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Only at MIT…

July 10th, 2009 · 37 comments

From Drinking to Ulcers

Earlier this week, I stumbled across the following letter to the editor, published in the New York Times. It was written in response to an editorial, printed on June 30th, about tackling the binge drinking problem on college campuses.

To the Editor:

The solution to binge drinking problems on campuses is simple: college curriculums need to be more rigorous. If college programs required their students to put in a significant number of hours per week doing work related to their classes, campus drinking would soon find itself limited to one or two nights a week.

Furthermore, those few nights a week would be more moderate, since the students would drink knowing that they needed to get up in the morning and keep hacking away at that thermodynamics problem set.

I suspect that one of the main reasons students who aren’t in college drink less than college students is that they have to get up in the morning and go to work at a real job, where they are accountable for their behavior.

Caroline Figgatt
Munich, July 1, 2009

The writer is a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

What caught my attention, of course, was the biographical sentence at the end of the letter. Only an MIT student would think that the answer to a social problem is to work people too hard to have time to develop the problem.

At first, I found this note amusing, but this soon gave away to a darker thought: why do schools like MIT allow this type of mindset to not only exist, but become the norm? If a large percentage of the student population here were becoming physically injured in unsafe campus buildings, or falling ill due to a disease outbreak, the administration would rush to stamp out the problem. But the issues of the mind that are common here — unhappiness, detachment, chronic stress — are viewed with a tinge of nostalgia, or, secretly, approved as part of what makes MIT unique.

Based on the daily e-mails I receive from students across the country, it seems like this indifference is endemic. Campuses might invest in mental health programs to catch the worst of the sufferers when they make their fall, but there’s little effort to prevent these falls in the first place, or, more importantly, impede the slide into tolerable unhappiness that many students silently accept.

I’m curious about your thoughts. What’s your experience with stress on your college campus, and how your school handles the issue?

37 thoughts on “Only at MIT…

  1. Gideon says:

    That is interesting, and not at all a surprising answer from a certain type of person (lots of that in med school, too!)

    But it does bring up a point – students are incredibly stressed out but students are also… well, stupider. I’ve had quite a few conversations with professors (especially when I was TAing) about how they couldn’t assign texts they used (say 20 years ago) to because it was just too much for the students. In the classes I lectured it was like talking to stones – the students didn’t know how to read, didn’t know how to think.

    But more work isn’t the answer… most people are working so much that they need these ‘binges’ (well, they need release and that is the option most of them perceive) but it is clear that we need to create an environment that is challenging but our expectations of students doesn’t lead to burn-out.

  2. In the Netherlands we don’t have the real campuses, but when you have stress, you can always go talk to your mentor. He (and you) will find out the cause of the stress and tries to solve the stress problem.

    But as students don’t like to go to their mentor with this problem, you are most of the times on yourself.

    I don’t have any experience with it though, this is only what I know about it.

  3. Honestb says:

    The letter writer couldn’t be wronger. I’m in a very non-rigorous arts program (I mean, we work, but the workload is pretty manageable). Most of my fellow students rarely drink, and when they do, they do so in moderation. On the other hand, Engineering students often have assignments pile up, sometimes with very little notice, and the sheer amount of work they have to do eclipses anything in arts programs. Not to mention they’re stuck with a standard 6 courses a semester (everyone else at my school does 5). Guess who binge drinks the most at pretty much any university I’ve heard of? Engineers.

    I like the arts class model – where you have one enourmous assignment that dominates the term. Weekly assigments in each class would drive me insane – and quite possibly to drink. Some people are the other way – they need structured due dates to get to work – but I think learning to tackle something big is an important skill.

    IMHO, leisure time is an important part of higher learning, and it’s something that’s unfortunately dissapearing as more and more people have no choice but to work their way through school. You need to do hard work to succeed in school, but you also need time to mull it over, and to relax.

    It’s just like physical exercise – if you overtrain, you’re not building muscle, just breaking it down. Muscle grows when you rest. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been engaged in something totally not school related and had an “aha” moment about a paper or something and rushed to write my idea down. It’s an important part of how I work.

  4. Kate says:

    Drinking isn’t as popular at MIT as drugs, particularly uppers. Alcohol is a downer, it’s no wonder it’s not popular with overambitious students.

