Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Philosophy: Being "Of" Stanford or MIT

TORONTO, ONTARIO - Not long ago, in a job interview, I was asked if I felt I was more "of" Stanford University, where I earned an undergraduate degree, or more "of" the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where I earned a graduate degree. While I had little doubt about my answer, the question does require one to evaluate what being "of" either of those universities means.

While some would say that there may be a difference between "techies" (those studying science and engineering) and "fuzzies" (those studying everything else) at Stanford, I never actually found that to be true at the undergraduate level. Instead, there was simply a very healthy level of curiosity about all subject matters. Many people tended to choose their majors late or change majors as they explored different possibilities, sometimes even across the techie/fuzzie divide. Such exploration was encouraged by policies such as late course dropping deadlines and the ability to take most classes "Pass/No Clue" (actually "No Credit"--there was no "F" grade at Stanford). Department boundaries themselves were loose; it was not uncommon for professors to hold appointments in multiple departments, or switch departments.

Underlying it all was a very clear sense of humanity. I will never forget when famous Chemistry professor Richard Zare publicly stated that he thought students should be allowed to remove one grade from their transcripts "because sometimes people fall in love."

The end result when I graduated was that Stanford graduates tended to be very interdisciplinary in their thinking, willing to draw connections between things that traditionally did not go together, and were very open to any new ideas. Many were quite entrepreneurial and willing to take risks. They wanted to live their lives fully, and wanted others to do so as well.

The vibe at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology was completely different. Departments had very clear boundaries that were not crossed lightly. Once a major was chosen (though that process seemed pretty open), that put one in a group of people that was comparatively isolated. But, what really distinguished MIT was focus on quantitative data. Everything at MIT has a number. I remember sitting a computer in an Athena cluster and marveling that the IP (Internet Protocol) address of the computer in front of me was 18{for MIT}.{building number}.{room number}.{node number}. The order of the whole thing was almost out of control. It's not a coincidence that the original modern concept of hacking--one that includes the ethic of doing no lasting harm--originated at MIT. People really did just enjoy technology there, whether they were just studying how it worked or were hacking it. A student from MIT could credibly sing Kip's Wedding Song from the movie Napoleon Dynamite, honoring technology.

Underlying it all was a fundamental brutality. The "look left, look right, one of the three of you will graduate" routine had been history for decades, but it hadn't been completely purged from the culture. It wasn't a very human place. I'm not sure I heard anyone talk about their feelings the entire time I was on campus.

The end result was graduates who could become very focused on whatever technical task was before them, really analyze what the underlying technologies were doing or could be doing, and then find creative ways to use technologies to do the original task--or something much more exciting and valuable. It is a much more intense, goal-oriented culture.

Compared with the average North American, I might care more about technology, but I didn't care nearly enough to fit in at MIT. I'm not interested in technology that doesn't help me do something practical in life. So, I'm not visionary enough to be a MIT-style entrepreneur. On the other hand, I often don't see boundaries between disciplines. Bringing disparate ideas together to get something done, Stanford-style, is something I could do every day if given the opportunity.

I answered that I was "of" Stanford.

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