This is a question I find myself answering soon after someone drags it out of me that I graduated from MIT. When asked where I went to school I almost always will reply, Boston. For some people this is enough but others are more interested and want to know if I went to Boston College or Boston University or if I meant Boston in the general sense and went to Harvard. I am purposefully evasive on the subject of where I went to school because I don't really want to spend the next few minutes explaining why MIT is not what they think it is, or have them attribute to me some magical powers that I don't have.
When I finally do say that I went to MIT I get one of three reactions.
What's MIT? The likelihood of this response increases when the conversation takes place in the midwest and/or when the person asking is not Asian. My answer to "What's MIT" is usually the Milwaukee Institute of Tap, as in tap dance. Never mind that Milwaukee is not in Boston.
In rare cases the person I'm talking to went to MIT as well and then the first questions are what year I graduated and where I lived while at MIT.
But the most frequent response is a wow, that I must be "smart" or some expression of shock that here they were talking to a geek and didn't even realize it. How clever those geeks are becoming. After that they ask if I knew this one kid from their school who went to MIT in 1980 something, they will invariably want to know "what I thought about going to MIT."
This is what I thought.
The fours year I spent at MIT were great. Without a doubt some of the best years of my life.
More than the school buildings, the professors and the classes, the students are what makes MIT the place it is. The friends I made at MIT are exceptional people. They are engineers and artists, scientists and humanists, philosophers and thieves - though they mostly studied engineering whether they wanted to or not, and some really did not.
Yes, there are nerds at MIT. MIT has all types of people and probably more nerds than it deserves. I won't tell cute anecdotes about why the nerds aren't so bad. But "normal" people go to MIT too and it is possible to hang out with anyone you want while you are there, no matter how you define normal.
The backgrounds of MIT students are very diverse, not just in the superficial measurements such as skin color and religion, jock versus stoner, but in their political and philosophical views and ideas, their experiences and backgrounds and their problem solving approaches. The majority of students at MIT seemed to be from middle class families that could not afford the cost of an MIT education. There was absolutely no one there who got in because their father donated a library.
The humor and joy of life of my friends were what made my time there so much fun. My friends from MIT are very ambitious and driven people. We enjoy playing as hard as we work, espousing the same "work hard, play hard" ethic now that we did at school, although we tend to spare our livers more now. We routinely fly across the country to reunite at weddings or just for visits.
During the undergraduate years and beyond, some MIT students are and were intellectuals and others, having completed their education, will not again pursue academics formally or informally. Some students did just enough to get by and others tried to excel at some or all of their endeavours. Each contributed to the MIT experience of pushing and being pushed in academics, athletics and social situations.
Some of my best memories of being at MIT were times spent talking to people during the dead hours. The dead hours were the time from 4:00ish in the afternoon until dinner at 6:00 when, clearly, no homework could be done since it was almost dinner time. There was usually an hour or two of dead time after dinner as well, or at some point in the evening to break up the studying. During these times we would solve the world's problems, debate the current issues afflicting the campus, the state or the country, discuss art and philosophy, the latest Guns and Roses album, women and other weighty matters. I loved the freedom of the discussions, the new ideas and approaches, the glaring irrereverence for things illogical and unreasonable, and the inspiration and potential of things that were new.
The method of discussion at MIT is very interesting. In classic east coast fashion no one waits for another to finish stating an idea. Once another grasped the concept he would interrupt and give his own opinion or lead the discussion elsewhere. Feelings weren't hurt and we didn't worry about making sure everyone was included. Disagreements weren't taken personally and everyone remained friends afterwards. In classic engineering fashion, discussions were painted with variables, probabilities and multi dimensional functions. Love was regularly broken down into its constiuent parts, analyzed and integrated back into a whole. Philosophical and political points were made by telling stories about person X who does such and such to Y at some point in time t. The stories used to illustrate the points being made were usually humorous and made up as the teller went along reflecting his own background in the story. The same concept could just as easily be illustrated with stories of farmers and pigs as it could with mafioso and con-men, depending upon the teller's own area of expertise. It wasn't until I left MIT that I realized that most people don't talk this way and instead spend more time arguing over words and semantics than the concepts they are trying to communicate.