  5. Michael says:

    This student has it all wrong. Most students don’t even have the time to do what they are doing now. So instead they find ways to get around it, like cheating and only reading 1/5 of the reading material. And this leads to what Gideon just said, stupid students (or at least perceived to be stupid).

    As Honestb said, leisure time is important for learning. You can read all the books in the world and do hundreds of problem sets; but if you don’t spend time to relax and think for yourself, you will never excel.

  6. Tassia says:

    Don’t underestimate the power of group / peer pressure to overdrink. While I’m sure there are quite a few who drink because they are unhappy, many (imo) drink (and drink to absurd excess) because they are pressured into it. Sometimes it seems bullied into it. Social / peer pressure can be remarkably powerful and the need for acceptance can trump good sense. I’m not sure anyone but those involved can change that.

  7. sdc says:

    I wouldn’t go as far as to say this student is completely wrong. Not sure where you guys go to school — or even if you do 🙂 – but in some environments it IS leisure time that lets students drink excessively. If it’s a Wednesday night and you have absolutely nothing on your plate, most students will NOT be like, “Let me use my time to think some more about Chaucer for that English class I’m taking” especially if their friends are all going out for the weekly “Wet Wednesdays.”

    That being said, I agree that more work doesn’t solve the root cause of the problem.

    I’m not sure what the root cause of the problem may be. From my experience, a lot of it points to culture. In college, there’s not much else to do but work or play. And when it comes to play, the alcohol culture is idealized. Drinking (or drugs, depending on who you hang out with) is portrayed as “what you do” to have fun. Many students have a high polarized world-view about what’s normal: All-nighters for papers. All-day beer Olympics. Library marathons. And getting hammered/smashed/wasted after.

  8. vtamethodman says:

    I would say start drinking moderatly at earlier ages. In Canada we start drinking early (particularly in the french regions.) I personally feel that the respect I gained through my high school years allowed me to stop overindulging in alcohol like some of my other fellow undergraduates students.

  9. Evan Meagher says:

    I agree with Gideon. Although I don’t often partake in excessive drinking, a number of my friends will spend a Friday evening after a remarkably strenuous week getting plastered. These friends are not wayward frat cats — they’re all solid students taking rigorous science and engineering loads.

    It all boils down to how you choose to release stress. Those you work hard play hard when they’re done. I personally tend toward chill evenings of music and friends. Others prefer animalistic displays of alcohol consumption.

  10. Study Hacks says:

    What do you guys think of Stanford’s model, which is, more or less, to legalize alcohol consumption on campus. For example, any student can drink at the campus bars, etc. (Their theory being that if it’s in the open, it might lose some of its rebellious allure…)

  11. MCG says:

    Perhaps you are too hard on Caroline Figgatt. Cal, do you happen to have statistics on heavy drinking and drugs at MIT versus Harvard? I saw statistics a number of years ago that put MIT at the bottom of a list of Massachusetts universities for abuses and Harvard at the top. If such numbers still hold, then Caroline Figgatt may be right, at least to this extent, that the most powerful correlation with alcohol and drug abuse may be students’ perceived amount of free time.

  12. MCG says:

    Hmm. I can’t remember. Did those comparisons also include venereal disease?

  13. Sufficient free time while in college is critical. I posit that academia has many purposes, and learning about yourself and learning how to interact with other people is ranked above the degree that you probably won’t use in your career after school (or will be rendered obsolete).

    And Cal, regarding the Stanford move, I think it would have to be something that is closely monitored, b/c while it could work, it could backfire…like hell.

  14. Corina says:

    Binge drinking is a typical US college problem because your alcohol laws are so strict and you have so many restrictions, making alcohol all the more attractive.

    I study in Switzerland, at one of the most demanding technical universities in Europe and binge drinking is not an issue here. The reason is that we have free access to alcohol, combined with a strict curriculum. There are a couple of bars on campus that sell alcohol all day long, to all students.

    It’s the same with Marijuana consumption in the Netherlands, tourists flock there and ‘binge smoke’, whereas for the Dutch themselves I think it’s pretty much a non-issue, the way alcohol is at my university.

    I think more work is the wrong answer to the US college binge drinking problem, the better one is making alcohol freely available.

  15. Corina says:

    And 21, as the legal drinking age is ridiculous, no offense. It definitely doesn’t help.

