Accent on Living

As I drive over Harvard Bridge from Cambridge to Boston of a morning on my way to work, students in goodly numbers are crossing it in the other direction, headed for their classes at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Cambridge is, of course, notoriously easygoing about externalities. There was comment, briefly, a few years ago when a celebrated dotard sat down in his pew one Sunday morning wearing his sister’s hat, and some of the nose jewelry and swathings and kimonos and sandals around Harvard Square will draw a surreptitious second glance, but that’s about as far as it goes. Even the tweedy old lady in her cape and her tricycle, which she propels by pedals and steers with a long tiller, is taken for granted by Cambridge shoppers. As an outlander and not a native of Cambridge, I have felt free to examine the tricycle in some detail, a well worn vehicle which I judge to date from about 1895 and which ought, eventually, to be suspended from wires in a Smithsonian room.

But the MIT students, in a community so indulgent of quirks, seem to have discarded all individuality and settled for a kind of uniform: a shirt with the collar unbuttoned, no necktie, cotton trousers, loafers or sneakers or dirty white shoes, and, if the weather warrants it, a sweater or windbreaker. Simple though this costume is, the groups crossing the bridge achieve an appearance of disarray, as if they had slept in their clothes and bounded out on the run.

Harvard, only a couple of miles away, will not admit a student to a dining hall or certain classes unless he is wearing a jacket and necktie. “Except, of course, during summer school,” as one Harvard professor admitted. “We get all sorts in the summer school.”

But if Harvard can preserve the necktie and jacket during the regular terms, the Tech boys are of a frowsiness all their own. The motorist has no way of telling whether the hitchhikers among them are standard juvenile delinquents or whether he is being thumbed by the fanciest I.Q. in the institute. One doubts that the MIT boys’ appearance is a consequence of the curriculum, that anything in the pursuit of high science and engineering must, in itself, dictate the three-day shirt or the thirty-day trousers, yet some of these morning ensembles would bring mutterings from the members of an archaeological expedition on a field dig along the Nile. The MIT faculty members, on the other hand, are usually neat and clean, and it must be distracting to the great mathematician or physicist to note, as he begins his lecture, that his front row is wearing the same soup stains and grease spots with which it began the term.

I realize that any remonstrance such as this stamps me as a fuddy duddy, or an exquisite, to whom a trouser crease is more momentous than travel in outer space. I am also mindful that when, as schoolboys, we were obliged to wear at dinner a dark suit and a stiff collar, we followed only the letter and not the spirit of the regulation. A boy simply wore a dark suit on all occasions and carried in his pocket a stiff collar and its detachable button. By turning in the button-down collar of his daytime shirt and putting on the stiff collar, he achieved a result which seemed to meet the rule. The masters responded by scrutinizing our shirts at dinnertime for the telltale buttons which had held down the soft daytime collar, but the boys won out in the end by snipping off the turndown collar buttons from all their shirts, which made the double decker too hard to spot to be worth the trouble.

The authorities at MIT are proceeding, of course, on more adult assumptions and not insisting on dictating a student’s taste in what he wears. But unless somewhere along the line two or three small refinements set in, one can only expect that the Nobel Prize committee in years to come is going to be hanging its medals on some extremely grubby looking scientists.

How these prospects stand at Cal Tech, I have no idea.