In the few years after graduation, few students that I knew have returned to their home towns unless they are from a large city. Most are working as engineers or are in graduate school. Many wish to or already have started their own business.
The professors at MIT did not impress me with their teaching ability. Obviously that is not what they were hired for. There were a few teachers who I would call good. I did not know many of them, but did work for two of them as a student researcher but only rarely met with any professors socially. The work experiences I had as a student researcher at MIT were great. The professors I worked for took time and effort to help me, to explain things to me, and to help me later in my career. They taught me a little bit about being an engineer, in academic and industrial settings. They could have taught me much more if they had shared a few more rounds at the Ear or at 'Roads, but sadly, few professors I knew expressed much interest in that.
The Social Scene
When people think of MIT they generally do not think of a social scene. Nonetheless MIT contained many different groups who made many different social "scenes." Some of the scenes that MIT students made would necessarily have to be listed as a part of the social life of many neighboring schools as well.
Perhaps the greatest aspect of the MIT social world is due to its being in Boston. (MIT of course is in Cambridge) No other city houses as many college students nor intermingles the students so much as Boston. On one side of my fraternity house was a Boston University dorm. On the other side was an apartment building of students and non-students. On the corner of the block was a dorm for Emerson College and the residences of students of a dozen other schools were within a twenty block radius. It was easy to both immerse oneself in the "college scene" and escape into the city to the scenes of yuppies, teen-agers or blue collar workers. Something was always "goin' on," somewhere.
The MIT social scene I was in (there were certainly others) revolved around the "weekend" parties at various fraternities in Boston's back bay. (Weekends were generally defined as Wednesday through Saturday) The two purposes of these parties were sex and intoxication. For these purposes, the parties were very efficient. I don't think MIT parties were unique or superior in this regard. Across the country on college campuses it seems to be that social activities are designed for these two purposes, one of which greatly increases the likelihood of the other.
MIT parties regularly attracted students from over a dozen schools, colleges and Universitites, as well as people off the street. The parties were always free for the guests and would last until the second or third arrival of the police at around 2:00 am. Fortunately women from surrounding schools, as well as from MIT, attended the parties. A woman in Boston could really go to any party she wanted, whenever she wanted and never had to pay for anything. Nonetheless there were "sausage parties" which had an overabundance of people that I did not want to dance with.
All big parties were really the same and one could see many of the same people at all of them. Occasionally there were themes, but generally you had the dancing area in one big room of a house and the drinking area in the rest of the house. Hundreds of people would come to the parties and visit with friends they met at the last party, make new friends and of course try to "hook-up."
Smaller parties were much more intimate and could be much more fun. These were usually room parties, held in one of the bigger rooms of a house or, in nice weather, on the roof tops overlooking the river. At these parties it was much more likely that you would talk to someone you didn't know for an extended period of time. The other reason many people drank was so that they could feel comfortable talking to total strangers for an extended period of time. Most MIT students didn't venture far beyond their established groups of friends, but the groups could be very large as fraternity houses had fifty to sixty members each of whom had friends outside the fraternity too. Other social groups were formed from classes and sports or other activities and these often blended into or enhanced one's regular circle.
The summers especially had more small parties as the fraternity houses would become half-filled with coeds. Naturally this was more interesting and exciting. It often led to broken hearts, long term relationships, one night stands, or new friendships with coeds at other schools. For some guys, summertime with a house full of women was a miracle. These were guys who, during the year, would have to wait outside the women's bathroom at a party in order to be able to talk to a woman. For them, the summer meant that they could, perhaps, find someone to talk to in the kitchen, or on the front steps as well.