  16. Peadar Coyle says:

    Its a difficult issue, because when I studied at Bristol University, there was a lot of student expectation to get good grades etc, and one of the ways to cope with that was to go to a sleazy bar on a monday night (age of drinking in the UK is 18) and get absolutely wasted. Drugs were popular too with lots of students, many flocking to discover themselves at parties. I think this may all be linked to the idea of deep procrastination that Calvin has elucidated on before, if we feel forced to do a lot of assignments then we drink out of peer pressure, to have fun and to cope with the problems of expectation. However a lot of people get over these things by say the age of 22, and right now all I want to do is work on things that fascinate me. Perhaps the hedonism of America and the UK is one of the reasons, we all expect to be having an enjoyable time all the time. To be honest it was a badge of honour in College to do all nighters etc. To be studying in the computer room at 3am in the morning. As someone who underperformed in his degree, I feel a deep shame about not living up to my potential, but I tink unless we truly figure out our missions in life we can’t really understand why we are doing things, and then we tend to unhappiness.
    Theres a lot in here Calvin, I hope you can elucidate on it better than I can.

  17. Corina says:

    It might be also a cultural thing indeed.
    Here (at ETH Zürich) you will be looked down at if you are doing all-nighters, seem stressed out and generally if you are not in control of you stuff (studying, life etc.). Whereas you will be respected if you are good in your field of study, doing sports, are relaxed and have a decent amount of partying (few manage). Generally the relaxed superstar thing Cal is advocating, which seems very reasonable to me.

    I find that in general students here are very mature from early on (and I notice this kind of stuff because I’m not from Switzerland), and the culture of the school is to treat them as such (incl. the access to alcohol thing). I don’t find peer pressure to really be an issue here.
    Also, I strongly suspect the grades are very ‘deflated’ in comparison to the US, the aquivalent of a US B would be a very high grade here. I think this not only has students studying constantly (in order to pass), but keeps their egos in check also. If (in the US) you study very hard for a few days, at the and of which you get an A, then you get yourself wasted for your four day marathon/work and your perceived greatness etc. This is an emotional rollercoaster. Then you start over.
    Here you will study for a whole semester, grades are 100% end of semester exams, and you have to keep yourself pretty much in check for long periods of time, you cannot allow yourself to forget what you learned. Therefore it’s a lot less a weekly rollercoaster with the almost instant (grade, binge drinking) gratification.

  18. RT Wolf says:

    MIT student is almost certainly wrong. First, here isn’t enough information (such as which schools have highest vs lowest consumption rates and hard numbers). The MIT student hsa made an inference which I think is unjustified. Just because her school has a difficult courseload and low binge drinking (though this may be conjecture rather than actual numbers) doesn’t mean one is related to the other.

    I suspect that MIT students are the kind of people less likely to drink heavily, by being more conscientious and hard working and smarter. She mentions students won’t drink more because htey’ve got work in the morning, while i know a numbre of students who are unconscientious enough ot drink heavily and still get up in the morning to work on that assignment.

    More psychology, numbers and reasoned thinking is necessary.

  19. Harish says:

    The MIT student definitely isn’t completely wrong. If you’ve ever played with a four year old, you know that the only reason they are troublesome little things, is that they have time to be troublesome little things. Elementary school teachers hardly make an attempt to consume and enlighten a kid’s mind. Rather, they instruct the bare minimum, and the children have endless amounts of time to make trouble. I don’t wish that children could not have the freedom of time and play, but I do believe that if teachers appealed closer to their curiosity and intellectual pursuits, they certainly would spend more time learning about why the world spins, rather than pooping on the neighbors yard.

    The same concept applies to college, sadly. The less intellectually stimulated students are, the less likely they are to spend their time on more productive pursuits… i.e. engineering your own go-kart grocery cart for sake of a popular MIT example. The less intellectually stimulated students are, the more likely they are to corrupt their livers and die of alcohol poisoning.

    RT Wolf, I must completely disagree with your idea that ‘since MIT students are smarter, they are less likely to drink heavily.’ Smarter is the most vague, unquantifiable, and irrationally thought out word you could possibly use. People have different strengths based on their raising, and regardless of how your locale defines the word smart, it’s still a socially defined umbrella term. Drinking is definitely a cultural thing, and you’ll find that even the ‘smartest’ kids at the party schools drink along with their peers.

  20. Jonas says:

    Only an MIT student would think that the answer to a social problem is to work people too hard to have time to develop the problem.

