Thursday, April 26, 2012

My Life at MIT

Reflections on my time at MIT                                                                                  

 “Laboratory work and shop work… give honesty; for, when you express yourself by making things, and not by using words, it becomes impossible to dissimulate your vagueness or ignorance by ambiguity.”
William James from Talks to Teachers

I’m Ken Stone and I’ve been the Director of the MIT Hobby Shop since 1991.
This quote from, psychologist and philosopher William James, gets to the heart of my belief in
the value of making things and what is so important about the MIT motto “mens et manus”
mind and hand. It also speaks to my experience at MIT and the Hobby Shop which I’d like to
reflect on briefly this morning. 

In 1968 I entered MIT as part of the class of 1972; this year marks our 40th reunion. I think it
was January of 1969 that I first entered the Hobby Shop, charged with making paddles for my
pledge class of Beta Theta Pi.  I must say I was proud of the paddles my friend Dan and I made
and soon I was working on my first piece of furniture, a desk with one drawer. My lifelong love
of designing and building had begun.

Everyone at MIT has their own unique experience, mine has centered in the Hobby Shop. For me the Shop epitomizes the goal of educating mind and hand, the brilliant idea in my opinion, that has made MIT and its’ students so successful.  Shop membership is open to all students, staff, faculty and alums. It’s also entirely voluntary and allows all who join to pursue their building interests both personal and academic. It’s a community of people, that has shared interests, enjoys building and is excited to have the opportunity to bring their ideas to reality. I think in large part working in this supportive creative environment is why I have had such a positive experience during my time at MIT. But it is because MIT is filled with smart, imaginative, motivated and generous people that the Hobby Shop has flourished for almost 75 years. I have heard that some people are turned off by the name Hobby Shop. I think for them the word hobby connotes something trivial. For the people I know in the Hobby Shop, hobbies are something they pursue because they want to and they enjoy doing it. The work that MIT people do just because they are interested and want to, has always impressed me the most. Their diverse interests and creative imaginations lead to an incredible range of projects that are anything but trivial.
What I like best about the people I know at MIT is their enthusiasm for what they are doing and that they want to share their knowledge with anyone interested. They are generous with both their knowledge and time. They are inclusive, and when you get people like that together, soon they are kicking around ideas and you have a synergy capable of tackling the complex problems that face the world. I find the people who actually make the things they design tend to be both humble and self effacing. I believe this comes from the experience of many failures and remembering the huge amounts of time and effort that was needed to make a design successful.  I enjoy being around people working on concrete solutions to real problems. I’m tired of the good sounding but empty spin that fills our culture. There is however, a tendency of some MIT students faced with various forms of failure to lose self confidence and take self effacing to self demeaning. This is the cultural phenomena I would most like to see combated and changed at MIT. It is critical that we both challenge and nurture our students. There is a delicate balance between putting our best and brightest up against difficult academic challenges and overwhelming them to the point of diminishing their self esteem. For many at MIT working with their hands provides another way to learn while helping balance what can be an overwhelming academic class schedule. It’s also a way in which we learn things that can’t be taught in lectures that it is, both fun and productive.
To conclude I am grateful to have landed at MIT and to spend time with and get to know so many wonderful people. To be a part of and contribute to the work of this institution has been a great joy.  I’d like to finish with a favorite song the Shaker hymn “Simple Gifts” which beautifully expresses the blessings I feel. 

  Ken Stone ‘72