While the men generally were more aggressive, there was certainly more than a few women who weren't afraid to go after what they wanted. Any woman venturing to a fraternity house party had to be either brave, or naive, to begin with. The mix of women from different schools and from totally different walks of life definitely added interest and excitement to the scene. From a woman who first entered our house announcing that she wasn't wearning any underwear and proved it to several men in the next few months, to a conservative Mormon beauty-queen who married a friend of mine four years later, every woman was welcome and every type of woman showed up at one point or another. MIT males could alternately find themselves playing the snobby elitist to a woman from a secretarial school and playing the brash, uncultured, in-your-face, jerk to the women of Wellesley, in some cases giving both exactly what they wanted. Generally women were treated as their own actions indicated they should be treated. I would be painting a fairy tale if I said that no woman was mistreated at a fraternity party, but the vast majority were not.
The drunkenness of partygoers varied from those who did not drink at all to those who got extremely drunk nearly every weekend. Drinking was seen as a part of letting off steam. The pressures of MIT required that its students let off this steam in some way. For some it was dancing or other athletics, for some it was drinking, for most it was both.
Drunkenness also had tremendous entertainment value as well. There is really no end to the amount of hilarious and stupid things that drunk students do. From the the classical college things like eating goldfish and competitive drinking to singing songs and "carrier qualifying" (which put a new twist on beer slides) to both rehearsed and spontaneous musical groups, to gymnastics over an open stairwell, to throwing a party in the back of a Ryder truck bound for New York City. Nakedness trends would go in and out of fashion and were sometimes combined with fire. Every college student in the world thinks that his or her school is the ultimate party place and MIT students did their best to be able to boast in exactly that way. Perhaps they were spurred on by a need to overcome their "geek" perception and perhaps they really were no different from the students at any other school.
Other aspects of the MIT social scene included formal dinners, outings to bars and clubs in Boston, concerts or shows at other schools or downtown theatres, weekend or week-long ski trips, days at the lake at Wellessley, road trips to other schools and sporting events. Getting around Boston is remarkably easy with the subway and bus system. Although the early closing time of the subway was annoying, Boston itself is so small that walking home from downtown was not a tremendous burden.
Athletics at MIT were very important, if not very successful. I once heard a tour guide telling a group that 80% of MIT students were involved in some sport. MIT fielded teams in almost everything imagineable, from football, basketball, baseball and lacrosse to fencing, crew and ultimate frisbee. Most teams were Division III and not often champions. Nonetheless, nationally ranked athletes in gymnastics, track and other sports graced the team rosters while I was there. MIT students were generally not spectators of sports. A football game I went to had about thirty fans, excluding cheerleaders, and parents (this despite an article about the team in Sports Illustrated that year!) Basketball did a little better, but the real action was at the hockey games.
Hockey at MIT was probably THE sport. MIT fielded over ninety intramural hockey teams from the tripod league where players used their sticks as a third leg to prevent falling to an A league which occasionally supplied the varsity team with players. MIT had both a men's and a women's varsity team. The varsity team had a wide range of talent from graduate students who had played Division I to guys that only skated a few years.
The fans at the hockey games were comparitively high in number. This may have been due to the fact that there is no school in January at MIT and students have little else to do. For whatever reason, the hockey fans were pretty rowdy and tried their best to get under the skin of the opposing players. Sometimes this was done creatively and sometimes just rudely. Once the other team was a junior college for kids who wanted to go Division I but didn't make it well enough academically to become freshman. In a game MIT should have lost we got off to an early lead. The fans took over from there and the other team slowly fell apart trying to fight with us, then with each other when we respond with harder play, then with their coach and then finally by climbing into the stands to fight with our fans and the police. For several minutes the MIT team sat on the bench, calm, disciplined under coach Quinn's leadership, sipping water and watching the opposing team make fools of themselves. ( More about the greate riot from the front line. )
Yes there were academics at MIT. The courses were all very intense and the phrase used to describe it was that getting an education at MIT is like getting a drink of water from a fire hydrant. My one regret about the fire hydrant approach is that sometimes I just wanted to learn a little bit about something outside my major, taught at about the pace of an AP high school course. Although some courses could be taken pass fail beyond freshman year, it didn't really seem to help.
