Culture of exploration

As a transfer student, I have had the opportunity to become intimately familiar with another college in addition to MIT. The thing that makes MIT stand out, and the reason I decided to come here, is the passion, ingenuity and fire of the East Side population. There are many colleges with rigorous academics and involved, capable student bodies. There are many places to make great friends, and many colleges with fun, quirky traditions. These things, though certainly present at MIT, are not unique. What makes MIT unique is not just the intelligence and interests of its students, but the ways in which they are allowed to express those interests. Students on the East Side take it upon themselves to go beyond simple industriousness. They explore everything. They question things that others consider axioms and find doors where others only see walls. They don’t leave their ideas in the classroom and their projects in the lab and their mathematics on the blackboard. They use their knowledge and intelligence creatively to fix, explore and improve the world around them. Nothing is allowed to remain a black box, whether its the inner workings of one small switch or a building or the entire internet. It is this environment of constant discovery and modification that makes MIT legendary, and it could not exist unless MIT continues to offer its students an unusual amount of creative freedom. It is the fact that MIT is the place where students can paint murals and install home-built electronics and build roller coasters that allows MIT to enjoy the sort of reputation that it does: not just for academic excellence, but for genius.

This kind of genius doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It takes a strong community of experimentation, ingenuity, and risk-taking. Even something as mundane as letting students cook together instead of mandating a meal plan, or letting students paint murals on the walls and having those murals respected allows the sort of community to develop where students feel attached and committed to their living group. This kind of investment in the community matters. Students take on big endeavors because they have a community that supports and encourages them. Big projects don’t happen in a dorm where you have to be afraid of scuffing the walls and where you’ll violate “quiet hours” by using a drill after midnight. Big projects happen in messy spaces where other students can wander by and eagerly add their two cents. Dorms kept resolutely clean of student influence are also divesting themselves of student innovation. For example, in one place I lived on the East Side, there is a student-programmed soda machine. It was installed long before my time and is maintained by subsequent generations. Students stock it and keep track of the finances. Periodically, someone will add a new feature – for example a card reader so you can pay for soda by swiping your ID. These inventions are added, break, and are refurbished over and over again, leading to a strong culture of improvement and experimentation. Imagine if, as is the mostly likely outcome at other schools, the soda machine had been immediately hauled away, perhaps with the assurance that there already was a perfectly good Coke machine in the lobby and the administration would welcome input about whether or not we’d also like a Pepsi machine. What a tragedy that would have been! Imagine the experience wasted, the opportunities for collaboration and the honing of technical skill that would be lost. This is true for everything from Random Hall’s microcontrollers that report when the washing machines are empty, to the giant wooden playground that East Campus builds during REX. Ingenuity is messy, and sometimes it scratches the paint, but why did we come to MIT otherwise? If I wanted to take difficult classes and then return to a clean, quiet dorm, I could have gone anywhere. I could have stayed at my previous college. But I came to MIT.

If MIT wants to maintain its reputation as the place where innovation happens, where clever students build ingenious things, then MIT needs to allow students the space to be brilliant.