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The Genie Will Not Go Back in the Box

Krishna Gupta

Reform is an integral part of life. No matter whether we look at political, social, academic, athletic, or military arenas, success always requires a dedication to change and progress. And if success derives from change, change arrives only under the helm of strong leadership, not only at the highest level, but among the individuals for whom this reform matters most.

Leaders face many challenges, but perhaps the most difficult one is to focus on the goal. Often, driven leaders become lost in the myriad of small changes that must occur in order to reform a much larger and more encompassing issue. This subconscious phenomenon of seeing the trees but not the forest occurs much more often than one realizes. At MIT, we become so engrossed in our own worlds that we have little time to think of larger issues and trends in the real world. But if the goal is to impact the world, not just the bubble, then it is important to be in tune with our surroundings. But change is constant for the world around us. As the Greek Heraclitus famously put it, “we both step and do not step in the same river,” or in other words, no man can step in the same river twice, for the river constantly flows.

And thus, when we re-enter this real world, it seems to me that our myopia causes us to lose our vision and our footing. This is a problem faced by students across the world, but is a bit more worrying at MIT because of our tendency to dedicate ourselves to singular and solitary fields of study. How can we cope with this clash between intermediate and final goals? Should we abscond with our intelligence, or should we embrace a salutary change, one that involves increased doses of “culture”?

If MIT attempts to be a city on the hill, a beacon of innovation, then we should possess equal amounts of intelligence and culture, so that we may lead through action, instead of being driven by reaction. We should produce an army of generals who can double as engineers or an army of engineers who can double as generals, but not pure generals or pure engineers. In more appropriate lingo, we should strive for increased heterogeneity in our population. Education will breed leadership, and then strong leadership will spur higher education. This should be our culture, and it is one that will not only differentiate us from our sparring partners, but also one that will be more useful in the coming years.

For example, let’s highlight a political issue — that of instability in the Middle East. This past Tuesday, I had the distinct pleasure of hearing the Egyptian ambassador to the United States, His Excellency Nabil Fahmy, speak on the importance of continued progress in the region. Egypt has been a republic for the past 52 years and has undergone tremendous change, particularly as it lies on the fringe of the Middle East while technically situated in Africa. Yet it has had neither many intelligent leaders nor many leading intellectuals. Why not? Egyptian leadership never made such a combination an overarching goal.

Corruption and ineptitude have reigned at every level. But, Egypt has recently committed itself to political and educational reform. Now that the process has begun, even the inert state will progress. It is just a matter of changing mentalities, of setting the ball in motion, of introducing culture into the culture. As His Excellency Fahmy stated, “we will make our mistakes … but the genie will not go back in the box.”

President Hockfield is not much like Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and thank goodness for that. But, she has already made it quite clear, in my perception, that change on the campus will continue — increased collaboration between several strong MIT departments can only make each stronger. One of the most pressing issues that MIT faces in this new millennium is the challenge of churning out well-educated and socially equipped world leaders.

As President Hockfield wrote in her “Letter to the Community” on Sept. 22, “in addition to helping to solve the world’s problems through our research, we must also rededicate ourselves to an education that prepares our students to be the leaders of a world that is increasingly interconnected and dependent on technology.” We might make mistakes, but once we start, our combination of intellect and culture, manifested through leadership and change, will be unstoppable.

Hence I conclude for now my argument for making MIT the cultured campus. In Hindi, I would phrase this pursuit of culture in such a manner:

“Zindagi ki rangoli main, har rang ko yaad rakho, phir har rang ko bhool dalo, aur phir apne pyare rang banaao.”

In this colorful festival that is life, remember each color, forget each color, and then create your own beautiful colors.

Let culture be the helmet that we generals and engineers wear into battle. Sure, it is often worn only as embellishment. But that thin veneer is so much more. It is the final piece of our persona. It is the pinnacle of our self. It has the aura and the power that strikes fear into our enemy. And when that blow comes straight towards the skull, the brain by itself can do absolutely nothing. Only a well-forged helmet will protect us and allow us to stand victorious. Where’s your helmet?

Krishna Gupta is a member of the Class of 2009.