Saturday, September 16, 2017

News of the weird, part 1

I read a pair of (unrelated) stories on the Wired website recently that have stuck with me, for probably the wrong reasons.

Warning, ahead of time: these are weird stories. Odd, strange, disturbing, uncomfortable.

But, I think, not incorrect. Nor are they misdirected or misleading. I think this is just an honest assessment of Our Strange Times.

So, forthwith:

A Weird MIT Dorm Dies, and a Crisis Blooms at Colleges

This starts out being a story about how things at MIT are a little odd, which isn't, really, that much of a surprise.

MIT, after all, is the home of the Smoot, a measurement unit for bridge lengths, and is the home of nearly legendary student pranks

But, something about Senior House is not quite right.

This was Senior House, the oldest dormitory on campus, built in 1916 by the architect William Welles Bosworth. For 101 years it welcomed freshman and returning students. Since the ’60s it was a proudly anarchic community of creative misfits and self-described outcasts—the special kind of brilliant oddballs who couldn’t or didn’t want to fit in with the mainstream eggheads at MIT.

If it was just brilliant oddballs, there wouldn't be an issue. Something else happened, and the question that Wired wants to discuss is: is this MIT? Or is this America, changing?

The demise of Senior House is emblematic of a larger shift on campuses across the US. Last year my own alma mater, Wesleyan University, closed down its countercultural house Eclectic, which had existed for a century. A few years ago Caltech kicked students out of its countercultural dorm Ricketts.

And what, exactly, happened at Senior House? It seems it's rather a mystery

the administration refused to disclose what precisely had happened, but Barnhart told the student newspaper The Tech that “we received highly credible reports of unsafe and illegal behavior in Senior House.”

Unsafe and illegal behavior? I am shocked!

Wired suggests that this is all due to risk-adverse administrators:

college tuition has skyrocketed and with it the competition for students who can afford it. Parents footing the bill are paying a lot more attention. The world has become more litigious and more corporate. All of this has led to an atmosphere in which university administrations have little margin for error when it comes to student safety or even bad publicity.
Money. And lawyers. And lawyers, worried about money.

or is it, rather, that you can't legislate weirdness?

groups like Senior House, which define themselves by being different, also run the risk of becoming highly conformist, Packer says. The punk rock movement is a particularly vivid example of this phenomenon. “They self-describe as being different, but from the outside they all look the same,” he says.

I'd hate to think that the weird is gone from college: discard the weird and you discard so much of what is important about school. And Wired seem to feel that way too, forecasting a rather glum future:

When school ends, they’ll head out into the big wide world, where building a nurturing community sometimes feels hard. Maybe the invisible threads of the internet will help bind them. Maybe Senior House alums will meet up in different cities to drink beer and trade stories of Steer Roasts past or find themselves across from each other at tech company boardroom tables, the memory of that shared place a secret tie between them.

One of my correspondents suggested a close parallel between the crackdown on Senior House, and the Ghost Ship backlash.

I think she makes a great point. Yes, these brilliant oddballs make us uncomfortable, and yes, they live on the edge.

But what do we sacrifice when we legislate their conformity?

I'm not betting that the invisible threads of the internet will solve this problem.

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