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MIT's glorious nerd heritage must not be forgotten

Ever since I arrived at MIT more that 20 years ago, I've noticed that a few of our faculty and a fair number of our administrators suffer from Crimson Envy. To be sure, there are some wonderful things about Harvard. President Paul E. Gray '54 and all the others who are working so hard on MIT's fundraising campaign can have good reason to covet Harvard's endowment, and even I have entertained a fantasy of the MIT libraries housing a rare book collection to match Widener's. Yet I've never counted myself among those who wish that MIT undergraduates were more like those up the river.

Well, I was thrown for a loop the other day to read -- in Time magazine, of all places -- about Harvard undergraduate Jeremy Kahn and SONG, the Harvard Society of Nerds and Geeks, which was formed this fall to espouse the cause of single-minded intellectualism. As I said, I've never been jealous of Harvard students, never cared much that they trade jokes with Robin Williams at the Hasty Pudding Club and defend their honor against Yale every year in the Big Game; but when they start getting national media attention for championing nerdiness, then that's hitting too close to home.

I suppose it was forseeable that matters would reach this sorry state. As long as I can remember, MIT administrators have been making private and not so private statements to the effect that the intellectual focus of MIT undergraduates is something to be ashamed of.

Even just a few weeks ago, Susanna Hinds, MIT's Director of Campus Activities, was interviewed about SONG by a local newspaper, The Tab. According to The Tab (12/13), "she says that her university is looking to shed, not enhance the image of Nerdville, and that she for one is proud that there's nothing like SONG at MIT."

The ironic thing is that the folks who have been working to make MIT a less intellectually intense place have such a poor sense of timing. Haven't they noticed? Nerdiness is in! While the whole country was laughing with the crew of Lambda Lambda Lambda in Revenge of the Nerds, our administration was bemoaning "pace and pressure." While high school students all over the country tune in weekly to "Head of the Class" to follow the exploits of Arvid Ingham and friends (including Arvid's best friend, Dennis, whose lifelong ambition is to attend MIT), our administration is enjoined to look for applicants with social grace. Well-rounded Betsy and Bill may have been the campus darlings of the '80s, but this new decade, with United States' concerns focused on education and international competitiveness, will belong to the nerds and the geeks.

I hope that the next time my Crimson Envious friends think of Harvard undergraduates, they'll remember Jeremy Kahn and SONG. Both institutions, Harvard and MIT, could use more students like them. And consider, if Cambridge ever becomes known as the home of the "Harvard nerd" rather than the "MIT nerd," then we'll really have something to envy.

Hal Abelson PhD '73->

Associate Professor->

of Computer Science->