We recently received an email announcing a Jan. 30 workshop at our alma mater, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, about "class awareness." This is not about remembering when you were supposed to be in organic chemistry lab; it is concerned with acquiring skills to "raise awareness, shift cultural beliefs about social class, build cross-class solidarity," and so on.
We are baffled. It has been decades since we walked what was called the "infinite corridor" in M.I.T.'s main building, whose facade had chiseled into to it the names of science's pantheon: Aristotle, Pasteur, Faraday, Kepler, Lavoisier, Darwin, and so on. But the only class system at the "'tute" that we recall was the division between hyper-nerds and everyone else.
We two were fraternity brothers, and we had minimal knowledge of the financial status of our brothers' families. We knew everyone's geographical origins, and their majors. Those were our measures of diversity.
We could not conceive that students accomplished enough to attend M.I.T. could have suffered "class oppression" or anything remotely resembling it. Certainly, we experienced nothing of the sort. In fact, a preoccupation with anything other than studying or getting dates for the approaching weekend was rare. (We were there during the Vietnam War, and while anti-war sentiments boiled over at places like Harvard, Columbia, and Berkeley, our campus continued operating with minimal disruption.)
So why are class distinctions a subject that today is worthy of a workshop? We can only surmise that at a school as merit-based as M.I.T., the workshop will address insecurities inculcated into students before they arrived in Cambridge.
Both of us came from families of modest means — Andy in Manhattan and Henry in Philadelphia. We were both blessed with an aptitude for math and science, and we were admitted to M.I.T. on the basis of merit, as there was no other way. From our experience, we can also tell you that if you lacked the right abilities, you did not want to be at M.I.T. Everybody, including the political science and humanities majors, had to pass the onerous "institute requirements," which included four semesters of math beyond calculus, four of physics, and one of chemistry. And then, you'd begin courses in your major.
In our respective high schools, class stratifications tended toward being cool, athletic, or nerdy, but they did not seem to correlate with "class," or "caste." So, moving on to college, we simply had no sense of class distinctions, and nothing at M.I.T. changed that mindset. Our classmates seemed to share that attitude.
Clearly, young adults today are more conscious of class barriers. Whether that derives from parents, peers, or social media — or some combination — we have no idea. But we sympathize with them, because they are apparently experiencing a source of anxiety and discomfiture that we didn't.
The notice of the workshop had a link to the sponsoring entity, something called " Class Action," which led to a feature article called, "Who's behind rich people pretending to be self-made?" by Maia Szalavitz. That title seems to imply that only inheritance generates wealth.
The major message of the article was something called "Effort/Reward Imbalance," the point of which was that hard work is not always rewarded, and some people get rewards in excess of those justified by their efforts. That may be true for winners of a national lottery, but the flaw in the logic of the article is that it fails to take into account fundamental abilities and, for that matter, external influences.
Sometimes, people earn rewards simply by being smarter, wiser, cleverer, more collaborative, or simply luckier than others. It would be nice if all people were equally gifted with intellect, motivation, interpersonal skills, and so on, but that isn't reality, no matter how much some people wish it were. It goes hand-in-hand with "everybody gets a trophy."
We fear that the folly of that mindset is pervasive today, and that by denying variance in abilities, disparate outcomes become viewed as prima facie evidence of discrimination on the basis of class, race, gender, and more — that is, victimhood. That worldview must play a significant role in shaping young adults' self-image.
Rather than placing stress on achievement, many young people are constantly hearing about how their identities, writ broadly, can limit them. At M.I.T., there were students who were better at academics and athletics than we, and also some with more sophistication and social graces. But we never felt like victims. We were just trying to do our best and to take full advantage of what was possibly the best education to be had anywhere on the planet. M.I.T. was replete with Nobel laureates and other scientists and engineers at the pinnacle of their respective fields.
If the workshop on class awareness had been offered back then, we would have been puzzled — as we are now — wondering what place it had among such a collection of the best scientific minds of their generation. Certainly, there are settings in which class distinctions are manifest, but we believe that colleges should focus on individuals' maximizing their achievements in the context of their strengths. They should be treating feelings of inferiority and victimhood that arrive at school as the useless baggage that it is.
We urge M.I.T. to cancel this workshop. Instead, how about one on new nuclear reactor designs or gene editing?
Andrew I. Fillat, the co-inventor of relational databases, spent his career in technology venture capital and information technology companies. Henry I. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is a Senior Fellow at the Pacific Research Institute. Both were undergraduates at M.I.T.