    Hahahahaha.

  21. Terri says:

    I graduated from MIT in 2003, but I think my impressions aren’t too out-of-date. I find that if you work hard for idealism (the glory of science and technology) rather than money, you find yourself digging even deeper into your idealism, as a way to combat feelings of depression, etc. So the MIT student’s leter is not surprising.

    As for why does MIT allow this “culture” to flourish, I don’t see anything wrong with it as long as people know what they’re getting into. People choose to go to MIT over many other options. It’s not like Japan where cramming for university entrance exams is forced upon high school students. Everyone has their own notion of what constitutes a balanced life.

    Living a “hard core” working life is much like engaging in an extreme sport. It’s exhilarating and dangerous, but that certainly doesn’t stop people. I kind of like it.

    I would be more concerned if Caroline (the letter writer) was so brainwashed that she believed the “MIT way” was the only “right” way to live life.

  22. James says:

    I think it all depends on the type of student on campus. MIT is famous for its technical and engineering programs, attracting the best scientific students. I’m guessing that they aren’t inclined towards drinking to begin with, since they probably have bigger goals in mind. That probably accounts for the low alcohol abuse statistcs in MIT.

    On the other hand, in more social campuses (the party schools and high-class society unis like Harvard), adding more work will backfire because, as so many commenters pointed out, drinking in campuses is a cultural thing. If the accepted/popular method of stress relief on a campus was binge drinking, then adding unnecessary course work will lead to higher rates of alcohol abuse.

  23. Pratik says:

    Haha, this makes sense in theory but then people wouldn’t want to go to colleges that punished their lives through massive amounts of work because they would hate their time there. I’m a big believer in “work hard, play hard” so I really like how there are off and on weeks at my school (Top 25) because it enables us to get engaged in extracurriculars, not to mention a good party every once in a while.

  24. Study Hacks says:

    It might be also a cultural thing indeed.
    Here (at ETH Zürich) you will be looked down at if you are doing all-nighters, seem stressed out and generally if you are not in control of you stuff (studying, life etc.). Whereas you will be respected if you are good in your field of study, doing sports, are relaxed and have a decent amount of partying (few manage). Generally the relaxed superstar thing Cal is advocating, which seems very reasonable to me.

    I like the sound of ETH! I’ve actually visited, and know quite a few grad students/faculty their from the CS department. They’re all top quality, which helps emphasize the distinction between overwork and accomplishment.

  25. honestb says:

    Cal, in response to your question about the Stanford model, I’m in Alberta, so the drinking age is 18. Everyone on Campus can drink except the few, unlucky under-18 first years (although it isn’t allowed in the dorms for some reason). Some people do take it to extremes, but it’s generally not a big issue except at the end of the year. A lot of people destroy their health and their surroundings around then.

    I think in Canada there’s generally a more liberal attitude towards drinking though, so more people have been around alcohol before, have been taught moderation by parents. I remember being allowed a glass of wine with dinner every now and then fairly early in my teens, and my parents are Alberta Tories.

    Of course, I’m talking about the University of Calgary, which is not the hyper-competitive environment that exists at MIT or Stanford, and maybe that has something to do with it, too. Grades just aren’t as big a deal. I think most people feel like a B average is doing fairly well.

  26. arealmitstudent says:

    I’m a current MIT student, and I’m going to say that the uproar on dorm-wide mailing lists that I’m on to that letter was tremendous. No one agrees with her at all.

  27. Daisy says:

    I could write you an email about this topic in my university, particularly under my Chemical Engineering course. 😀 stress is an accepted way of life here; it’s surprising to others when we have time to do things unrelated to school. it’s not unusual for students to occasionally burst into tears under the workload and everyone’s usually at least a little depressed.

    the course difficulty is sort of a point of pride to our school. it’s generally known all over my country that this course is rigorous here, and that it’s one of the best. our department has a reputation for working students and professors really hard, and the school itself creates our loaded course schedule from freshman to senior year and none of us have the freedom to pick our own courses.

    like I’m taking 19 units now as an upperclassman with about 29 class hours per week (2 laboratory courses, 4 major lecture courses, 1 major design course and 1 thesis course) and it’s the bare minimum I can take to graduate the expected number of years for my course. the minimum number when I was still in my first and second year was more than that: an average of 24-28 units.

    the answer students get when they say it’s too stressful goes something like “of course it is! you’re Chemical Engineering students. change your major if you can’t handle it.” and yes, from what I’ve seen, the courseload doesn’t prevent the students from binge drinking. if anything, it often encourages it because they usually bond over how difficult the courseload is. XD

  28. Dotty Wine says:

    I think my school has a pretty good counseling program. I don’t feel it is advertised enough. However, good health is advertised. Keeping physically healthy and going to excercise. Which is important. If your body is healthy, your mind is likely to follow.

