Archive for February, 2008

Jeff Mangum & Neutral Milk Hotel, the best indie band you’ve never heard of

February 29, 2008

Slate, music box

The Salinger of Indie Rock

What happened to Jeff Mangum?

By Taylor Clark

Ten years ago this month, a songwriter from nowhere and his ramshackle band brought out one of the few truly great albums of this generation, a musical curio so gloriously odd that it almost defies explanation. The group called itself Neutral Milk Hotel, and the record, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, is a concept album about Anne Frank in which vocals about lost Siamese twins and semen-stained mountaintops mingle with the sounds of musical saws, fuzzy tape loops, and an amateur psychedelic brass band. It seems like a formula that would blister your eardrums, yet Aeroplane is a gorgeous, much adored work of art. In 2003, the alternative music magazine Magnet dubbed it the best album of the past decade—better than Nirvana, better than Radiohead.While the record sells better today than ever, you won’t see Neutral Milk Hotel onstage anytime soon because, for all intents and purposes, they’ve vanished into thin air. At the end of Aeroplane‘s final song, you can hear Jeff Mangum—the band’s singer, songwriter, and all-around mastermind—set down his guitar and walk off, and, minus a few months of under-the-radar touring, that’s exactly what Mangum did in real life. When the major labels and the glossy magazines and the half-crazed fans came calling, Mangum never responded. There was no breakup announcement, no reason given for the radio silence—he just faded out. After a decade of speculation, sightings, and hoaxes, his story remains a mystery: Why did he decide to disappear? And where has Mangum gone?

Even before his public vanishing act, Mangum was something of an elusive character. Raised in the arts vortex of Ruston, La., he bristled at his hometown’s jocks-and-booze ethic and hoped from an early age to unchain his creative spirit. In the early ’90s, Mangum and a few friends formed a now-legendary collective called Elephant Six, which grew to encompass dozens of strangely named bands creating eclectic music mostly for their own enjoyment. Yet Mangum himself seldom stayed in one place for long; he constantly hopped from city to city, acoustic guitar in hand. At home in the collective’s base of Athens, Ga., or out on his peregrinations, Mangum cut a strange figure: a long-locked, intense-looking man with a gale-strength singing voice who liked to wear garish thrift-store sweaters and embellish the cuffs of his pants with cartoon sketchings.

Because he suffered from night terrors, Mangum often stayed up until dawn working on his songs, sometimes addressing them to the ghosts in a haunted closet. At first, this method produced modest results: His first album, On Avery Island (1996), showed flashes of promise but had its sludgy and spotty patches. One day, Mangum wandered into a bookstore and happened upon a copy of Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl. The book consumed him. After finishing it, he spent a few days crying over Frank’s story. As he told a Puncture magazine interviewer before Aeroplane‘s release, “I would go to bed every night and have dreams about having a time machine and somehow I’d have the ability to move through time and space freely, and save Anne Frank. Do you think that’s embarrassing?” The songs and lyrics he started writing about Frank could be so nightmarish in vision that Mangum grew afraid of what was issuing from his brain: verses about “pianos filled with flames” and eating “tomatoes and radio wires.” At times, he seems possessed, singing on Aeroplane‘s title track, “Anna’s ghost all around/ Hear her voice as it’s rolling and ringing through me.”

In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is so expansive in its weirdness that one of its 11 songs is a rollicking bagpipe jam—yet it would be wrong to call it a “cult” record, since that would imply it’s some sort of flawed art-school project. Sure, Aeroplane occasionally sounds like a mariachi circus fed through a broken amplifier, but it all weaves together as Mangum guides the proceedings with percussive guitar strumming, singalong melodies, and his booming, emotive voice. The album plays like a document from a parallel-universe version of the 1940s, inlaid with Mangum’s haunting lyrics: “And here’s where your mother sleeps/ And here is the room where your brothers were born/ Indentions in the sheets/ Where their bodies once moved but don’t move anymore.” Aeroplane isn’t about airtight instrumentation or tricky songwriting—most of the songs have just three or four chords—but about a remarkable range of feeling put into melody. (Mangum recorded his part of the song “Oh Comely” in one scratch take, at the end of which you can hear a stunned band member yell “Holy shit!” in the background.)

When Aeroplane first debuted, sales took a while to warm up. Those who found the record would appear at shows and (to the annoyance of many audience members) collectively drown out Mangum’s singing with their own rendition, but this was still indie music’s dark, pre-blog era. By the time magazines started paying attention, toward the end of 1998, Mangum already had one foot out the door. Worn down by months of touring, he grew fed up with discussing himself and explaining his lyrics, eventually declining to accept any calls—yet friends say he still fixated on every word written about him. As his bandmates pressed him to capitalize on Neutral Milk Hotel’s success, he withdrew more and more. When R.E.M. offered a chance to open for them, he said no. And for the last decade, that’s nearly all he’s said.

