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[salon] Salon Discussion, December 5 - Transience Divine
December 16th, 2006
03:31 am

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[salon] Salon Discussion, December 5
Salon Discussion, December 5

Disclaimer: I hold a regular Salon discussion group, with wide-ranging conversations on politics, philosophy, society, and life. The thoughts in this post came from a recent Salon, but are not an accurate reflection of the dialogue.

My first two discussion topics for the Salon fell flatter than a philosopher down a well. But we end up with more interesting discussion on changes to MIT's rush and on government morality.

When can an institution be said to have morality or a responsibility to some group? The question of MIT rush hinges on to whom MIT is responsible: either to worried parents, or to MIT's alternative community. How one answers this question also has implications for the role of morality and responsibility for individuals under MIT and other institutions.

For those who haven't heard the debate a million times, we reiterated it at the salon. Until recently, MIT had a long rush period before the start of classes, in which all incoming freshman took part. Students coming to MIT had temporary housing until the end of rush, when they rank-ordered their dorm choices (or pledged an off-campus living group). Dorms could not reject students, but they informed their self-selection with a dense calendar of activities. Recent changes have eliminated off-campus pledging, secured the selections incoming students make before arriving, and halved the length of rush.

MIT student culture laments these changes and has fought the administration for years. They claim that the immediate and important lifestyle decision incoming freshmen were expected to make benefits the students, and this self-selection process helped foster the intense communities that form the MIT experience for many people. Now, we worry, students will make uninformed decisions and not bother to ever look for the communities that will make them happy, thereby weakening both the groups they find themselves in and those they never found.

MIT appears to be motivated by parents who don't understand the process and complain, by a view of the student as not capable of handling this responsibility, and by an interest in unifying the MIT community to increase alumni donations.


So the student's argument is that MIT as an institution has a responsibility to the interests of its most attached constituents. MIT should serve its students, not their parents. Specifically, it should serve the students who took advantage of this feature of student communities, not those who felt inconvenienced by its bugs. And, it's said, MIT alums' low contributions are a direct reflection of their disapproval of these and similar changes that have plagued the MIT community for dozens of years.

But institutions like MIT are constructs; if they are said to have responsibilities, those responsibilities can be defined in any way. I don't know what MIT's constitution says, but I suspect it wasn't written to protect the rights of the communities that spontaneously arose under it. This is the contract view of morality: MIT's sole responsibility is to fulfill the terms of it's constitutive contract, to which students gave implicit consent by enrolling; if we don't like it, we can leave.

The old debate between Rawls/Hobbes and Nozick/Locke returns. But this view on the dichotomy offers some outs.

We discussed whether the value of a policy be determined objectively. For example, a government does what a majority of its population selects. It seems relatively straight-forward to ask, once the policy is in place, how well-satisfied the population is with the change. Each person's judgment is based on individual values, but, it's claimed, we don't have to ask what those values are to judge the policy.

Except that policies come out of Lakoffian paradigms of values, and their effects go beyond the satisfaction of their stated criteria. Policies are values embodied. Among their unspoken effects are the propagation of a particular view of the world. This also means that policy-making is not a rolling of so many uniquely weighted dice; it is a working out between powerful frameworks of values, and people's allegiances to the battling frameworks matter more than their interests in the policy outcomes.

So consider the role of individuals under the two value frameworks: the contract-motivated and the people-motivated models. Individuals under the contract view are not expected to take responsibility the way they are under the people view. In a world of contracts, a person's sole responsibility is a negative one: to not break their contracts. And correspondingly, MIT has grown more suspicious of student responsibility in recent years. Under the people view, however, the effects of policies are conceived in terms of students' potential for growth, rather than their potential for breaking contract.

Which is all to say that the conception of the individual itself is different (as a moral grower or a contract term), and if the people who run MIT had any respect for the people who are living under it, they would define us better by defining themselves better.

(8 comments | Leave a comment)

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[User Picture]
From:calledtovienna
Date:December 16th, 2006 03:29 pm (UTC)
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MIT may not have a responsibility to East Campus Culture (broadly speaking), but it does have some responsibility to students- after all, their parents give them in MIT's care. By denying the students an extensive Rush and a chance to properly select their living arrangements, they eit those students for the school year- since the Institute is such that people spend a lot of time in their dorms tooling, the eiting is pretty exteme. At the same tme, they complain about the amount of students with mental issues on campus. I don't know- I mean, I'd be pretty depressed if I was stuck in McGregor.

