: Rites of Passage :

an excerpt by Warren Bennis


How could you not go to Harvard?” my mother demanded when I told her I had decided to do graduate work at MIT. Her friends wondered, too, she assured me, and occasionally so did I. Harvard had offered $400 a year more than the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and then there was the prestige factor. In 1951 every ambitious student in the country wanted to go to Harvard—almost as much as their parents wanted them to. MIT had a largely underground reputation for excellence. Those in the know valued it, not every high school guidance counselor. In the last analysis, I went to MIT largely because of Douglas McGregor, Antioch president. He had chosen to be there, so it must be the best place to be. But once I arrived, I had my doubts. Without Doug on hand to encourage me, I slogged through my first couple of years in Cambridge.

Part of the problem was where I lived. Antioch had been supportive, nurturing, and bucolic. When I thought of it, as I often did, I remembered the sweet smell of Glen Helen, glowing as the sun set. Now my wife, Lucille,  and I were living in a truly dreadful apartment near Kendall Square, a neighborhood best described in those pre-gentrification days as squalid. Our cold-water flat was on a gritty Cambridge street, across from a plant that produced Lux soap and spewed foul smoke round the clock. It was hard to believe that the Charles River was just a few blocks away. The three long flights of stairs up to our apartment reeked of what we hoped was cat urine. The only heat came from a kerosene stove. In winter we tried to keep the cold at bay—and the snow outside—by taping plastic over the windows. We didn’t have a car at first, and I would often bike to class. On bad days, as I swerved to avoid a fatal collision, I would ask myself, “Why?” Needless to say, our marriage was suffering along with our spirits.

Of all my demanding classes, Paul Samuelson’s economics courses were the toughest, and they tended to follow a pattern. The class would be devoted to, say, Walras’s equation. Only recently translated from the French, Léon Walras had produced a mathematical defense of his contention that supply and demand balance out across markets, a central tenet of equilibrium theory. That ay sound simple enough, but the math was formidable. MIT has always attracted students whose first language was mathematics. I wasn’t one of them. In class, ten or so of us (all men in those days) dealt with the Samuelsonian challenge each in our own way. The future Nobel laureate would develop Walras’s argument mathematically, his chalk flying across the blackboard. Those in the class who preferred numbers to words would smile knowingly as they took the occasional note. The rest of us scribbled constantly and tried not to show panic. Toward the end of the hour, Samuelson would deliver a stirring summation lauding the elegance and utility of Walras’s contribution to macroeconomics. At some point, Samuelson would remember that I, too, was in the class and ask, “Are you with me, Warren?”