As Aeroplane‘s legend began to build, Mangum kept himself busy by having a total nervous breakdown. Laura Carter, his then-girlfriend, told the Atlanta alt-weekly Creative Loafing that he spent entire days sitting in his house in a state of near panic, wearing a pair of old slippers and doing absolutely nothing. He became paranoid, hoarding rice for the inevitable post-Y2K apocalypse. Since 1998, Mangum has rejected every interview request save one 2002 conversation with Pitchfork in which he explained his meltdown. “I went through a period, after Aeroplane, when a lot of the basic assumptions I held about reality started crumbling,” he said. One of those assumptions was that music would somehow erase his problems. “I guess I had this idea that if we all created our dream we could live happily ever after,” he continued. “So when so many of our dreams had come true and yet I still saw that so many of my friends were in a lot of pain … I saw their pain from a different perspective and realized that I can’t just sing my way out of all this suffering.”

It took Mangum years to rebuild himself after this spiritual crisis—and since part of that crisis was his recognition that music would never save him from his demons, he couldn’t very well embark on another record. So he wandered the globe to find spiritual balance, even spending time in a monastery. (Aeroplane‘s steady sales helped finance the quest; the album still moves a reported 25,000 copies a year.) Occasionally, Mangum flitted ever so briefly into the public eye. He released a disc of field recordings of Bulgarian folk music, then disappeared. Calling himself “Jefferson,” he hosted a late-night radio show on New Jersey’s WFMU a few times until he was discovered, then vanished once again. Sometimes he’ll appear onstage at friends’ rock shows for a song, sending the crowd into paroxysms—but when those friends suggest he record his own music, they say he becomes evasive.

Mangum’s continued silence has angered some fans, who accuse him of being selfish or “indifferent to his talent,” as if musical ability comes with some sort of obligation to society. At least once a year, someone writes a hoax message from Mangum and posts it online—generally throwing in some fanciful verbal junk to bilk fans into believing it’s the genius himself wielding the keyboard. Some have announced forthcoming records or tours, while others have revealed the long-hidden sources of Mangum’s misanthropy; they’ve all been debunked. All we really know for sure is this: According to his record label, Mangum now lives in New York City. He recently married filmmaker Astra Taylor. Friends say he still creates art and that he seems “very happy.” If he has plans to record more music, he hasn’t told anyone.

And if Aeroplane really is Jeff Mangum’s final statement to the universe, maybe we should be happy with that—not because of some tired line about going out at your peak (which he likely didn’t reach), but because his story is a kind of modern fable. Many fans see his disappearance only in selfish terms: They’ve been deprived of more great music for no good reason. They can’t understand why Mangum would shun success just to shuffle through his days, and, indeed, when musicians abandon this much promise, the culprit is usually drugs or debilitating accidents or people named Yoko. So he must have gone nuts, right? Well, no. After all, what if Mangum is just being honest? What if he poured his life into achieving musical success only to discover that it wasn’t going to make him happy, so he elected to make a clean break and move on? We should all be so crazy.

As always, though, hope for Mangum’s return still glimmers. Last month brought news that he may play a guy in a lobster suit in a soon-to-be-released conceptual film. But who knows? You can’t see inside the suit.

Taylor Clark is a writer based in Portland. His first book, Starbucked: A Double Tall Tale of Caffeine, Commerce, and Culture,was published in November.
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Lev Vygotsky developed his cultural-historical theory of cognitive development in the early 20th century but it has only recently been applied in American early childhood education through a program called “Tools of the Mind”. Imagine, a pre-school program that teaches children how to develop their executive function skills and control their own behavior without drugs!

February 28, 2008


M O N O G R A P H S – 7






Elena Bodrova and Deborah J. Leong



Foreword, page 3

Introduction, page 4

National/regional and local contexts

in which the innovation was

conceived, page 6

Specific problematic issues addressed,

page 8

Vygotsky’s theory of learning and

development, page 9

Subsequent developments in the

Cultural-Historical Theory

as a foundation for instructional

practices, page 13

Description of the innovation, page 17

Description of the Early Literacy

Advisor, page 22

Implementation of the innovation,

page 25

Evaluation: selected experimental

studies, page 30

Impact, page 35

Future prospects/conclusions, page 37

Notes, page 39

References, page 39

The authors are responsible for the choice

and presentation of the facts contained in

this publication and for the opinions expressed

therein, which are not necessarily

those of UNESCO:IBE and do not commit

the Organization. The designations employed

and the presentation of the material

in this publication do not imply the expression

of any opinion whatsoever on the part

of UNESCO or UNICEF concerning the legal

status of any country, territory, city or

area, or of its authorities, or concerning the

delimitation of its frontiers or boundaries.

