There has understandably been a great deal of anxiety on campus about how best to relocate the hundred or so displaced Bexley residents who will need to be housed in a different place come fall than everyone had been expecting. We would like to find a solution that is ‘fair,’ but of course there is no obvious fix that is fair to everyone. Relocating a number of students from a place they had settled themselves, into the midst of other people who had also already settled themselves, poses very real challenges.
Putting people together unexpectedly can be the source of great human strife; but it can also be the root of really great things. Part of my scholarly focus is in an area called ‘macro-historical dynamics’ — the study of large social processes that unfold over long periods of time and usually across large areas of space. Investigation into the rise and spread of communicable disease around the globe shows that they have emerged in pockets of human density and follow patterns of human movement. But density and exchange are also responsible for the acceleration of innovation and technical change. In a seminal article published in the QJE (1993) while he was in the Economics Dept. at MIT, Michael Kramer documents the strong association between population growth and the rapidity of technological advance. At the margins more crowded dorms will result in some inconveniences, certainly, but also new social opportunities, with benefits unknown.
Many of us form strong identities to a particular place, or a particular community. But we also move between communities. Indeed, the process of coming to MIT in the first place is surely one such major move. Our experiences here are not diminished by virtue of the fact that we come from somewhere else. Indeed, in many respects they are enhanced by that fact. As a graduate student in the late 1980s, I had the privilege of studying under the great economic historian Carlo Cipolla. He spent every fall teaching at Berkeley and every spring in his native Italy. He favorite way to begin a course was to tell his students that, “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” This was perhaps one of the most formative ideas for me on my path to becoming a serious historian. I still have the yellow legal pad in which I took lecture notes the first time I TA’ed for him, and sure enough when I went back and looked, there is that phrase in my hasty scrawl with double asterisks punctuating both ends of it. Carlo was a bridge for all of his students, from two continents of course in that roundtrip migration he made every year, but also a bridge across time. He was my conduit into the past.
Now I realize that geographically Bexley is in no way as far from other MIT living spaces as either Italy is from Northern California, or the present is from the Middle Ages. But for the students who are experiencing this migration, the distance in space and cultural setting is real enough. And the opportunities for bridging difference are likewise there. I write this not yet knowing which, or even how many, Bexley residents will move into dorms such as the one I am privileged to serve as a housemaster, Burton-Conner. But I do want to say to you, whoever you are, that you are most welcome in Burton-Conner. Hopefully you will find things to like about us, just the way we already are; and we will find the same about you. But I also hope that this unplanned happenstance helps us both to change in constructive ways, to become something that might not have been possible unless we had come together. I’m looking forward to the adventure into the future — also a foreign country where let’s hope we really will do at least a few things differently.
Anne EC McCants is the Housemaster of Burton-Conner.