If I had a million dollars, I'd build you a school.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

There Is Nothing New Under The Sun

Starting about a month before I published my first post for this blog, I began archiving articles and blog posts that I thought might some day inspire a post. I didn't know at the beginning how much I would have to say about starting a school, and I thought it would be a good idea to have a catalog of ideas ready to go, just in case I developed a case of writer's block. Generally, when I see something that interests me and seems vaguely relevant to the topic of schools, I email it to myself, and label it for future use. At this point, I have over a hundred articles and blog posts awaiting my attention in my gmail account.

Among the articles I've been waiting to write something about is Gene Weingarten's Pulitzer Prize winning feature from The Washington Post. If you haven't read it before, you should stop reading this right now and follow the link. You should experience his article and the accompanying video clips first hand. I found it to be a fascinating and moving piece.

To sum it up briefly, Weingarten convinced world famous virtuoso violinist Joshua Bell to play the roll of a busker in Washington D.C.'s L'Enfant Plaza metro station, just to see if anyone would realize what they were experiencing. The basic answer is no. Other than one amateur violinist, a woman who had just seen Bell in concert and recognized him, and a young boy who had to be dragged away by his mother, no one stopped to listen. Bell barely made enough money for a cup of coffee.

On a couple of occasions, I have started posts relating to this article, mostly focusing on the wonder of the young boy in contrast to the hurrying adults all around him, arguing that schools should do everything in their power to preserve and encourage this sense of fascination with the world. I never quite got the post finished, or it didn't quite fit in with the other things I was writing about, so I kept leaving it for another day.

Then yesterday, my wife forwarded me this Weingarten article from this Sunday's Post. It turns out Weingarten's fascinating social experiment had been tried and written about more than 75 years earlier for the Chicago Evening Post with almost exactly the same results. In the most bizarre of coincidences, not only did both violinists play two of the same pieces for their street performances, but for a period of about ten years, Joshua Bell played the exact same Stradivarius used by Jacques Gordon 75 years before (The Red Violin anyone?).

I write about this here, because I think there is a lesson in the way Weingarten handles the discovery that his his Pulitzer Prize winning article, surely one of the proudest accomplishments of his professional life, is not quite as original as he had believed. Instead of burying the story, or writing a defensive piece all about how he still deserves credit for his great idea, he writes a very humorous and humble piece, poking fun at his own pride in his originality. He points out that the internet, not any intrinsic differences between the two pieces, is largely responsible for the enormous success of his article in comparison to the immediately forgotten 1930 version. He revels with the rest of us in the bizarre coincidences between the two stories.

There are many teachable moments out there in the world, and this is a great one. I would present the students with a hypothetical situation, maybe translated to the world of science, where publishing original ideas if of such crucial importance. They have researched and written an article. All of the work is their own, but as the article is going to press, they discover that someone else has published something very similar before. What would they do? I think it would lead to a fascinating conversation about originality and who ideas belong to. Any chance for students to really engage with an ethical dilemma is a good thing.

In Weingarten's place, what would you have done?

1 comment:

Melissa B. said...

I'm a journalism teacher, & I read Gene Weingarten regularly. I remember the Metro violinist story quite well! I'm going to use this Teachable Moment in my classroom next year. Thanks for sharing! BTW, for a look at the lighter side of summer, please tune in Sunday for another edition of the Silly Sweepstakes! :)