To understand this post, you need two important bits of context.
First is the famous quote widely attribute to former MIT President Jerome Wiesner: “Getting an education from MIT is like taking a drink from a firehose.” The earliest reference I could find is from the 1972 How to Get Around MIT, where it is instead attributed to Anonymous:
This was the subject of a famous hack in 1991, where hackers hooked up a fire hydrant to a drinking fountain. It was actually functional, with water coming out of the firehose and everything. (Of course, the water was actually from the drinking fountain, and not the fire hydrant.)
The firehose analogy captured the imagination of the MIT community. Firehose itself became a single word referring to the academic experience. Things started getting named after it, like this 2009 teaching guide called The Torch or The Firehose, or the indispensable class planning site firehose.
In reference to this came the adjective hosed, meaning bogged down in work. Incidentally, hosed has been in use since at least 1996, based on How to Get Around MIT. And now that I’ve cited How to Get Around MIT twice, I’m obligated to mention that it stopped getting published 2011, and I’d really like to see it get picked up again. Maybe you can even get funding to work on it…?
Second, you need to understand Oniongate. There is a vague community of MIT-adjacent people interacting on Twitter, and Oniongate was a horrible incident that happened a few days ago. In their blog, Shayna A. ’23 gives a full account of the pain and outrage this single tweet caused:
The video shows Kyle M. ’20 eating an onion like an apple. The video is truly harrowing, but you can watch it on Twitter and read the rest of the replies.
In response, I tweeted that Oniongate was emblematic of the MIT experience, in the sense that “everything is chaotic, onlookers are confused, and people have developed complex, encompassing theories over a relatively simple thing”. And then Jess D. ’23 retweeted and said:
Finally, Kellen, an admissions officer you may know from the blogs, tweeted that he wanted to run an information session about MIT and Legend of Korra. I replied, saying “lok is emblematic of the mit experience”, LOK being an abbreviation of Legend of Korra. And then Jess comes back with another genius quip:
It is because of this excellent, high-quality tweet that I decided to collect more ways to complete “Getting an education from MIT is like…”. I sent a survey to an East Campus mailing list, and posted it on Twitter, and sent it to some other MIT-adjacent groups on social media, collecting people’s responses.
And then I decided it might also be funny to ask Robo-CJ, or GPT-2 fine-tuned on my writing, which you may remember from Robo-CJ writes a college app or Robo-CJ writes haiku. Around half of the responses here are from students and alumni, and the others are computer-generated.
Each response is funny, relatable, or profound, whether it’s from a neural network or Robo-CJ.
Getting an education from MIT is like…
living in a state of dreaming.
climbing up a shaft with fiberglass walls.
getting a shot at the moon. You don’t know what you’re going to get. You just know you’re going to get a shot.
another Disney live action reboot. You’ve heard the story, but you’re there for new perspectives.
getting a free lifetime of great things.
cooking an elaborate recipe and realizing halfway through that you’re missing a key ingredient.
going to Harvard, but for a fraction of the cost.
Throwing yourself into water
jumping off a 50 meter tall cliff into the ocean, surviving, and being given a lot of teddy bears in the hospital.
constantly diving into snow and then switching to a hot tub. it hurts but in the fun way and most of your friends do it with you.
walking into a sea of possibilities.
taking an ice bath – it helps you in the end but it feels mostly awful while you do it (even though you somehow want to return to it as soon as you are finished as though you’ve forgotten how bad it feels).
being thrown in the deep end without knowing how to swim.
learning to swim from a swimming pool. “You can swim in a pool, but you don’t have the skills to be able to swim as well in the ocean. The same goes for a degree in engineering,” says Shulman.
getting thrown into the deep end of a pool after learning how to do one lap of freestyle successfully five minutes beforehand.
getting a degree from a giant corporation. The only difference is that the giant corporation has a large staff and a lot of money.
getting a job at a computer company. You get to spend your whole life doing what you love, but you also get to make a lot of money.
combining the worst parts of imposter syndrome and tech bro culture.
having a very expensive credit card, which you won’t have to pay off every month. The only downside is that you’ll pay interest and you’ll have to keep your card at the bank to get your free money.
being sold a watch by some sketchy dude in an alley, except the dude is all the oil companies and the military-industrial complex.
getting a job with Google. You’re getting a lot of value from it and you’re learning a lot of new things. But it’s not like you’re going to get rich.
trading your sanity for a piece of paper that gets you job interviews.
going to a party when you hate parties because a girl you like might be there.
having a father figure who can tell you the best way to spend your money and tell you the best way to save it. He can give you the right advice about what to do with your money. He can help you make smart decisions.
being part of a cult – you feel a sense of belonging, and everyone there assures you that you’re doing the right thing, but once you get out you wonder how the heck you were okay with doing all the things you did.
being in a long-term relationship with someone who has a great job, and you can’t stop thinking about him or her all the time.
sitting at the grown-ups table because the kids table was all full. you get treated like you know a baseline that you don’t and you just learn to pick up enough skills about reacting that other people think you know what everyone else is talking about.
having a girlfriend. It’s great, but it’s not the most important thing in the world.
wearing sweatpants. once you start, you never want to stop.
getting an education from a school that is not a school. It’s like getting an education from the University of Chicago, which is not a school. It’s like getting an education from the University of Pennsylvania, which is not a school.
getting a car from the same manufacturer,” says Kogan. “The cost of a car is the same, but the cost of the education is a lot more expensive. That’s why so many people don’t get an education.”
putting a paintbrush to the eyes of the world’s greatest minds. It is not a cheap, easy, or quick thing to do. It requires dedication, patience, and the most basic level of skill.
getting an edema from a firehose.
getting an education from Harvard,” she says. “It’s not the same. If you are going to get a job in the United States, you need to go to Harvard. That’s the way it is.”
eating the best pizza in the world but then realizing that there’s lots of food just as good as pizza and you sometimes have trouble talking to people about the steak they just had because you barely remember what that’s like and also if you eat too much pizza you’ll eventually probably feel weird and maybe be a little sad. and then someone asks what you want to eat and you say pizza.
a journey through Dracula’s castle. And not just a tour through a stately gothic castle, but a long and epic journey, akin to the experience of a full-fledged a Castlevania game.