About the authors

Elena Bodrova (Russian Federation)

and Deborah Leong (United States of


Elena Bodrova, Ph.D., and Deborah

Leong, Ph.D., have collaborated since

1992 when Dr Bodrova came to the

United States from the Russian

Federation, where she had worked at the

Institute of Pre-School Education and

the Centre for Educational Innovations.

They co-authored one of the defining

books on Lev Vygotsky’s educational

theories, Tools of the mind: The

Vygotskian approach to early childhood

education (1996, Merril/Prentice Hall)

and four educational videos (Davidson

Films). Dr Bodrova is currently working

for Mid-Continent Research for

Education and Learning (McREL),

Colorado. Dr Leong is a professor at

Metropolitan State College of Denver

since 1976. She has also co-authored a

college textbook: Assessing and guiding

young children’s development and

learning (1997, Allyn & Bacon).

Published in 2001

by the International Bureau of Education,

P.O. Box 199, 1211 Geneva 20,



Printed in Switzerland by PCL




The Tools of the Mind project aims to foster the cognitive development of

young children in relation to early literacy learning. The authors of the project

have developed a number of tools to support early learning and a highly innovative

method for training teachers in using these approaches. Piloting of

the approaches has demonstrated their potential to develop children’s early literacy

skills and they are being increasingly used in early childhood education

programmes across the United States. The project is the result of collaborative

work between Russian and American education researchers, based on the theories

of Vygotsky, applied to the cultural context of the United States. This

monograph describes the development and piloting of the project, including

the creation of the Early Learning Advisor, a computerized assessment system

which provides direct advice to teachers on the developmental levels of their

individual students, and gives them suggestions about how to apply the innovative

teaching concepts in their daily work in the classroom.

FIGURE 1. Play plan by Shamiso in November



The Tools of the Mind project began as a search for tools to support the cognitive

development of young children. We ended up focusing on the development

of a number of teaching tools to scaffold early learning and a unique

method of training teachers in how to use these tools. On the basis of the

Vygotskian approach, we created a series of tools or strategies to support the

development of early literacy, including meta-cognitive and meta-linguistic

skills as well as other foundational literacy skills. The results of an empirical

evaluation of the project revealed that the strategies had a positive effect on literacy

achievement in young children.

As the project grew, so did the number of teachers who wanted to be trained

in how to implement these innovative strategies. The traditional

workshop/class format we used to train teachers was not as effective as we

wanted it to be—something that other researchers in staff development have

also discovered. In response to this, we took a unique approach to teacher

training by using child assessment and technology to transfer expert knowledge

to the classroom teacher. With Dr Dmitri Semenov, an expert in mathematical

modelling of psychological processes and design of artificial intelligence

systems, we developed a diagnostic-prescriptive computerized

assessment system—the Early Literacy Advisor (ELA). The ELA acts as an

‘expert teacher’ capable of giving advice on how to address the specific instructional

needs of an individual student. Consequently, instead of general

workshops on literacy development, teachers are given specific results from

the assessments of their own students described in terms of the relevant developmental

patterns. Instead of a workshop on literacy activities, the assessment

results include the literacy activities most suitable for the children in

their classroom. And instead of lectures on the Vygotskian approach, teachers

learn about the concepts of zone of proximal development and scaffolding as

they apply them in their own teaching. At many levels, the ELA was able to

break down barriers to innovation.

The Tools of the Mind project began in two classrooms with three interested

teachers. It has grown over eight years to influence hundreds of teachers and

their students through educational videos, books, articles and the use of the


We believe that this project demonstrates that good educational practices

originating in one country can spark the creation of new practices that fit the

cultural context of another country, but still remain faithful to the theoretical

foundations underlying the original. The results can be extremely positive and


unique—something that would not have been developed in either country

without the exchange of ideas. A necessary ingredient for innovation is the

thoughtful exchange between researchers and practising teachers so that the

newly developed instructional practices can address critical learning problems

in a way that the teacher can easily implement in the classroom. In our case,

two early childhood teachers in particular—Ruth Hensen and Carol Hughes—

made this possible. We have seen many programmes that try to adapt the

classroom to the innovation instead of developing the innovation to fit the

structure and organization of the classroom. An innovation cannot survive unless

empirical research is used to validate the effects of the newly developed

tools. Dissemination and evaluation go hand in hand.

