Travis Merritt and the Founding of Charm School
MIT’s own Charm School was featured on “CBS Sunday Morning” on March 4 and the spotlight covered the usual sessions on table manners, first impressions and handshakes, and dressing for success, with a brief snippet on “How To Tell Somebody Something They’d Rather Not Hear.” (The segment's focus was, unfortunately, on things [dishes, clothes] rather than on honoring and enhancing personal interactions, which are the essence of charm.) The late Dean Travis Merritt founded Charm School in 1993 as a one-day event at the end of IAP. It has become a tradition – which I have happily been part of since 1994 – and I was curious about how it began.
When I contacted former MIT President Charles Vest to ask him what he remembered of the origins of Charm School, he responded, “Travis explained to me, and presumably to others, that he continually noticed MIT students walking down the Infinite Corridor looking at their feet rather than interacting with others. Wondering how to help them move beyond this sent him down a path of thought that led him to the idea of Charm School.”
Travis was on the Literature faculty of MIT and he specialized in Victorian prose – and in particular the prose of Walter Pater. Although he talked about the style of the prose, what he was addressing was its civility, in the fullest sense of that word. Like Pater, he wanted to preserve the art and the humanity of civilization.
I contacted Dr. Vest because of what he wrote about the murder of Yngve Raustein on our campus in September 1992, "For many of us, one of the deepest wounds has been to our sense of community, to our faith in civility and in basic human decency." I thought at first that Travis Merritt’s idea to create Charm School was a direct response to that tragedy, but apparently it was not.
Nonetheless there was a real connection. Raustein’s death and others on campus (those from suicide, drinking, or accidents) obviously represent huge tears in our social fabric and cannot be mended. But if we notice the little worn places, the small rips, can we re-weave the fabric so that it is more resistant to the large tears?
For many years I have taking paying guests in my home, almost exclusively MIT visiting researchers. Many of my guests remark on how cold the social atmosphere is in their work groups or labs. Their comments, such as “Most people eat at their desks” and “So few people take time to say hello,” make it clear that the problem is not limited to student life. If MIT is rightly noted for “inventional wisdom” we ought to be able to build out from the cornerstone that is Charm School and create a community coalition to address the social and emotional vacuum that some of us seem too busy to notice, until it is too late.
Charm School, as Travis designed it, is a light-hearted event with a lot of dramatic presentations. “Tie-ing Ties” is still on the schedule, but missing from this year’s agenda was “Buttering Up Big Shots,” “Telephone and Email Manners” (add social media manners to that session?), “Merriment: telling a joke, engaging smiles, contagious laughter, etc.,” and “Small Talk” . . . all on the 1994 program that I saved.
Linda Patton, Director of Off-Campus Housing, who now coordinates “How To Tell Somebody Something They’d Rather Not Hear,” recalls that one year there was a very popular session on laundry sorting and another time one on bathroom etiquette. Who knew the things we didn’t know we needed to know?!
Alana Hamlett, Assistant Director of Student Activities, and her colleagues did a terrific job this year and the event truly honored Dean Merritt’s memory. Could we take it a step further and create a broader coalition to address these issues regularly throughout the year? This effort is not only about being nice, it’s about being real, being present emotionally with one another.
With MIT searching for a new President, this seems like the ideal time to raise the issue of social climate and seek a leader willing to address it. There is a saying, “It’s nice to be important but it’s more important to be nice.” I imagine that Travis Merritt would also agree that it’s nice to be smart, but more important, it’s smart to be nice.