Beyond the Classroom
Why I Live With Students . . . .
MIT, like all institutions of higher education, has a basic mandate to teach our students how to engage in critical thinking, to communicate clearly, to conduct research, to master different modes of analysis, and to incorporate the most accurate information known to us about the workings of both the physical universe and the social world we inhabit within it. This program of study takes place in classrooms large and small, in laboratories, between the pages of books, and increasingly, in the digital environment and on a global scale. If every student who passed over our threshold were to master these skills we would be very pleased indeed.
Nonetheless, as a residential institution we have an opportunity to cultivate yet another quality that may well be of equal or even greater importance for the lives of our students than just the skills promoted by an education as conventionally understood: the ability to make good decisions in matters of everyday life, especially in cases where information is incomplete, or competing goods are clearly at stake.
This quality is sometimes dignified as discernment, at other times trivialized as common sense, as if it were easy to come by. But in all cases it represents the ability to take what we know and/or know how to do, and to apply that information to the hundreds of decisions, big and small, that we must make every day; and to do so in a way that promotes the values to which we collectively subscribe, whether fairness, loyalty, honor, kindness, empathy, efficiency, honesty, or courage, among others, and in varying degrees of importance for different people, of course.
Yet wisdom -- for that is the essence of what I have in mind here – is not easy to teach. The claims of countless self-help gurus notwithstanding, there are not “five easy steps to a new and wiser you” that can be codified for dissemination on the page or in a lecture. Moreover, we know from our experience working with the incredibly smart students it is our privilege to teach at MIT, that being smart is not by itself enough to make one wise. Moreover, to be smart but not wise can actually be a dangerous thing, as our capacity to harm is so often inextricably linked with the capaciousness of our intellect.
Wisdom, then, is much in demand and not easily come by. Most fruitfully it is born of experience, either our own (the so-called “school of hard knocks”) or that of others made accessible to us. We only get better at making difficult decisions if we watch other people make them (preferably well) and then practice making our own. The study of history or literature can offer us entrée into this quest, since our most enduring stories almost always feature the struggle to make wise decisions in the face of ambiguity, uncertainty, and miscommunication. But it can be even more powerful when we can consult directly with those more experienced than ourselves, especially if the choice we face will have real consequences and be responded to by people with discordant interests and alternative points of view to our own.
All this is to suggest then that if we want to cultivate wisdom in our students – and surely we do – we have to employ a broader teaching model than our usual one centered on the classroom. We have to situate ourselves into those places where students enjoy the agency prerequisite to decision-making.
While this does sometimes happen in the classroom or perhaps the project laboratory, my experience as a housemaster suggests to me that it occurs most frequently for students in their co-curricular groups, their living environments, and in the context of their personal pursuits. These are the places where their most challenging “case studies” are likely to arise. If the faculty is not ever present in these places, we will not be the ones who are turned to for advice, or whose example will be consulted for emulation. If they do not see us struggle (and sometimes fail) to make difficult judgments of our own, they may not even appreciate how daunting the task they face might be. If they only meet us in the classroom, usually a highly orchestrated and certainly a time-limited context for social interaction, they are unlikely to ever see us engaged in the fraught work of value-laden decision-making.
If, on the other hand, we live amongst our students, and participate in their activities and projects, we will inevitably find ourselves together at moments that really matter to students on an interpersonal and sometimes profoundly private level, when the right thing to do is not necessarily obvious, and the facts do not speak for themselves. We will be confronted together by ethical conundrums, by values in conflict with each other, by persons that require an empathy that is not easily forthcoming. We will struggle together to know when it is best to hang tough in a difficult situation, and when to move on for what look like greener pastures, but of course might not be. Side-by-side we will have to discern when to complain (self-righteously or not) and when to forebear; when it is appropriately compassionate to help clean up someone else’s mess, and when we ought to let them feel the full brunt of their behavior; when to promote the needs of the community over those of the individual and vice versa; when to celebrate difference and when to cultivate social norms; how to distinguish love that is exuberant and uplifting from an obsession that is smothering or even frightening; and how to make rules that protect the vulnerable without stifling those with strength, talent, and passion.
Already in the fall semester of this academic year, every one of those questions has pressed itself upon a student with enough urgency to send them to my doorstep, and most more than once. It is in the conversations triggered by those moments that I can most significantly contribute to the store of experience that they will need to draw upon as they take the many skills they acquire in their MIT education out into a complex world, a world that needs them to be as smart as they can be, but also desperately needs them to be wise.
Anne McCants and her husband Bill served as the Housemasters of Green Hall between 1992 and 2002, and are currently serving in this capacity in Burton Conner.