The INNODATA programme is designed to foster the kind of cross-fertilization

embodied in Tools of the Mind by providing a forum to share the experiences

of researchers who have tried to implement and evaluate these kinds

of innovative programmes. We hope that our experience will be useful to other

researchers struggling with similar problems and issues.

FIGURE 2. Play plan by Shamiso in February


National/regional and local contexts

in which the innovation was conceived

The Tools of the Mind project was conceived at a time when a national consensus

was already established about the importance of early childhood education.

Recognizing the need to increase the quality of these programmes, the National

Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) began to accredit

early childhood education programmes, using the idea of developmentally appropriate

practice as its core. Developmentally appropriate practice is instruction that

is both age and individually appropriate (Bredekamp & Rosegrant, 1992). As programmes

adapted to obtain the NAEYC accreditation, this very broad definition

of instructional practice led to several problems. First, most teachers did not have

enough knowledge about child development to be able to practically decide what

to do in the classroom. In addition, the research base used to define developmental

patterns was being modified at a rate that only academic experts in the field

could keep up with. Second, the broad and open-ended nature of the definition

was subject to a wide variety of interpretations—for some it meant no teaching at

all and for others it meant very teacher-directed instruction.

At about the same point in time, the spotlight of accountability hit elementary

schools in the United States. The standards-based movement was the result

of the American public’s growing dismay over the low levels of achievement

of American students in general and specifically on international tests in

maths and literacy. Schools in the United States have always been under the

control of local communities, so that what children learned was primarily determined

by local (city or county) school boards. Therefore, goals for student

achievement have not been set at a national level. Many people suspected that

the variability in objectives was a major cause of stagnant and often dismal

test scores, so many states began to set standards, to assess children and to

hold school districts, schools and teachers accountable for student achievement.

These new state standards have begun to supersede local control, mandating

specific levels of attainment and specific assessments that would allow

the public to compare the successes and failures of schools within the same

district or state. At the beginning of the standards movement, academic standards

did not extend to pre-school and kindergarten, but this trend is changing

(see Bowman, Donovan & Burns, 2000). Several states have now developed

standards specifically for young children, and the number of states is sure to

grow. For the first time, Head Start—a federally funded programme for at-risk

pre-school children—was mandated to identify performance standards for


children. With the growing emphasis on academic performance in pre-school

and kindergarten, teachers are now looking for guidance in how to choose instructional

practices that are not only developmentally appropriate but also

produce consistent achievement gains (Bodrova, Leong & Paynter, 1999).

Along with accreditation and the accountability movement, another trend in

early childhood education that influenced the Tools of the Mind project and led

to the development of the ELA assessment system was the growing dissatisfaction

in the 1990s with standardized assessment, particularly when used to assess

young children. Many professional groups—researchers, educators and test makers—

began to criticize the use of paper-pencil standardized tests with young

children (National Association for the Education of Young Children, 1987;

Shepard, Kagan & Wurtz, 1998). Standardized tests were criticized because they

were not authentic, tended to underestimate children’s knowledge, and penalized

children who were from different ethnic and minority groups. In addition, standardized

testing often provided little useful information for making classroom

decisions. The outcry led to a movement to develop standardized assessment systems

(the same procedure is used for all children) that are different from traditional

standardized tests. Emphasizing the importance of authentic classroom assessment,

these new assessment systems are related more directly to classroom

decisions and must be integrated with benchmarks and standards.

Another aspect of the national context that has influenced the implementation

of the innovation is the continued diversity of American public schools.

The ethnic, cultural, linguistic and social diversity of the American classroom

has long been documented in educational research. Few countries have the

level of diversity found in the United States. Attempts to respect these differences,

while at the same time teaching all children the skills and requisite

knowledge to make them productive and literate members of society, have

been and continue to be a struggle. The search for innovation has as its highest

priority those classroom practices that work with diverse students.

Finally, the national and local context in which the Tools of the Mind project

was developed has also been influenced by the growing shortage of experienced

teachers. The need to train teachers more quickly has grown. Two trends have

been cited as possible causes for this teacher shortage. First, many states have implemented

school reforms that reduce class size, particularly in the early grades.

Secondly, because of the anomaly of the ‘baby boom generation’, more practising

teachers are retiring, and so there would be a teacher shortage even without

reduced class sizes. As a result, teachers are being hired to teach in pre-school and

kindergarten with degrees in fields other than early childhood or without experience

in the early childhood classroom. School districts are struggling even more

than normal with the need to train on the job. Cost-effective ways of conducting

in-service training in early literacy has become a top priority.


