When the May 7, 1956, issue of Life magazine hit the newsstand at the Coop, it also hit very close to home for ’56s. On the cover, next to the magazine’s iconic red logo, blared the headline “The Need for Better Scientists and M.I.T.’s Answer.” Inside, Life devoted 11 pages to the topic. An article called “A Quest for Quality in Scientists” described how MIT was addressing an alarming phenomenon that the magazine had covered in March: the fast-growing number of scientists and engineers training in the Soviet Union. (This was followed by President James R. Killian Jr.’s four-point plan to address the shortage of scientists in the United States.) According to the May 7 article, “The most thoughtful American educators and scientific leaders warn that the only hope for the U.S. is to concentrate on turning out better scientists and engineers than Russia.”
In order to meet that need, the article continued, “M.I.T. is now engaged in the greatest changes of its 95-year history,” including curriculum revisions, a renewed focus on teaching and creative thinking, and more emphasis on the humanities. In fact, says Deborah Douglas, the MIT Museum’s science and technology curator, the curriculum revisions had begun soon after World War II. As part of an effort to bridge the divide between science and engineering, MIT had begun to emphasize broad principles–rather than hands-on expertise–that students could apply to any situation. The Class of 1956 “probably had the most theoretical education of any previous generation of MIT students,” Douglas says.
Life depicted the “new world of MIT” with a portrait of the senior class in Lobby 7 and with individual photos of a handful of students. At commencement, President Killian dubbed MIT ’56s the “most sought-after class” because they were in such high demand in industry. The New York Times saw fit to cover the event, and used that telling phrase for a headline. “It was not unusual for graduates to be besieged by offers–three, ten, twelve, fourteen,” the article claimed. According to Life, the average starting salary for a 1956 MIT graduate was $425 per month, up 10 percent from the previous year.
The class readily accepted the notion that it was the “most wanted,” says Joseph Kaming ‘56, an environmental attorney in New York. “In a way,” he says, “it’s a rallying cry, a nexus for the class”–which, he adds, has proved itself worthy of the moniker. Kaming has a unique window on his classmates’ successes: he’s compiling short biographies for a 50th-reunion retrospective. “We’ve had representatives in the major technological events which have changed our lives in the span of 50 years, in space exploration, communications, and the computer revolution,” he says. Rusty Schweickart ‘56 piloted the first manned flight of the lunar module on the Apollo 9 mission (see “Defending the Planet”) and C. Gordon Bell ‘56 led the cross-agency group that helped create the Internet. Others contributed to industry, law, architecture, medicine, and the humanities. But more important, Kaming says, is “the human decency of our classmates–one to another, to their families, communities, and the nation.”