The Lessons of Pre-K

May 12, 2021
Posted by Jay Livingston

“The curriculum of kindergarten is basically sitting still,” I would say in class when we were talking about the functions of schools. Or maybe I said, “elementary school.” The point was that we count on school not just to educate kids but to socialize them. Now a recent MIT study of Boston pre-K takes that idea a step further. A pre-K lottery program allowed them to compare kids who, through luck of the draw, got into pre-K and those who did not, On academic achievement as measured by standardized tests, pre-K had little or no effect  — not in elementary school, not in middle school, not in high school.

But the kids who lucked into pre-K were more likely to finish high school and go to college. They were also somewhat less likely to run into disciplinary problems in school. To stretch the meaning of the results, you could say that they were more attached to the conventional institutions and roads to success.

 
(Click on an image for a larger view. The graphic is from the researchers’ earlier NBER paper.)

Schools make no secret that their task is to socialize children, to get them to be good members of society. My report card at Stephen C. Foster school opened to show two sides, the left containing grades in academic subjects — arithmetic, penmanship, music, geography, etc. (Some of these names may give you an idea of how long ago I was in grade school.). The page on the right had many more lines, each of them a specific area of socialization  — the “plays well with other” sort of thing. The only one I remember was “Keeps fingers away from nose and mouth.” That’s right. Foster school was concerned with nose-picking.

A quick trip through Google Images assured me that schools continue this tradition, giving equal space to the academic and the social.


I assume that for pre-K, the academic/social balance is weighted even more heavily towards the social. The research on the academic effects of pre-K is mixed at best. Some studies show that pre-K kids somewhat outperform their later-starting peers, but the advantage fades as kids go farther in school. But if the results of the Boston study are not a one-off, when it comes to the instilling the lessons of what my junior high school report card called “citizenship,” the effects of an early start, while not huge, can be long-lasting

Personal Needs and Public Morality

May 6, 2021
Posted by Jay Livingston
    

Victoria Eng updated the page [a GoFundMe for the victim] on Wednesday to say that her grandmother is recovering well after surgery.

“These Asian hate crimes need to stop," she wrote. "San Francisco is my home and my Grandma's home. We need to feel safe where we live and not in constant fear.”

Over the last sixty years, we have largely abandoned the language of moral imperatives for the language of psychological well-being. We don’t say what should or must happen or what people ought to do. Instead, we talk about what is needed.

I have noted this change before (here and here, for example). But I couldn’t pass up the above quote in yesterday’s NPR news story.  It so perfectly uses both the new and the old sense of need.

The second need — “We need to feel safe. . .” — would have been as unremarkable in the 1960s as it is today. It’s about needs, specifically the needs of Asians.

But “These Asian hate crimes need to stop” is about morality. It says what should or must happen. But we longer use words like should or must. We don’t tell people what they ought to do. “You ought to stop drinking so much.” That would be imposing an external morality, and morality is always about what’s good for others and for the society as a whole, not the individual. Instead we phrase it in terms of the person’s own needs; we tell them what is in their own interest and will benefit them.. “You need to stop drinking so much.”

This use of need has expanded to the point that we now talk about the needs of Asian hate crimes.

Of course, the meaning of the sentence is clear. It’s Asians or the society as a whole that needs for these hate crimes to stop. But because of the change in language, we now phrase it in a way that syntactically makes no sense.

Ron Carter, b. May 4, 1937

May 4, 2021
Posted by Jay Livingston

Ron Carter’s Downbeat Blindfold Test was the best I’ve ever read. In most of these, the musician tries to guess the identity of the performer,adds some evaluative comments or personal recollections, and then gives the track a rating of one to five stars. I don’t recall how accurate Carter was in identifying the musicians. But instead of focusing on who the musicians were, he told you what they were doing. Not the soloist so much as the rhythm section, the part of the performance that most people’s ears are not going to pick up.

It was the only Blindfold Test where you actually learned something about the music, and I told him as much when I happened to see him in Fairway one morning a few weeks later. (I think this was about fifteen years ago.)

In an interview posted yesterday, he does something similar. Carter was the bassist in Miles’s second great quintet, the group of the mid-sixties. The  rhythm section —  Carter, Herbie Hancock, and Tony Wiliams — created something new in jazz, a sound very different from that of the late-1950s quintet with Paul Chambers, Red Garland, and Philly Joe Jones. They were kids then. Ron and Herbie were in their twenties, Tony Williams was barely twenty. Miles was nearly forty.

The question in the interview asked whether the rhythm section ever talked specifically — with one another or with Miles — about what they were doing. The answer is, not very much; they just listened to one another and learned.