Freshman year at MIT is entirely pass/fail and this is one of the greatest things going. Frehman are free of the burden of grades while they see how much studying it will actually take to do as well as they want. They can determine if they have enough time left over to play a sport, a musical instrument, write a novel or be in a play. Further it equalizes the extreme disparity in education of the students coming in. Some students enter with enough AP credits to graduate in two years from most universities. Others enter with magic and folk wisdom as their guiding lights. By the middle of the second semester most students figure out that they can abuse this system without ending their careers. A friend of mine made a little sign above his desk that said "D- = P+" meaning that a D- would still only show up as a P on a transcript. (Nowadays you need a C- to earn a P.)
My education in the classroom was very good, although it was not because of good teachers. MIT is a place where you need to decide that you want to learn and that you will, to a large extent, teach yourself. I had one course in economics where the professor literally read the book to us. I decided not to go to class at all and did just as well. Classes are typically hour long sessions in equation copying and general theory explanation. Questioning and any sort of discussion was a very rare thing in class, humanities courses excepted. Most people took their notes and their book and used both extensively to figure out the homework.
The pace of a course at MIT is fast. In comparing what I learned in my introductory freshman classes with what my peers at other schools learned it seemed that I had about two extra weeks of material per semester, although our semesters were about one week shorter. This is not necessarily a good thing. When the pace overwhelms you, it is of little benefit that you got run over by a ten ton truck instead of a nine ton truck.
The humanities requirements at MIT should include showing proficiency in "basic conversation with regular humans" for there is a tremendous need for that. This problems seems to be endemic in engineers at all schools and not just at MIT. Nonetheless the humanities requirements are pretty tough and provide students with an outlet for pursuing other interests. MIT seemed committed to providing quality courses in the humanities and has well respected programs and faculty in these areas.
Competition at MIT is tough but very friendly. Many professors encourage students to work in groups, but whether it was encouraged or not it always happened. The general view was one of the students against the Institution or against the vast amount of things to learn in life. Many colorful euphemisms were used to illustrate the student coming out on the short side of the battle. While the homeworks were usually done collabortively, as was studying for tests, it was every man for himself when the tests began.
Living at MIT
MIT did not have enough housing for all of its students and thus, even freshman could move into a fraternity house from the first week they arrived. For me this a was great experience and I do not think I would have as many close friends in my class, and certainly not in other classes, had it not been for this. As a pledge I experienced no hazing whatsoever. The overcritical media tried to tell us that we were, in fact, being hazed and probably didn't know it. The worst thing I had to do was get out of bed to throw wet rolls of toilet paper at upper classmen and answer the phones once every week or so.
Living with fifty plus people for four years is a great experience. It is not always a happy experience and many things are lacking when those fifty people are all males aged 18-23. Naturally not everyone got along but, suprisingly, it was the only time in my life up to that point where I really had to deal with people I didn't like. I would not have had to do this living in a dorm or in a house with just preselected friends.
The house had politics and elections and all sorts of stuff that required one to think about things most students don't have to deal with. My fraternity alumni association owned our house but left us largely in charge, and largely responsible for what happened to the house physically and legally. Deciding to draft our own house drug and alcohol policies, enforcing those policies, dealing with members who were extremely delinquint in their payments, helping out in community charity groups, dealing with mistakes made by members that reflected poorly on the house's attitudes of race and homosexuality, learning about and taking measures to reduce risks when throwing parties, standing up to university pressures to shut down our party system, throwing people out of house office, throwing people out of the house, taking turns staying sober to talk to police and neighbors, deciding how to treat women, helping freshmen pass their classes, helping sophomores pass their classes, helping juniors say no to bar hopping with the seniors, helping seniors figure out what to do after college, balancing a budget, paying a cook, paying taxes, paying bills, ordering paint and lumber, restoring furniture, remodeling rooms, cleaning twice a year, living in that level of cleanliness, choosing new members, debating the groups meaning, identity and purpose, and many more experiences were necessary parts of life in a fraternity at MIT.
Some felt that those who lived in fraternities were superior to those who lived in the dorms, or those who lived in different fraternities. Some in the dorms probably felt the opposite. The hostilities weren't great, in any case, and we tended to have at least one friend in every type of residence.
What did I think of MIT?
I loved it.