Book: Mens et Mania: The MIT Nobody Knows

MIT is a special place.

I was a student there from 1983 – 1990, got two degrees, and was booted out of a Ph.D. program well before I finished. I lived in a fraternity (ADP) on the edge of Central Square (351 Mass Ave) for four years. My first office was that address – for several years I got more mail each day than almost everyone else I was living with combined. My next office was 875 Main Street, just behind the frat. And daily, between Monday and Friday, I walked down Main Street to Sloan or Mass Ave to the rest of campus.

IHTFP was my motto, along with everyone else I knew. If you need some clues for what IHTFP can mean, there are many lists on the web. But “I Hate This Fucking Place” is one side of the coin and “I Have Truly Found Paradise” is the other. However, the coin – at least for me – was not equally weighted so it didn’t land 50% of the time on each side. I’ll let you guess which side it landed on more frequently.

I read Samuel Jay Keyser’s amazing book Mens et Mania: The MIT Nobody Knows the past two nights. I’ve had it on my Kindle for a while but for some reason hadn’t read it. As I was scrolling through the infinite list of unread books I stumbled upon it and consumed it. It was just awesome.

I vaguely remember Keyser from when I was at MIT. Much of this book takes place during the 1980s when I was there and I remember many of the stories and situations he describes. I also remember a number of them he doesn’t that he doesn’t talk about that he was likely involved in, such as when my frat was put on probation and two of our members were suspended for a year in an “inappropriate publishing incident”, which coincided with a five year shift in campus views on pornography and sexual harassment during a period when the male / female ratio shifted from 80/20 to 50/50.

Toss in apartheid, a thing called the “MIT Committee on Discipline”, huge building and construction projects on MIT land around a very debilitated and pre-gentrified Central and Kendall Square, and a generational shift clearly to Gen-X as undergraduates, and you’ve got a pretty interesting time to be a senior member of MIT’s Administration.

Keyser is a great writer and story teller. He captures so much of what I remember clearly, but shows it to me from the administration’s, rather than a student’s, frame of reference. He does it with humor, even in the most frustrating and maddening moments. And like everyone I’ve ever encountered at MIT, he continuously teaches throughout.

I loved this book. As Amy read a Game of Thrones book (the last one I think – she just said something about really big dragons and lots of fire and death), I kept reading her sections out loud. As a Wellesley graduate now on the Wellesley board, who knows MIT culture and students well, I got some good belly laughs out of her.

Even though IHTFP, I will always think of MIT as a special place. So much of what I am, and how I approach things, was forged in the intense place that I describe as a daily assault on one’s self-esteem. A book like this one helps me remember the power of it against the backdrop of an institution that is a remarkably complex and amazing place.