But Carter’s anecdote goes beyond that generality to focus on a specific and non-intuitive note (B natural) that he played in Autumn Leaves.



It goes without saying that Carter is one of the greatest bass players of all time. At 84, he’s still going strong and eager to get back to work when the clubs and concert halls reopen.

Abbie Hoffman – A Personal Memory

April 25, 2021
Posted by Jay Livingston

I’ve just watched “The Trial of the Chicago Seven.” Sacha Baron Cohen’s Abbie Hoffman brought back memories of my own brief contact with Abbie. Maybe it’s getting into tl;dr territory, and it’s certainly less sociology than, in Chris Uggen’s phrase, self-indulgery.

I met Abbie Hoffman before he became Abbie Hoffman, the Abbie Hoffman everyone knows, the Abbie Hoffman of “The Trial of the Chicago Seven,”  It was two years before the Chicago convention, the summer of 1966. I was 22 and about to enter graduate school. Abbie was 29.  

I had just finished college and was working in the Democratic primary campaign of an anti-war candidate for U.S. senate in Massachusetts.  His name was Thomas Boylston Adams, and he came by it honestly.  I am not sure about the Boylston strand, but the Adams part went directly back to John and John Quincy. More important, he was the only candidate who opposed the war in Vietnam.

His opponents were Endicott Peabody, governor of the state, and John Collins. mayor of Boston. We knew we had no chance to win against establishment Democrats. We were in it to get out the anti-war message. But because the vehicle for that was an election, we had to do what you do in electoral politics.

Much of my work, as I recall, consisted of “canvassing”—handing out literature and trying to get people to sign petitions to get Adams on the ballot. We would canvas in Boston one day, Brockton the next, Fall River the next. One hot day, the campaign manager sent a group from the Boston office out to Worcester to canvas there. He told us that we’d get more information from the campaign co-ordinator for that part of the state—Abbie Hoffman.

Abbie met us, assigned us to different parts of the city, and told us a little bit about the neighborhoods we would be canvassing. Then we were on our own, and I didn’t see him again that day.

At the time, his biography was much like that of many of the other people in the campaign. Yippies did not exist. It seems odd now to think of Abbie Hoffman as regional manager, directing conventional political work like canvassing for a candidate who looked, sounded, and acted every bit the Boston Brahmin.

I didn’t see Abbie again until late August, towards the end of the campaign, when the candidate invited everyone for a picnic at his summer home on the South Shore near Quincy. It was a modest, wooden house on several acres of land. Most of the Boston-area people went. A few of the workers from the regional offices also came in for the event. All told, we numbered no more than two dozen.

At some point in the afternoon, several of us went to play softball, and I found myself walking next to Abbie. The field for the game lay on the other side of a slight ridge. When we got to the top and looked out at the large open area below us, Abbie stretched out his arm and made a sweeping gesture. “Comes the revolution, my son,” he said in a fake Russian accent, “all of this will be yours.”

Except for the picnic, most of us rarely had a chance to speak with the candidate himself—an arrangement that was probably for the best. About the only thing most of us had in common with him was a general opposition to the Vietnam war. But while Adams’s views on Vietnam made him the most liberal person running for office in Massachusetts, he was several steps to the right of just about everybody in his own campaign, including of course, Abbie. They were an assortment of 1960s activists. Some were students from SDS. Others had been recruited from past electoral campaigns for other non-mainstream candidates. Some came out of the civil rights movement, having only a few years earlier worked on voter registration in the South with SNCC and CORE. Nobody on the staff had illusions about winning a Senate seat. Instead, people spoke of the campaign as “educational” (i.e., to educate the public about the war). Many of them, like Abbie, also saw it as a way to build a foundation for future political organizing, whether for local or national issues. That was their job. They were political organizers.

One other scene has stayed in my mind from that warm, August day. I do not remember how we all got back to Boston or how it was that Abbie and I were the only ones from the group taking the MTA back to Cambridge, but that is where the memory begins—near sunset at the end of a long day, me standing in an MTA car, talking with Abbie Hoffman.

We were both tired. The picnic had, in effect, marked the end of the campaign. The September primary was only a week or two away. The candidate, we all knew, would get only a handful of votes, and the student workers like me would go back to school. But I wondered about the “older” people.

“What do you think you’re going to do now?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” Abbie said, “I really don’t.” He talked about other political issues that needed people, but it all seemed vague, as though he were tired of it all.

Then he said, “A lot of people I know are getting jobs in the poverty program. It’s a steady job, and you can do pretty well.” Remember, this was the hopeful era of the Great Society, of OEO programs that needed workers and administrators. “I guess I can always get something there too.”

He paused, and for an instant the twinkle returned to his eyes. He shook his head slightly. “But I don’t think I could do that.”