It is a journey that explores a rich variety of spaces — aesthetically, intellectually, and emotionally. It even has a variety of architecturally distinctive buildings juxtaposed, like the dramatically contrasting areas of Dracula’s castle.
It is a journey through the night — or at least a lot more nighttime (and possibly less daytime) than one is probably accustomed to.
It can be a harrowing, hellish journey, with feelings of horror and agony. Yet it at the same time it can involve awe and spectacle. It can be simultaneously beautiful and grand, yet intimidating and terrifying.
And while there are temporary reprieves, the only way to truly escape is to survive to the end and beat the final boss.
—Derric Tay ’08
being stuck between the bedrocks of the sea. Your head is above the water, but you’ll have to hold your breath for high tide. Every time the waves come, you’re constantly on the verge of drowning, wishing you could dislodge yourself from the rocks. However, the rocks are what keep you alive, keep you from getting swept with the sea and onto the jagged cliff where water and land meet.
Many of us will dislodge from the rocks, but while we are in that shore’s harsh waters, those around us will grab our hands and pull us closer, so that we may not get swept to the cliffs. Sometimes, we will be too far to grab the hands of those who were bashed by the waves. Some survive, but some will not, and we will blame ourselves for not saving them against the infinite ocean, whose waters may only be calmed by the gargantuan efforts of cooperation among the gods who control them. It was never our fault, although it may have been preventable if the gods had held their hands out.
Most of us will survive, if we cling on for dear life and hold our breath. We look out for each other, and we fight until the day the waters calm enough so we can climb the cliff together. Some of us go home, some of us set out on adventures, and some of us set sail once again in the hopes that the next time you will never meet the waters, but you’ve brought hopes and hooks in case you find yourself once again in the shore’s grip.
getting an education from a forest. The mountains are the mountains. They are your professors. Your mentors. Your teachers. They are not abstract concepts. They are not things that you can look up and think, “Oh, it’s a tree.”
trying to train for an athletic event in an artificial high-gravity environment. MIT expects and forces you to work and *be* at so much of a higher level, it will expose all your faults and inefficiencies, and that process is painful while you’re undergoing it.
But if you really want to be *that* good, it will deliver that, almost irrelevantly to whether you feel like you’re dying or doing OK at it.
Also, you come out the other side and discover that the real world does not demand every last drop of your capabilities and force of will at all times, which is weird and wonderful. I’ve heard of MIT alums saying that medical school was easy compared to MIT, and I can believe that.
running a marathon, but it’s 100 degrees and your bare feet are sizzling on the pavement and you’re sprinting your hardest and your lungs are dying fish and no one pays you the slightest attention except an old lady yelling from her porch, “Why the hell don’t you just get a car?”
—Teresa Gao ’23
Subjecting yourself to pain
a road trip from hell, to say the least.
jumping into a blender, and coming out a rock on the other side.
shooting yourself in the foot and complaining loudly to everybody how much it hurts but also telling everybody how much you LOVE shooting yourself in the foot.
going to a bar and getting a beer. It’s not worth it.
paying someone to beat you up because they promised that when they’re done pulverizing your skull someone else will pay you more.
getting hit over the head repeatedly but being told it’s for your own good.
—Adira B. ’21
reading a choose-your-own-adventure book but the only possible outcomes are sleep deprivation and anxiety.
Maybe these actually mean something
taking a test you didn’t study for, except you’re not being graded and taking the test changes you profoundly and the test is actually life.
living in a foreign country. You’re learning something new every day, but it’s really hard to learn something new when there’s a huge amount of culture shock.
starting over from scratch, and you have to start somewhere. It’s not easy, and it requires a lot of time and effort, but it’s worth it.
being under Tantalus’ tree but instead of not being able to reach any fruit, you can only choose one (or two).
—R. D. ‘23
being told climb THIS ladder and you WILL achieve greatness but everyone around you seems like they started ten stories above you and their ladders move on their own to bring them further up.
an X-ray of the soul,” says junior Brian White. “It gives you a framework for understanding the world and learning and discovering new things.”
learning to juggle except for every time you lean over to pick a ball up two more fall out of the air. and yet you keep trying to juggle more balls, but really you just hope that by the end of it all you can juggle one or two.
It’s worth it, right?
getting broken down into all your component parts so you can be fully analyzed and then haphazardly put back together. Future therapists will be endlessly impressed with the self awareness you gained from this knowledge.
getting an education from a crazy person. By the time you graduate, you’re already crazy. But by then, you’re going to be the crazy person.
going through hell but someday emerging on the other side with friends and a degree.
getting a nice, clean pair of shoes: they’re nice and clean, but they’re also not very good.
failing upward, i.e. developing muscle by dragging yourself up and out of increasingly weird and complicated ditches every time you fail downward. alternatively, having your entire skull slowly pressed through a much smaller gap than you thought it could, but you feel really good after. (physically felt the latter one during a very difficult urop meeting once.)
a drug,” he says. “It gives you a sense of accomplishment.”
stockholm syndrome; it’s definitely bad for you but you love it anyway.
—Adira B. ’21