Specific problematic issues addressed

The Tools of the Mind project was developed to address the following issues facing

the educators of young children, from age 3.5 to 7 (pre-school to Grade 2):

• The need for developmentally appropriate teaching techniques to scaffold

both underlying cognitive skills and foundational literacy skills for a diverse

population of children;

• The need for instruments that combine the best features of standardized and

authentic classroom assessments;

• The need for a mechanism to monitor child progress towards standards and

to provide timely feedback to teachers; and

• The need for a vehicle for ongoing transfer of expert knowledge to teachers,

especially novice teachers.

FIGURE 3. Play plan by Shamiso in May


Vygotsky’s theory of learning

and development

The theoretical framework that forms the basis of our work is the Cultural-

Historical Theory of Lev Vygotsky (1896–1934). Of the many aspects of

this theory that profoundly influenced psychological thought in the twentieth

century, the Tools of the Mind project primarily focused on the aspects

that address issues of learning and development. The revolutionary

approach to these issues pioneered by Vygotsky has linked these two

processes together in a way that was never before considered. According

to Vygotsky, some of the developmental outcomes and processes that were

typically thought of as occurring ‘naturally’ or ‘spontaneously’ were, in

fact, substantially influenced by children’s own learning or ‘constructed’.

Learning, in turn, was shaped by the social-historical context in which it

took place. This dual emphasis—on children’s active engagement in their

own mental development and on the role of the social context—determined

the name used to describe the Vygotskian approach in the West—‘social



The kind of learning (and, consequently, teaching) that leads to changes in development

was described by Vygotsky (Vygotsky, 1978) as the situation in

which children acquire specific cultural tools, handed to them by more experienced

members of society. These cultural tools facilitate the acquisition of

higher mental functions—deliberate, symbol-mediated behaviours that may

take different forms dependent on the specific cultural context.

Higher mental functions exist for some time in a distributed or ‘shared’

form, when learners and their mentors use new cultural tools jointly in the

context of solving some task. After acquiring (in Vygotsky’s terminology ‘appropriating’)

a variety of cultural tools, children become capable of using

higher mental functions independently. Vygotsky called this progression from

the ‘shared’ to the ‘individual’ state the law of the development of higher mentalfunctions (Vygotsky, 1978).

Tools for higher mental functions have two faces: external and internal

(Luria, 1979; Vygotsky, 1978). On the external plane, the tool is one that

learners can use to solve problems that require engaging mental processes

at levels not yet available to children (e.g. when a task calls for deliberate


memorization or focused attention). At the same time, on the internal

plane, the tool plays a role in the child’s construction of his/her own mind,

influencing the development of new categories and processes. These new

categories and processes eventually lead to the formation of higher mental

functions such as focused attention, deliberate memory and logical



The process of learning cultural tools begins in the early years when children

first encounter cultural artifacts and procedures associated with using

them; they learn to use language first to communicate with other people

and later to regulate their own behaviour. This is also the time when they

first become participants in ‘shared activities’—from the emotional exchanges

of infants with their caregivers to the joint problem solving of

older children. One of the major outcomes of this process is the ability to

take control of their own behaviours—physical, social, emotional and cognitive—

through employing their higher mental functions. Vygotsky described

this as ‘becoming a master of one’s own behaviour’, as opposed to

being ‘slave to the environment’ (Vygotsky, 1978). In terms of young children’s

behaviours, this is easy to demonstrate with the example of memory.

In the beginning, children who are not ‘armed’ with the necessary tools

have little or no control over what they can remember and when they can remember

it. For these children, these ‘whats’ and ‘whens’ are almost totally

determined by the environment: a 3-year-old cannot recite a nursery rhyme

when asked to do it, but can do it once a teacher starts reciting this rhyme or

when this rhyme’s character appears on a television screen. This type of

spontaneous remembering is governed by the laws of association: children

only remember things when they are repeated over and over or continually

practised in a fun and engaging activity. While it is possible to employ these

rules of association in teaching limited content to very young children, the

content demands imposed by formal schooling make it necessary to engage

in more efficient and deliberate strategies of remembering. Thus, as a child

makes the transition from less formal to more formal learning contexts, the

child has to learn how to ‘take in a teacher’s plan and make it his/her own’.

For educators who share Vygotsky’s beliefs about the processes of learning

and development, the goal of early instructional years involves more than

merely transferring specific knowledge—it involves arming children with

tools that will lead to the development of higher mental functions (Bodrova

& Leong, 1996).



The concept of the ‘zone of proximal development’ (ZPD) is by now quite familiar

even to educators working outside the Vygotskian framework.

However, the applications of this concept to instructional practice are not numerous,

and in many cases the ZPD is used as a metaphor rather than as a theory

(Bodrova & Leong, 1996). The ZPD is defined as a distance between two

levels of a child’s performance: the lower level that reflects the tasks the child

can perform independently and the higher level reflective of the tasks the same

child can do with assistance.

