I went to a college which had an exchange program with MIT. There was this one MIT student who used to hang around my dorm sometimes — he dated two different women on the same floor (generally considered tacky, but then again, he didn’t seem to care). He was… unique.
His senior year he occasionally engaged in performance art — I’m not sure if this was out of his own artistic impulses or for some class or simply because he could. On one occasion he sat under a box on the Quad to see what people were saying about the box as they walked past. Another time he hung an effigy of himself in front of the art building, all the while standing next to the effigy wearing identical clothes. After that last stunt, Campus Police escorted him off the campus and told him that he would be arrested if they ever saw him again.
He later went on to be a leading Internet entreprenuer and activist.*
In the rock opera Rent, Tom Collins is a computer genius and anarchist who gets kicked out of MIT for “reprogramming [their] virtual reality equipment to read ‘Actual reality! ACT UP! Fight AIDS!'” Aside from the technical and security issues involved, I have absolutely no doubt that could happen. I have met geek anarchists.**
Many geeks are anarchists at heart.
I have yet to meet a geek who did not enjoy creatively breaking things. Rules? We don’t need no stinkin’ rules, beyond those imposed by Newton and Einstein. Purpose? Do we need a purpose to do these things? Nah. It is enough, as Edmund Hillary allegedly said of Everest, that they are there.
Mostly, there is also a desire to figure out how to make things work better. But not always. Sometimes there is simply a desire to thumb one’s nose at authority or one’s opposition. Engineering schools, especially Cal Tech, have made the college prank into an art form, with the zenith being Cal Tech’s Great Rose Bowl Hoax of 1961.
Sometimes there is the simple joy of … explosions. Or smashing things. Or dropping objects from large heights — the messier the better. (Pumpkins work very nicely in this regard.)
A little healthy anarchy is a good thing: breaking the status quo can lead to new and better technology, and often greater understanding about how the world around us works. People who say “Why can’t the system (whether the system is technological or social) do this?” and don’t accept “because it can’t” as an answer often end up creating new systems that do do “this.”
In America, we have been lamenting the fact that our students are falling behind in math and science. We bemoan the threat that this poses to our position as a leader in technological development, when in fact there is a greater threat to our ability to turn out scientists and engineers looming on the horizon.
The threat to our next generation of technical innovation is… our current goal of creating students who can give the right answers, rather than creating ones who can ask the best questions. We prepare, and test, and test again to a fare-thee-well, to show how well our kids are being taught the concepts … on the standardized tests.
Quick — which is easier to teach quickly, math facts, or critical thinking skills? Which is easier to test?
And which is less threatening to the adults in charge?
Not to mention that nonconformity is not tolerated as it once was. Zero-tolerance is the watchword, and while it is ostensibly aimed at drugs and violence, its implementation is in many places taking on insane overtones. In 2001, the American Bar Association argued that zero-tolerance policies basically made students into criminals, by taking methods originally intended to control adult criminal offenders and applying them to children. There have been instances of children being charged with “making terrorist threats” for yelling at other children in the lunchroom, and being arrested for writing papers deemed too scary or violent.
Schools do need to keep students safe, and we do need to assess how our schools are performing. But in many cases it seems that we as a society have abdicated our critical thinking skills — or as it used to be known, plain common sense — to rely on arbitrary brightline rules devoid of any real room for contextual evaluation. It saves us from thinking, from making difficult calls, from having to support our decisions. And yes, the vaunted litigiousness of American society accounts for some of this, but not all: zero-tolerance policies are, in some cases, being so rigidly and ridiculously enforced that they invite litigation from students unfairly expelled.
We seek to mold students who are quiet, studious, never question authority, and are good test-takers. The danger is that we might succeed too well.
We can’t afford to lose that small, healthy streak of anarchy.
*No, I’m not going to identify him. I don’t think this story would get me into any trouble — unless he’s changed drastically, he has a wicked sense of humor — but I really would rather not find out. (And he may well have told the story himself somewhere, but I’m not going to check.)
** I lived one summer in Senior House, at MIT. Admittedly, this was twenty-five years ago, but even then it prided itself on its anarchistic tendencies. Or at least its strangeness. The first time I saw the place, there was a fire in the courtyard (as there often is). Several people were rolling a large wooden spool — the type used by the phone company for cable — across the fire. “How stupid,” I thought. “That thing’s going to catch.” (Not realizing, of course, that seeing how long it took for the thing to catch fire was the whole point of the exercise.) It wasn’t until I got much closer that I noticed that there was a person curled up inside the spool as it was being rolled over the fire. It was that sort of place.