As far as I understand, the main problem is not really parents (I mean, I really don't think that most parents care about the length of Rush for example) but the academic part of the Institute. Between AP tests and "Math Diagnostic" tests (WTF, Physics department, WTF!) REX becomes filled with useless tooling corpses who are incapable of making their choices because they are too busy failing to test out of 8.02.
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From:jrising
Date:December 17th, 2006 07:59 pm (UTC)
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I'm sure it's all related. The institute has wanted to shorten R/O (is it REX now?) for a long time, because ours is so much longer than most colleges, and you just can't fit both the social and academic stuff into that short a time, so they're always stepping on each other's toes.

I think the worse part is that the students this effects most are those who never realize that their experience could be any different. I don't think that most people have experienced being part of a community of their peers until coming to MIT-- there just aren't so many communities that strong in many places, so they come and get battered down with work, and end up thinking that that's all MIT is about.
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From:little_e_
Date:December 17th, 2006 10:44 pm (UTC)
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By denying the students an extensive Rush and a chance to properly select their living arrangements,
I had an extensive rush, and I still ended up in a sucky dorm. As a result, I basically moved to Harvard, where students aren't given any choices in their freshman dorm assignments and yet I still found a better social group and a better place to tool.

Other universities which don't have a rush system aren't eiting their students or even seriously harming them. The students figure out ways to study and hang out with people no matter what.

I mean, I'd be pretty depressed if I was stuck in McGregor. I lived in McGregor for a few weeks. It was pretty nice. I had my own room, the bathroom was decent, and it was closer to campus than my previous dorm. Yes, I had to actually walk to see my friends, but that's life. Now I live in DC and my friends are scattered from LA to Boston.

(I mean, I really don't think that most parents care about the length of Rush for example)Parents care about the length of Rush because it affects them--dropping off your kid and half of their stuff on one day, then tooling around Boston or who knows where for a week, coming back, moving the kid and setting up all of the rest of their stuff is inconvenient to say the least.

REX becomes filled with useless tooling corpses A lot of these people stay useless, tooling corpses.
[User Picture]
From:calledtovienna
Date:December 18th, 2006 04:36 am (UTC)
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>> I had an extensive rush, and I still ended up in a sucky dorm. As a result, I basically moved to Harvard...

I am sorry. Also, presumably we don't want our students moving to Harvard.

>>Other universities which don't have a rush system aren't eiting their students or even seriously harming them.
Most other universities are not as hosing as this one. Or, rather, other universities are not obsessing over the possibility of their students commiting cuicide. MIT is.

>>I lived in McGregor for a few weeks. It was pretty nice. I had my own room, the bathroom was decent, and it was closer to campus than my previous dorm.

Good for you. So?

McGregor is good for some people. It is not good for a lot of other people. Like, for example, me, especially me-as-a-frosh.

>>Parents care about the length of Rush because

Maybe. My parents didn't do any of that- they put me on a train and came up with my stuff a week later. My friends' parents didn't do any of that either- they put them on the plane with the stuff. Or, they dropped off the stuff. Then we had to move it from McGregor(heh) to Random. No parents affected.

>>A lot of these people stay useless, tooling corpses.

I know. But, at the same time, there is a chance that if they explore more during Rush they will either find the group of people they want to live with and not be corpses or, alternativly, be tooling corpses in the same place as other tooling corpses, and not, for example, that-dorm-I-live-in. I was rush chair- I saw this in action. It sucked.
[User Picture]
From:little_e_
Date:December 20th, 2006 02:13 am (UTC)
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Most other universities are not as hosing as this one. Or, rather, other universities are not obsessing over the possibility of their students committing suicide. MIT is.

Last time I checked, people didn't commit suicide because they were unhappy with their living groups or because they missed Rush. I had a friend who tried to commit suicide freshman year because she was mentally ill. If she had lived in a different dorm or among a different group of students, she still would have been mentally ill.

If you seriously think that the existence or non-existence of Rush is going to decide whether students commit suicide or not (or that you're going to convince any administrative people of this after a student managed to kill himself during Rush by drinking too much,) then I'm sorry, but you have not thought this through.

MIT's approach to possibly suicidal students, BTW? It's not changing their living groups around to make them happier. It's kicking them out so they can go live with the abusive families who drove them crazy in the first place.

MIT doesn't give a shit about suicidal students. MIT gives a shit about being sued by the parents of suicidal students. If those parents can say, "Look, you let these communities full of anarchists and druggies and bi-poly pagans and people painting their walls black and blah blah exist and that's what killed my kid, these evil influences you surrounded them with," then MIT is going to have a pretty good interest in getting rid of those communities.

Not that anyone has made that particular argument in a suicide case or anything.
Good for you. So?

So you'd fucking deal. You'd discover that other interesting people do live on campus, find them, and hang out with them. Then you'd lodge a transfer request with housing office and get moved in about a year.