To successfully apply the concept to instruction, the ZPD has to be placed

in a broader context of the Cultural-Historical Theory. It is important to remember

that the ZPD reflects the view Vygotskians hold of the relationship

between learning and development: what develops next (proximally) is what

is affected by learning (through formal or informal instruction). Consequently,

the concept of the ZPD is applicable to development only to the degree in

which development might be influenced by learning (Vygotsky, 1978).

Behaviours having a strong maturational component, for example, could not

be described using the ZPD. In addition, for any developments to be influenced

by learning, there must be a mechanism that supports the progression

of a newly learned/developed process from assisted to individual. In some

cases this mechanism is absent and consequently this progression may never

occur. This leads us to the next Vygotskian idea that has generated a strong

following in the area of education—the idea of scaffolding.


Although scaffolding is not one of Vygotsky’s initial terms, the concept is a

useful one because it makes more explicit some of the instructional implications

of the idea of the ZPD. Introduced almost forty years after Vygotsky’s

death by Jerome Bruner (Wood, Bruner & Ross, 1976), scaffolding describes

the process of transition from teacher assistance to independence. It answers

the frequently asked question about the ZPD: if a child can function at a high

level only with assistance, how can this child eventually be able to function at

the same level independently?

Scaffolding answers this question by focusing on the gradual ‘release of responsibility’

from the expert to the learner, resulting in a child eventually becoming

fully responsible for his/her own performance. This gradual release of

responsibility is accomplished by continuously decreasing the degree of assistance

provided by the teacher without altering the learning task itself.

Emphasizing the fact that the learning task remains unchanged makes scaf12

folding different from other instructional methods that simplify the learner’s

job by breaking a complex task into several simple ones. While breaking the

task into simple subtasks may work for some areas (demonstrated by some

successes of programmed instruction), in other areas, breaking a task into several

component tasks actually changes the target skill or concept being

learned. This alteration leads to learner difficulty when trying to master complex


In contrast, scaffolding makes the learner’s job easier by providing the maximum

amount of assistance at the beginning stages of learning and then, as the

learner’s mastery grows, withdrawing this assistance. However, the question

remains: how does a teacher choose the right kind of assistance and then withdraw

it in such a way that the student’s independent performance stays at the

same high level as it was when the assistance was provided? Unfortunately,

without an answer to this question, scaffolding will remain more of a

metaphor for effective teaching than a description of a specific instructional

strategy for teachers to use. In search of this answer, we will turn to the work

done within Cultural-Historical Theory by colleagues of Vygotsky and generations

of his students.

FIGURE 4. Play plan by Krystine in November


Subsequent developments

in the Cultural-Historical Theory

as a foundation for instructional practices

Vygotsky first formulated the major principles of the Cultural-Historical

Theory, but it took several subsequent decades of work by his colleagues and

students to apply these principles to education and to develop new instructional

practices based on these principles. Vygotskians elaborated primarily

on the idea of ‘cultural tools’ and were able to identify the specific tools most

beneficial for different areas of learning and development. They were also able

to describe processes leading to the acquisition of these tools and the role of

the teacher in facilitating these processes. These subsequent developments of

the Vygotskian approach resulted in the addition of new ideas to the original

framework that—along with original Vygotskian concepts—have influenced

our work. These ideas include the concepts of the orienting basis of an action,

external mediators, private speech and shared activity and the idea of play asa ‘leading activity’

(Elkonin, 1977; Galperin, 1969; Leont’ev, 1978; Luria,

1979; Venger, 1988).


According to Galperin (Galperin, 1969; 1992), ‘orienting basis of an action’

describes how a learner represents the learning task in terms of the actions

he/she will perform in relation to this task. For the learning of a new task to

be successful, the learner’s actions must be driven by the critical attributes of

the task. In identifying these critical attributes, the learner has to deal with a

variety of elements that might orient her/him within the task in a more or less

appropriate way. Failure to include some of the critical attributes results in errors

and may not produce a desired learning outcome. If the learner pays attention

to non-essential attributes of the task, he/she may be distracted from

the most relevant features, which can also result in errors in learning. For example,

if a student does not include the notion of letter orientation in her/his

orienting basis of handwriting, letter reversal will result. When the learning

task is complex and requires a variety of actions, it is usually difficult for the

students to develop the correct and comprehensive orienting basis necessary

to succeed. In this case, Galperin suggests that teachers provide scaffolding

by first helping students develop the appropriate orienting basis, and then by


teaching students how to monitor their actions using the orienting basis as a

reference point. An essential component of scaffolding would include using

tangible objects or graphic representations to support the development of an

adequate mental representation of the action.


