September/October 2022Vol. XXXV No. 1

Strengths and Weaknesses of an MIT Education

Daniel Jackson

To The Faculty Newsletter:

Thomas Eagar and Alex Slocum nicely outlined some of MIT’s best qualities (“Leadership, Management and Education at MIT, redux“, MIT Faculty Newsletter, May/June 2022). I am not, however, convinced that our supposed “intensity” is a merit, and I believe (as Paul Gray did) that with less “pace and pressure” we’d not only be happier but also more creative.

The problem isn’t a surfeit of passion and energy. It’s that we’ve created a macho culture that encourages our students to pile on so many commitments that many are barely able to keep up. Rather than engaging deeply in their work, they are forced to constantly triage, doing as little as possible to squeak through. The satisfaction of acquiring new skills and ideas, and growing intellectually and emotionally, is replaced at best by a sense of relief at having dodged a bullet by surviving a term with GPA intact, and at worst by a mental health breakdown.

Not all students fall into this trap, and many find a better balance. But such students flourish not because of the “pace and pressure” culture of MIT but in spite of it.

Eagar and Slocum do point to one deficiency of an MIT education. They mention studies finding that our graduates emerge from MIT with less confidence than when they entered, and they suggest that this loss of confidence comes from comparison with others. Many MIT students made exactly this point in the interviews that I shared in my book Portraits of Resilience [], and constant comparison with others may be a major factor in the increase we are seeing in depression and anxiety.

Unlike Eagar and Slocum, however, I do not believe that praising our students more and reminding them that they are the “top 3/10,000” is the antidote to this problem. On the contrary, I fear that it might exacerbate it by emphasizing comparisons even more.

Instead, I believe we need to help our students develop a sense of personal mission and deep satisfaction in the work they do, and the impact they can have in the world; and encourage them to celebrate not their superiority in being better than others but their good fortune in being part of such a talented and creative community.