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Unwritten Rules

Half a century ago, a psychiatrist at MIT put the whole student body on the couch.
April 25, 2012

In the fall of 1966, parents of college students packed an auditorium at Boston’s Beth Israel Hospital as experts discussed the social and cultural atmosphere on campuses. The generation gap was the main topic of the evening, and the mood was captured by a feeble joke from Dana Farnsworth, head of Harvard’s health service, who had mistaken a long-haired male student for a female student and the student’s mother for his father.

But Benson Snyder, Farnsworth’s colleague down Mass. Ave., read a poem written by a computer that an MIT student had programmed. And though he too might have played the room for laughs, Snyder presented it seriously as a student’s earnest and creative attempt to make order of a chaotic world.

Since arriving at MIT in 1959, Snyder had shown an intensely sympathetic interest in how students negotiated their way through one of the world’s most demanding universities. While serving as chief psychiatrist and later as dean for Institute relations, he developed a theory of what he called the “hidden curriculum,” the unwritten rules and expectations students had to adapt to. These, he argued, were often more important than the requirements found in the course catalogue and the student handbook.

In typical MIT fashion, Snyder put his theory to an empirical test, turning the campus into his laboratory. First, his team collected data on 200 variables for each of the 893 students in the entering class of 1965 and followed those students down 277 different paths they took through MIT’s courses. ­Snyder then used the data to develop a general demographic profile of the student body and to glean more specific insights into student life at MIT. By correlating students’ majors with visits to the medical center, for example, he charted the “epidemiology of strain” at the Institute. He found that 63 percent of physics majors visited the center during their final semester compared with 44 percent of electrical-engineering majors, whose medical-­center admissions peaked as freshmen.

But the core of Snyder’s analysis was qualitative, the product of extensive interviews documenting how students handled the demands of an education famously likened to drinking from a fire hose. A crucial lesson of the hidden curriculum was that there simply was not enough time in the day for students to do everything asked of them, so they needed to practice “selective negligence.” Some reported that creative thinking and mastery of a subject were beside the point in certain classes, where the cleverest students just figured out the minimum they had to do for an acceptable grade. “Thus alienation becomes concealed behind a coat and tie or behind attendance at class,” Snyder’s report concluded. “It is as much a form of alienation—perhaps an even more profound manifestation of alienation—than any student sit-in.”

One study subject, who had breezed through high school on raw intelligence, crumbled when faced with his first MIT quiz. He tried increasingly desperate and irrational measures to cope, even sleeping with his textbooks under his pillow in hopes that the knowledge would seep through by osmosis.

Even those who successfully learned to play the game described their experience to Snyder with the pride of combat veterans. As one senior put it: “A battle all the way through … I was able to fight and I raked my brain to the bone, but you might have seen your buddy shot to pieces.”

By 1971, when Snyder published his widely acclaimed book The Hidden Curriculum, MIT had started to address many of the issues his research raised. Margaret MacVicar ’65, who’d worked on Snyder’s study, founded the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program in 1969 to give more hands-on experience to students accustomed to the seemingly endless grind of problem sets and exams.

As Snyder wrote in 1970 to a colleague in Puerto Rico: “There is some occasion for modest optimism for us here at MIT in the way in which faculty, students, and administrators have been able to keep the educational tasks in sight. We have not been blinded completely by today’s politics.”

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