External mediators are among the first tools children use and include tangible

objects, pictures of the objects, and physical actions that children use to gain

control over their own behaviour. As with all cultural tools, the function of the

external mediators is to expand mental capacities such as attention, memory or

thinking, and to allow the person who uses the tool to perform at a higher level.

In his own writing, Vygotsky (Vygotsky, 1978; 1987) used some examples

of external mediators to illustrate the evolution of cultural tools throughout the

history of humankind. However, when talking about cultural tools used by

modern humans, Vygotsky primarily focused on the language-based tools, although

he acknowledged that young children may still need more ‘primitive’,

non-verbal tools. It was through the work of Vygotsky’s colleagues Luria,

Leont’ev, Elkonin and Galperin, as well as the subsequent generations of

Vygotskians, that the role and the development of both verbal and non-verbal

tool use by young children was thoroughly investigated (see Elkonin, 1963;

Galperin, 1992; Venger, 1988).


With the general emphasis that Cultural-Historical Theory places on language

as a universal cultural tool, private speech presents only a small portion of the

whole picture. However, private speech is an important language tool a child

uses to master his/her own behaviour. A child who uses private speech may

seem to be talking to somebody since he or she is talking out loud; however,

in reality the only person this child communicates to is him/herself. Thus, private

speech is speech that is audible to an outside person but is not directed to

another listener. While adults occasionally use private speech, children of

pre-school or elementary school age benefit from it most. According to

Vygotsky (Vygotsky, 1987), private speech in young children is a precursor of

verbal thinking since it serves as a carrier of thought at the time when most

higher mental functions are not fully developed. As was later found by Luria

(1979), and then confirmed by many studies within and outside the

Vygotskian framework, private speech has another important function: it

helps children regulate both their overt and mental behaviours (Berk &

Winsler, 1995; Galperin, 1992).



Since Vygotsky’s works were translated into other languages over more than

thirty years ago, the association between Vygotsky’s theories and the idea of

shared or collaborative activities has been firmly established. However, this

association has mainly led to an interest in expert–novice interactions or interactions

between peers. In reality, pedagogical applications of this idea go

far beyond the issue of optimal instructional interactions. According to

Vygotsky, partners in shared activity share more than a common task; they

also share the very mental processes and categories involved in performing

this task (see the law of the development of higher mental functions, page 9).

From an instructional perspective, this means that the mental processes employed

by a teacher or by a more experienced peer tutor should be the same

ones as would be eventually appropriated by the learner.

Another instructional application of the concept of shared activity applies to

a group of mental processes traditionally described under the name of ‘metacognition’

or ‘self-regulation’. These essential learning processes are typically

studied in older children when they become able to regulate their cognitive

functioning. However, from the Vygotskian perspective, the origins of these

processes can be found much earlier, when young children start practising

self-regulatory functions by regulating other people’s behaviour. Thus, engaging

young children in activities where they can practise other-regulation as

well as self-regulation will contribute to the development of their meta-cognitive

abilities (Bodrova & Leong, 1996).


Symbolic or dramatic play occupies a special place in Vygotsky’s theory of

learning and development (Berk & Winsler, 1995; Bodrova & Leong, 1996).

Play is the activity that is most conducive to development in young children. For

children to have the full benefit of play, the play itself must have specific features.

For Vygotskians, these features include imaginary situation, roles and

rules. While the roles are explicit, the rules that govern the relationship between

these roles are typically hidden or implicit. When children enter play they are

expected to know what the rules are and the players are only reminded of these

rules when they fail to follow them. Thus, as long as everyone follows the same

set of rules, these rules will be hidden from an outside observer, which might

create an illusion of free-flowing play unconfined by any regulations.

Vygotsky and his colleagues argue that play is not the most unrestricted,

‘free’ activity, but rather that it presents the context in which children face

more constraints than in any other context. Although it is constraining, play is


also one of the most desirable activities of childhood because children are extremely

motivated to abide by these limits. Thus, play provides a unique context

in which children are motivated to act and at the same time develop the

ability to self-regulate their behaviour. The psychological nature of play facilitates

the practice of deliberate and purposeful behaviours at a child’s highest

attainable level (Elkonin, 1977; 1978). As play matures, there is a progressive

transition from reactive and impulsive behaviours to behaviours that are more

deliberate and thoughtful.



The Vygotskian approach has influenced not only the development of teaching

strategies, but also the choice of areas where these strategies are applied

and the time at which they are expected to be most effective. The teaching

strategies described in the next section directly apply the ideas of the ZPD,

scaffolding, external mediators, private speech and shared activity. The idea of

the orienting basis of activity was used in identifying the exact procedures and

materials needed to implement each of the strategies.

