Once upon a time, I was an undergrad at MIT, living on Burton One and having the time of my life. We did some serious stuff, we did some fun stuff, and we did some seriously fun stuff. (Putting a giant nipple on the Great Dome tops the list). Whether it was jumping out of windows into snowbanks or arguing about the existence of God, life was intense. Others have already explained how most of their learning at MIT happened at odd hours with fellow students from their dorms. Hallelujah.
The MIT administration liked to say (and still likes to say) that getting an education at MIT is like getting a drink from a fire hose. Burton One in the late 70s was like that, and it worked because the administration didn’t mind our getting the carpet soaked. Sure, they slapped our wrists from time to time, but mostly they gave us plenty to drink from 9 to 5, and let us keep drinking, in our own way, into the evening and through the night.
They looked the other way when we had our parties, did our hacks, and acted on our curious impulses. The priorities of the Campus Patrol were always (1) protect us from outsiders, (2) protect us from ourselves, and (3) enforce the rules just enough to keep the Cambridge Police off campus (see (1)). The cops were often our adversaries, but never our enemies.
These days, I’m a math professor at the University of Texas, watching my students NOT have the time of their lives, and watching the UT administration ignore the most important part of student life. I recently attended a long faculty/student workshop about the advantages of residential education, and for over an hour NOT ONE WORD was said about life in the residences! Finally I spoke up, and asked why nobody was talking about this, until the students on the panel explained that almost all of the dorms at UT are just long collections of rooms where students sleep and study. Only at the honors dorm is there any semblance of a social life or a dorm culture, and even there it’s a pale shadow of what dorms are like at MIT.
From my son (class of ’17) I hear talk that the administration is clamping down on the extremes of dorm culture and trying to create more of a “normal” life in the dorms. If true, that’s monumentally sad.