The argument goes that MIT is unlike other colleges. We are “special,” and for prospective students, we are “different” in ways you have to experience to understand — hence Campus Preview Weekend, where students, living groups, faculty, and administrators try their hardest to let about 1,000 prefrosh experience as much MIT as can be crammed into four days.
I’d be foolish to say I could explain all that sets MIT apart. There is, however, one aspect of our culture that does stand out, precisely because it doesn’t stand out at all. We at the Institute enjoy a remarkable freedom in our actions, with few restrictions. This can exist because the undergraduate body has largely adopted a policy of discretion with respect to our actions. MIT gives us these freedoms precisely because they trust us to be responsible for our behavior, know what our own limits are, and not go running to the pulpit complaining with every misstep.
In other words, in exchange for students taking some personal responsibility, the Institute gives us a profound amount of freedom.
Academically this is obvious; few students reading this would have ever received an admissions offer had they not shown some sense of personal academic discipline. MIT will allow you to push that further by removing boundaries. Barring first year credit limits, you’re free to take whichever classes you want. If you take them on pass/no record, whether you get a hidden A or C is up to you. Once you go beyond freshman year, your adviser will sign off on basically whatever you give them. There are no built in upper bounds to the number of classes you can take or what majors you can take them in. It’s a glorious level of freedom for those with a basic sense of self preservation. Yet it’s existence would be threatened if those who overloaded themselves with classes then complained when they did poorly and demanded that the Institute not let them take so many classes.
It’s outside of the classroom, though, where MIT becomes truly unique. Senior House’s Steer Roast, East Campus’s roller coaster during Orientation, hacks and hacking in general, the porosity of the freshman on campus requirement, to name a few, are all uniquely MIT activities. They couldn’t happen outside of the Institute, and they can only happen on campus because knowledge of their inner-workings stays there.
That implies the need for discretion with pictures and media, obviously, but also the more serious need for responsibility and maturity. When that’s lacking, things go wrong, and often need to be escalated outside of MIT (see Burton Third’s concrete bomb of last spring, the death of a fraternity pledge in the 90s that lead to the implementation of freshman on campus, among others). That escalation puts the MIT administration into a self-preservation, damage control mode that, while sometimes excessive, is justifiable. It shakes the trust that administrators place in students, and causes them to clamp down on the activities we often find most enjoyable.
Preventing escalations and preserving the freedom enjoyed by MIT students is common sense and can be briefly summarized: safety, safety, safety. That means don’t do anything stupid. Take reasonable risks and test your own boundaries at MIT, but recognize the distinction between a bad idea and a challenge. And when you fail, realize that the consequences and responsibility for that failure are yours, not the Institute that gave you the freedom to mess up.
This may seem intimidating; probably for the first time in your life you can make poor decisions without anyone stopping you. But being at MIT is probably the first time in your life you have a real choice in the first place, and to get the most out of this place, you’ll need to embrace that freedom.
If you’re reading this as a prospective freshman and you’re not happy because there isn’t one obviously “right” way of experiencing CPW, take a deep breath and consider what you want out of college. If you want the challenges of choice and the responsibilities those choices bring, then you’re in the right place — nothing at MIT is obvious, and it will teach you to control your own life. At MIT, if you want something to happen, you’ll probably need to do it yourself and take all the consequences that comes with it. Things just won’t happen for you. But that’s precisely why it’s so special, and so different from other colleges.
Remember that such responsibility expects and demands a commitment from you, and that a failure to respect the power you have will destroy what makes MIT special. For those who accept it though, the rewards will surpass anything “normal” colleges offer.