Friday, May 2, 2008

Short attention spans

Some good deeds take decades to prove profitable. For instance putting small kids in Head Start, feeding them a healthy meal and preparing them for school, or inviting a freshman seminar to your home every week and feeding them cookies along with nuggets of science and liberal arts. The Head Start payoff is 15 to 20 years later, these kids go to jail less frequently and have a greater chance of going to college and earning more. Clear cost benefit. But you have to be far sighted to see it. Bush's administration seems keen on dismantling Head Start, savings today over long term results tomorrow.

My father ran a freshman seminar at Stony Brook with his typical form of generosity, he brought students into his living room and my stepmother baked cake or cookies and poured tea. No clear benefit in dollars. But of course, you can't look at it that way. Yesterday the acting surgeon general came back to Stony Brook, thirty years later, and publicly thanked my parents for their instruction and kindness. He was one of those freshmen. My father ran this and other programs with the same enthusiasm. These programs had always been prone to dangerous scrutiny from administrators. They tend to look at money coming in now (such as grants) as far more valuable than potential. As a teacher, it takes years for your work to mature, make careers for themselves, and report back, but even the flintiest administrator must be delighted when a notable former student thanks a former teacher and this directly leads to more donations, grants, and future classes enlarging the reputation that was built on such slow good will.

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