Boot Camp

by Patrick on November 20, 2011

in Campus Culture, Prof. Winston's Ideas

Professor Patrick Henry Winston ’65, SM ’67, PhD ’70

Our new Dean of Engineering, Ian Waitz, came to the EE&CS lunch the other day, talking about exciting new School of Engineering initiatives. He also reported a sobering survey statistic: MIT students arrive as freshman with extremely high self esteem; they leave with greatly diminished self esteem.

Of course, there are a lot of monster brains around here, in all ranks, and that takes some getting used to for ordinary geniuses.

Enter Vikash Mansinghka ’05, MEng ’09, PhD ’09, a graduated student of mine, who wandered into my office a while back when he was in town. Because I had just read Making the Corps, a terrific book about Parris Island, by Thomas Ricks, we started comparing MIT to boot camp. Much is the same: not much sleep, bonding through working and suffering together, demanding authority figures, and occasional humiliation (in our case, via quizzes).

The difference is, the Marines don’t just take the recruits apart; they put them back together such that they end up with increased self esteem. They seem to know what they are doing down there in South Carolina. Their vision, conspicuously displayed on their website, is:

We are a cohesive team of Marines, Sailors, and Civilians committed to upholding the legacy and operational relevance of the Corps by attracting qualified young men and women and transforming them mentally, physically and morally into U.S. Marines.

 

So, “Vikash,” I said, “they pound duty, honor, country, and that sort of thing into the recruits. What should we pound into our students?  Without hesitation, he replied,

You can do it

Only you can do it

You can’t do it alone

Pretty good, I think. Now we just have to figure out how to get a message like that across, along with Newton’s laws and Maxwell’s equations.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

John Evans November 21, 2011 at 6:44 pm

Yeah, but boot camp features physical stress and privation, restriction of behavior, restriction of information, restriction of thought and restriction of emotion. In other words, it’s brainwashing. MIT doesn’t have any of that—at least, it’s not *enforced*; you may choose to go without sleep, but only if you want to work hard—nobody wakes you up at dawn. You’re surrounded by an academic community, but you can go hang out in Boston any time you want.

It may be worthwhile to consider teaching values to students, but MIT can’t “pound them in” the way the Marines do, nor should it.

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Frank Modica '88 November 21, 2011 at 7:48 pm

I certainly identify with the diminished self-esteem at graduation cited in the post. I spent four years getting my brains bashed in, and graduated more confident in what I didn’t know rather than what I did know. Luckily, I went right to work, and saw what I could accomplish.

“Boot Camp” may be the wrong term to use to describe the “how” of producing a graduate confident in his/her abilities. But there is no denying that more can be done to help graduates see how truly far they have come since their high school graduation. The takeaway of “Boot Camp” is not the negatives listed in the previous feedback, but the process where students are taught, challenged, and then shown the progress they have made. It is perhaps easier to demonstrate with physical tasks (I couldn’t climb the wall at the start of boot camp, now I can.), but an analogous process can be developed .

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Kenneth P. Katz November 22, 2011 at 12:51 am

MIT is not the military, however it similarly uses stress, privation and difficult challenges to create a belief that one is a member of an elite who is prepared to tackle difficult missions.

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Alan Hodgkinson November 22, 2011 at 2:16 pm

If lowered self esteem equates to loss of arrogance and gain of humility, then perhaps that’s not such a bad thing. Many come to MIT from the absolute top of their their high school, and half of them find themselves below average at MIT. This is reality, and it is delusional not to recognize and accept it. 90% of MIT students are below MIT’s top 10% and I personally think that your challenge is to get people to accept and be comfortable with that fact. This requires a support network (older students, tutors, counsellors, etc.).

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Timothy J. Maloney '71 November 22, 2011 at 8:07 pm

There’s nothing that gets one thinking about this topic more than being a new undergrad student at MIT in the late 1960s during the Vietnam War and the draft. In my case, I was fresh from the Midwest, from a family whose men had all served in WWII, and many of my high school classmates and relatives had joined the military or had been drafted recently. I marvelled at how the military could take some pretty low-achieving raw material and actually get them to do a good job and feel good about it, mostly through discipline and proper control of their environment. Leave the issue of the Vietnam War aside for a moment and note the training methods, I told myself, the methods do work. For me, this process started in high school with a kind of self-inflicted boot camp on my part, as I wanted to escape my parents and go to a college nobody else in the family had attended. Outside the cultural envelope, you might say–notice that harnessing teenage rebellion is helpful when you can work that in, too. The boot camp mentality is easiest to embrace when, as a young person, you’ve staked out some territory you want to call your own, but you don’t own it yet, you have to make the grade; achievement is required. You’ll do well if you can internalize this, let it influence your emotions, and use your imagination to make it happen.

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