Living in McGregor is not the end of the world, and some of the people there are actually nice, interesting folks who don't spend all of their time trying to match their handbags to their skirts.
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From:little_e_
Date:December 17th, 2006 10:37 pm (UTC)
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I would question why anyone believes that MIT has a 'responsibility' towards anyone. There is, of course, some amount of contractual/legal obligation to not kill or seriously maim people, but beyond that, I just see MIT as an organization which is going to act as much as possible in its own perceived self-interest.

I see no questions here of what responsibilities the students have towards the institution--but after all, if folks from Fifth East can complain that the 'Tute ought to specifically structure events (despite the wishes of the people paying for students to attend rush,) to serve their interests, then why shouldn't the adminis complain that students should alter their lives and do things specifically to make the admins happy? If they have a responsibility to us, then don't we have a responsibility to them? I am sure there are several requests the admins could make from us--such as getting rid of the black walls, eliminating much of the drug use, and generally doing our best to look as much like Harvard as possible.


Of course, I have a sort of ambivalent position towards rush. Despite attending the last real rush, I ended up in a dorm I hated with housemates whom I found filthy and disgusting. I ended up living at Harvard for the majority of my student career--the only exception being the summer when I became an RA at Random because I didn't really have other choicese, and the year my fiance and I spent in grad student family housing. Needless to say, I didn't chose grad housing based on the people--I picked it because I could live comfortably with my fiance, have my own sink and bathroom, and it was well-situated.

A good, well-situated dorm makes for a pleasant life and provides ample space for friends to gather--at Harvard many of my friends were scattered in dorms far and wide, yet we still managed to hang out and have a good time. In fact, my social life at Harvard has always been stronger than my social life at MIT, despite getting to 'rush' my dorm. So I remain unconvinced that Rush is actually superior to other systems of dorm chosing.


In sum, I think that talking about this in terms of 'responsibility' simply doesn't get at the matter at all, because I don't think MIT has a 'responsibility' to keep Fifth East weird any more than Fifth east has a responsibility to make themselves more Harvard-like for the sake of perspective parents. MIT's biggest 'responsibility' (beyond making sure no one dies) is simply its own continuation--and MIT will continue no matter what housing system it has.
[User Picture]
From:jrising
Date:December 19th, 2006 02:07 am (UTC)
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I think I understand your position, but I've always thought you fall into the group of who are mostly outside of the changes. The communities that you care about aren't so strongly affected, and the existence of the communities that were affected didn't affect you.

I don't think that there's a very well-defined "self-interest" for an organization like MIT the way there is for a corporation. And corporations are so often failing to act in their own self-interest that it seems silly use that as an explanation for anything.

I don't think that rush is the best system-- and there are plenty of other ways to find a group of friends. But it is the way that most of the greatest communities at MIT are formed.

I think you're right that for MIT to have a responsibility to us, we should consider what responsibilities we have to it. But I think that many of us pursue our greatest responsibility to MIT-- that is, of making of ourselves dynamic, competent, and grounded people who will effect the world-- through and with the help of these communities. We might have done it another way, if they hadn't been there, but of the other clear options I've encountered, I would choose none over it.
[User Picture]
From:little_e_
Date:December 20th, 2006 01:59 am (UTC)
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Corporations act in the self-interests of the people making the decisions--namely the CEOs. Notice how well CEO pay has done in the past few decades, despite (or perhaps causing) economic performance.

I definitely do *not* fall outside of these sorts of changes, though. The entire reason why I ended up living at Harvard and having almost no social life at MIT was that my Freshman dorm sucked ass. (Not to mention that the walk to Harvard and the walk to Russian House weren't all that different.) I do understand the importance of good living communities/environments at MIT--I just don't see Rush as a particularly more effective method, overall, of achieving this than, say, having each dorm write up a little blurb about itself and sending these to the frosh. "Hi', we're Russian House, we all speak Russian and social life revolves around communal dinners which we cook for each other," would have told me just as much as Rush did (and then I wouldn't have been hit by a Rush bill a couple of months later.)

Random was at least a nice place to visit, even if I never fully felt like a part of the community.

But it is the way that most of the greatest communities at MIT are formed. That's because it currently is the primary way communities are formed.

I must say that I find your last paragraph somewhat silly, given that my own experiences with Rush lead me to believe that the entire process was quite irrelevant to my becoming a 'dynamic, competent, and grounded' person who will affect the world (well, whether I do or not, Rush just doesn't enter into it.) The groups one lives with (or choses to associate with,) can affect such things, but I think you put far too much weight and importance on what is, ultimately, one selection process out of many.

CPW is a great time for students to visit different dorms and get to know their inhabitants. By the end of CPW, I knew I was living in either Random or 'that dorm with the black walls and the dragons.' I was even temped in EC.
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