    During finals, stress is advertised a lot more. They want students to find ways to relieve stress during finals (this is when the counseling center is advertised) so that students do not resort to using drugs to “relieve” stress.

    My school DID follow this advice. The advice the MIT student gave. To help reduce the amount of drinking issues. My school did make it so that attendance was mandatory in more classes. My school made it so more classes would be held on fridays. My classes made it so less classes will be held in the afternoon and more in the morning. And I can understand this. You have to go to class or you WILL fail. I think my school tried to make some classes harder. Uhm… I dunno how they would make it harder. But they did make some courses that ordinarly, you would just write it on your form and you are in… well, now, you have to have a certain GPA and apply and such and such to get in.

  29. Dotty Wine says:

    But yah, more work doesn’t fix anything. I don’t drink, but I procrastinate. If you give me more work, I wouldn’t procrasinate less. I would procrastinate in proportion to the work. So if you give me more work, I would procrastinate a little less to make it so if before with less work, I didn’t do 60% of my work, now with more work, I would still not do 60% of my work.

    Okay, you guys… lol, I have no clue what I am talking about.

  30. Corina says:

    Regarding school counseling. (This comment might be late, I don’t know if anyone is still reading this post/comments)

    Case is: I’m in a lot of pressure because of school, so I go to the school psychologist for help. When the idea came to me that I have this avenue, I was even a little bit excited, a professional will help me, and it’s for free.

    So, I go there a couple of times. The result, what I noticed I was doing is that I was analyzing the psychologist in how successfull she was in analyzing me. I also talked about procrastination, the traits a successfull student would have and other related concepts.
    For me it doesn’t work if someone, even if it’s a qualified person, tells me what’s best I do etc, I need to understand myself the scientific evidence, the general logic behind it.
    Well, I noticed that (according to my standards) I was not satisfied with her answers, because I could see some holes (and it is a person with 15 years experience with students). I’m an undergrad in engineering and it’s pretty much impossible that I know about a subject, as remote and exotic it might be, more than my professors, so I have respect and ‘trust’ what they say (but I also read books to confirm). So when I saw some insufficiencies in the judgement of the psychologist, I kind of labeled her in my mind (mean and immature from my part, I know), and stopped going.
    I know that it is a field that is relative. I find it unlikely that I will be content even if I go to another counsellor, so this counselling stuff, for me at least,doesn’t work.

  31. Phillip says:

    interesting post. freshman year i lived/got placed with 6 frat guys that went out all of the time because they hardly had any kind of homework i believe. i on the other hand was constantly trying to keep up with school. while they were in easy get by classes, i was taking data structures, calc 3, etc. typically a lot of my friends would “go out” unless they had homework or a test or something. if colleges did up their “hardness” it probably would cut down on drinking and also weed out the slackers.

  32. valentine wiggins says:

    “Only an MIT student would think that the answer to a social problem is to work people too hard to have time to develop the problem.” that statement’s a bit abhorrent — lots of MIT students have worked and are working to solve social problems, even right now, and in quite thoughtful & constructive ways.

  33. Study Hacks says:

    lots of MIT students have worked and are working to solve social problems

    I don’t remember saying “every MIT student thinks that the answer….”

  34. Jesse says:


    I suspect that one of the main reasons students who aren’t in college drink less than college students is that they have to get up in the morning and go to work at a real job, where they are accountable for their behavior.

    What have I misunderstood which has allowed me to believe that this woman’s logic is flawed? Students* who aren’t in college aren’t students!

    That’s in addition to the laughable idea that more work takes away from avoidance behaviour – i.e. procrastination, drinking, etc.

    (*presumed to be of drinking age & working full time)

  35. So Georgia Tech is the only school in the top 10 drinking schools that is not in the top 10 party schools. Read this counterexample and weep.

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