O Prefácio de Samuel Jay Keyser (MIT) ao meu novo livro

Conheci o autor do prefácio – professor Samuel Keyser – pela Internet, mesmo tendo passado mais de um mês muito próximo de seu ambiente de trabalho no MIT, durante o estágio de pós-doutoramento que lá desenvolvi em junho e julho de 2006.

Pois bem. Falar de hackers e hacking – como o faz Jay Keyser – tem muito a ver com a proposta de texto que aqui trabalho. As necessárias mudanças nos modelos educacionais modernos podem, em muito, ganhar com este modo de enxergar e praticar a educação. Educação, tecnologia e quebra de paradigmas – eis o que podemos aprender com hackers do MIT.

Mas atenção: uso aqui o termo hacker num sentido totalmente oposto ao que a mídia tem exposto ao público nas últimas décadas. Hacker não é um criminoso digital, mas um indivíduo que tem grande interesse pelo conhecimento aprofundado de algum sistema, e nele mergulha até ficar um especialista no mesmo. E é esta característica única que liga tal assunto ao tema da educação.

Sempre me incomodou o baixíssimo desempenho do sistema escolar brasileiro – seja o nível que for. O problema é sempre o mesmo, pois que é estrutural- de base, de alicerce. E é um pouco disto que quero aqui expor, refletir, desenvolver, a partir do prefácio de Keyser, a seguir,


Por Samuel Jay Keyser – professor emérito de Linguística do MIT – Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambrige – MA.

In his inaugural address James Rhyne Killian, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s 10th president famously said: I have suggested, in summary, that an institute of technology must function as a university polarized around science, engineering, and social technology. Jerome Wiesner, MIT’s 13th president, famously said: Getting an education at MIT is like taking a drink from a fire hose. Members of a secret society of MIT students, the hackers, made fun of Wiesner’s statement in this iconic 1991 hack. hack1Is it an accident that hackers chose to make fun of Pres. Wiesner’s comment and not, at least so far, President Killian’s? Both comments are widely quoted at MIT. Wiesner’s comment is certainly visual and easily lends itself to spoofing. But I think there is another perhaps less obvious reason. Killian’s comment touches on something important about the relationship between MIT and its students.

(Photograph from IHTFP Hack Gallery, http://hacks.mit.edu/Hacks/by_year/1991/fire_hydrant/full.html)

MIT has an extremely impressive School of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences. But it is first and foremost a university devoted to science, including the life sciences, and engineering. What makes the relationship between the students and the faculty at MIT so unique is that the value set of the science faculty has been completely internalized by the students. The students want to be them and the faculty wants to clone itself. I doubt students will ever satirize Killian’s comment because, like scripture, it is sacred.

This devotion comes at a price. The students who enter MIT are in the top 5% of their class. After their first year at the Institute 95% of them will no longer occupy that heady place among their peers. In other words they will no longer be as good as they thought they were. For many this can be a very bitter pill to swallow. The students have developed ways of coping with this hard fact of life. As Benjamin Snyder pointed out in his study of MIT student behavior, “The Hidden Curriculum” (1970), students have created their own strategies for navigating one of the toughest undergraduate curriculums in the world. For example, the problem set is a fundamental educational tool at the Institute. To cope with them students keep so-called “bibles,” a comprehensive collection of past problem sets along with the solutions. They consult these bibles religiously. Another strategy is to do the last problem in an assigned problem set first on the assumption that it will be the hardest. The idea is that if they can do the last one, they won’t have to do the others. It saves time to deal with the daunting demands of the other subjects on their dance card.

There is another strategy, virtually unique to MIT, that is a tribute to the Institute’s students, top 5% or not. It is the so-called “hack.” Here students make elaborate fun of the Institute. The first time Pres. Charles Vest, the 15th president of MIT, walked to his office on the second floor of Building 3, he couldn’t find the door. Hackers had constructed a bulletin board that fit perfectly into the doorway like a glove into a hand. The board was covered with posters, announcements, photographs, invitations and offers to give guitar lessons. The president was momentarily disoriented.


Why did the hackers do this? I suggest it is because playing a joke on the Institute helps the students cope with the unalterable fact that the faculty judges them and the students accept these judgments as the truth. It takes the judges down a peg or two. It says, “Maybe we can’t ace your curriculum, but look what we can do.”

Once hackers put a police car on top of the dome of Building 7, a major engineering feat. The dome was several stories above the ground. How did they manage to get a car up there, a car complete with spinning light, a box of doughnuts on the front seat along with a cup of coffee? The police car even had a license plate. Its number was IHTFP. Every student at MIT knows what these initials stand for: I hate this fucking place. But every student also knows it isn’t true. The fact is they love the place. But it isn’t an easy place to love. Being at MIT is like being on the equator at high noon on a cloudless day. You need sunglasses. That’s what the hackers are providing: sunglasses.

Samuel Jay Keyser, professor emeritus, MIT
Cambridge, Massachusetts


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