MIT’s alternative flavor of pride

Is it possible to be too proud of our meritocratic traditions?

On days when life at MIT seems particularly challenging, I sometimes find myself wondering whether my efforts are driven by pride or passion.

Passion is what paved my way to MIT. Now that I’m here, it isn’t surprising that the studies are intense. The curricula are challenging by nature of the subjects, and many of us combat not only theory but also the physical limitations of materials and technologies. We are undoubtedly pushed to grow. Yet sometimes I can hear a quiet engine chugging us along, fueled not just by passion for the material but also by our egos and a cultural pride in how hard we work.

Willingness to work hard is indeed a virtue, since it is at the heart of personal and societal progress. Yet at the very least, the degree to which it is emphasized here at MIT can lead to an excessive pride.

The thought that there perhaps flourishes a special flavor of snobbery on our campus could sound surprising, since MIT students sometimes enjoy basking in the thought of how un-snobby we are. Indeed, ours is not the classic sort. We distinguish ourselves from the stereotypical image of students wandering in the graceful stillness between centuries-old buildings, soaking in ideas. We don’t feel that we are a group that shares a common socioeconomic class and the traditions of our school with family members.

Instead, we pride ourselves on diversity, on meritocracy, on fostering an open and collaborative spirit, on choosing T-shirts over sweater vests, and on working hard to satisfy the expectations of a rigorous institution. Yet isn’t our pride for our relative lack of snobbery just a different slice of the same pie?

For example, consider how many of us are proud of taking five, six, or seven classes; we are embarrassed to drop to “just” three; we bond over listing all that we have left on our plates; and we are sometimes willing to entertain majors based on how they are perceived by our peers — not solely on our passion for the subjects. Sure, committing to a load of challenging classes and stretching one’s potential is a practical and respectable path. At the same time, it could become an expectation that affects many students who wish to experience MIT from a different angle and pace, compromising their true intellectual aspirations.

I recall sitting at dinner a few weeks ago when someone stated that she was majoring in Course 4, architecture, and another in the group found the need to offhandedly say, “Oh, I heard Course 4 is super hard.” The statement felt as though it was aimed to protect students in that department from a culture that discounts subjects that may appear more artistic from an outsider’s perspective, or to give those students the recognition of pursuing something difficult.

Even our own vernacular can indicate our pride in the technical nature of our work. We lump humanities, arts, and social sciences into the acronym “HASS” yet refer to technical majors and even classes within them by precise numbers that are familiar to all of us. Sometimes (although of course not always) this mentality can reflect how students place technical subjects on a pedestal. For instance, ask an MIT student what classes he or she is taking this semester, and you may hear a list featuring the exact name of each technical subject followed by “and a HASS class,” despite the immense diversity and depth within our HASS departments.

Passion for hard work is integral to our culture at MIT — it pushes us to stretch our minds and complete incredible projects. Yet if an exaggerated pride for rigor fuels some of our effort, it may be tempting to value academic choices based on their perceived difficulty and less on our personal and intellectual interests. This desire to comply with cultural expectation could sometimes overshadow inner voices. Especially in a university with endless opportunities, it may be helpful to recalibrate with a question: not “How hosed am I?” but instead, “Why am I doing the things I do?” After all, in just a few years we will be in new places making new choices, driven only by what really matters to each of us.

Claire Lazar is a member of the Class of 2017.

1 Comment
Bob Miller about 9 years ago

Take pride in getting the right things done in the right way. All this lifestyle stuff and other atmospherics are just incidental.