that Yale was fluff; they told me that smart without art was useless, wasn’t the Ivy name enough?

I’ve only been on campus six weeks, and to some extent, I have to agree with the naysayers — MIT really doesn’t have much scope in terms of the development of personality, development of a culture. That is the seminal issue here — if MIT can somehow change its philosophy slightly, so that it creates not only raw intelligence but also sharp, informed, cultured students, I believe that we can take over the world. Or in other words, we can become the new Harvard.

I know that my last sentence is scandalous. But consider for a moment the statement — I don’t mean to imply that MIT must become a liberal arts college. That would be unfathomable and unintelligent. But Harvard is considered the classiest university across the world, despite its often less-than-intelligent students. Throughout my travels in various countries, I’ve met blank stares when I mention MIT. I don’t want to see a void in those eyes — I want to see the excitement of recognition, of understanding, and of appreciation. The times have changed so that the privileged or the aristocratic no longer command the same respect as they once did. Now is the time of innovation instead of hierarchical structure, of progress instead of stagnation. As a meritocracy is becoming more possible, can you imagine what power an army of cultured MIT students would possess?

Cultured doesn’t mean dressing up in a coat and tie and snobbishly turning away from those who don’t. To be cultured, in my sense, means looking confident in your dress and carrying it well to respect yourself, to respect the people around you, and to respect the world. Of course, dress is but one dimension.

Before I came to MIT, I asked one job interviewer whether I should pick Yale or MIT. As usual, he suggested Yale, stating that at least the world would know that I “could read and write properly.” Yes, MIT has an 8-term HASS requirement, but how effective is it? Based on responses from fellow peers, it doesn’t look like HASS classes have accomplished the most crucial goal — to get students excited about humanities. Instead, the HASS classes fail to transcend their status; they are simply requirements.

I’m not claiming that MIT students are cultureless. But we are missing something. We don’t have the same respect for some of the intricate peripherals that are often required to progress unhindered through life. It’s that well-roundedness that is lacking — we are all too often well-lopsided. Call it Romanticism, but I often dream of sitting at a caf while discussing the current political state of Nepal or listening to lilting multicultural melodies walking besides the Charles.

But at the same time, I love nothing more than working on theoretical math for a few hours at a time. I went to a liberal arts high school. There I missed the pursuit of raw intellectual power; here I miss the pursuit of a complete understanding of the world. It gives me tremendous satisfaction to read the news twice or three times a day. How many MIT students do this? And yet, if I talk to friends in such barely-inferior universities as Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and the University of Chicago, they all seem to be engaged in intellectual thought about the world as a whole, not just the subatomic or ecological arenas.

Even if you are to become a researcher, focusing solely on a narrow slice of a branch of a branch of a science, it is often beneficial to become a complete individual. The utilitarian counterargument may question the usefulness of becoming cultured. Well, I am nowhere near completely cultured, and yet I’ve had so many experiences where understanding of some random facet of life helped me converse with and learn from another individual. I could immediately latch onto a familiar piece of information, and expand it into a stimulating discussion. Do you really want to live life within the small cross-section of people who understand every word you say, and vice-versa?

Why did I come here? Because MIT stood out to me as having the Most Intelligent Teachings of any other university. Because MIT respected me and my fellow peers for our intelligence and problem-solving skills. Because MIT seemed like it could really nurture the growth of the intellectual spirit.

I spoke to several alumni at the Alumni Leadership Conference earlier this term, and they mentioned that MIT was not catalyzing growth in personality, in this culture, and that it was the responsibility of the administration and the students to work together to cultivate this missing component of MIT.

I don’t suggest that MIT change its admissions pool at all. We have the brightest students around. But, can we take that same group of students that come in and transform them to be parallel-minded, to grow in all directions and develop into the leaders of the current and future generations? President Hockfield seems intent on doing this, and I hope she and my fellow peers follow through with this plan to make MIT the unqualified, best university in the world.

Krishna Gupta is a member of the Class of 2009.