The ideas of the Cultural-Historical framework are also reflected in the design

of the ELA. The computerized system is designed to give the best estimate

of the child’s ZPD and to recommend teaching techniques to provide the

optimal level of assistance within this ZPD.

FIGURE 5. Play plan by Krystine in February


Description of the innovation

In this section, we will describe the innovations created using the Vygotskian

framework outlined above. We have selected a sampling of strategies, a description

of the ELA computerized assessment system, and a description of

the educational videos developed for dissemination.


True to Vygotskian beliefs about the importance of dramatic play in the development

of young children, in our classrooms, dramatic play occupies the

central place among daily activities (Bodrova & Leong, 1998a; 1999).

Throughout the entire pre-school year and at the beginning of the kindergarten

year, elements of dramatic play permeate most of the activities. In addition,

pre-school classrooms have a designated dramatic play area where children

spend forty to fifty minutes per day in sustained play. Kindergarten children

spend closer to forty minutes at the beginning of the year and then as most

kindergartens begin more formal instruction in January, the time spent in play

in the classroom drops to twenty minutes. Special instructional strategies are

used to support all elements of play. In typical early childhood classrooms in

the United States, teachers will set aside this amount of time, but children will

wander around the room, unable to sustain play. Teachers and school administrators

who visit the Tools of the Mind classrooms are surprised at the level

of intensity and involvement of the children.

To help children first initiate and then sustain an imaginary situation, the

teacher in the project makes sure that the children have a sufficient repertoire

of themes that would serve as inspiration for pretend play. To expand this existing

repertoire of themes, the teachers use such sources as field trips, visitors’

presentations, videos and books. The choice of themes is determined by

the children’s interests and by the themes already in their repertoire. For example,

among themes introduced over several years are space, farm, treasure

hunt, store, hospital, veterinarian’s office and restaurant.

Props also sustain the imaginary situation. Today’s toys so closely replicate

their ‘grown-up’ counterparts (for example, plastic food and toy kitchen utensils)

that only when play is at its most mature do children use their imaginations

to create props. Many children believe that they cannot play without the

specific prop. Instead of pretending the Barbie doll is a dentist, a child will

want to buy the ‘Dentist Barbie’. In the Tools of the Mind project, teachers try

to wean children from the need for specific props by introducing games in


which children think of different ways to play with ordinary objects. They

brainstorm ways in which a wooden block can be used—as a baby, a ship or

a chair for a doll. Teachers transition children from using realistic props to using

minimal props. In playing hospital, for example, a piece of cloth can be

used as a nurse’s cap, to make a sling for a patient’s broken arm or to wrap another

patient’s sore throat. Children pretend that a bead on a necklace is a

stethoscope. Generally, children need only minimal props to indicate the role

they are playing and those props can be re-used later for other themes.

To increase the level of mature play, teachers in the project also help children

to expand the number of roles in a theme. If children have a limited repertoire of

roles or do not quite know what they are supposed to do when acting out a specific

role, they cannot sustain dramatic play for a long period of time. For example,

if children play hospital they are not limited in their choice by the roles of

doctor and patient. They can also play roles such as nurse, pharmacist, x-ray

technician or patient’s parent. Having such a variety of characters makes play

richer in content and also helps prevent children from fighting over one specific

role. During field trips or visitors’ presentations, teachers focus children’s attention

on what people do and not on the objects they use. For example, a visit to a

fire station is not likely to lead to a rich play afterwards if children spend all their

time exploring the inside of a fire truck. On the contrary, it may even produce

conflicts in a play area if there is only one toy fire truck or only one fire-fighter

hat. A much more productive use of this field trip would be to introduce children

to various activities that people at the fire station are engaged in: answering the

phone, driving the truck, putting out fires, administering first aid, etc.


One of the most effective ways of helping children to develop mature play is

to use ‘play plans’. A play plan is a description of what the child expects to do

during the play period, including the imaginary situation, the roles and the

props. Play planning goes beyond the child saying, ‘I am going to keep

house’, to indicate what the child will do when he/she gets there such as, ‘I

am going to play shopping and making dinner’ or ‘I’m going to be the baby’.

Two or more children can plan together if they are interested in playing the

same thing or going to the same area. If children want to change their plans,

they are encouraged to do so. It is the action of mentally planning that is the

major benefit to the child. The figures appearing at the ends of chapters show

the progression of play plans for two pre-school children: Shamiso (Figures 1,

2 and 3) and Krystine (Figures 4, 5 and 6). The progression of play plans

shown begins with messages dictated to the teacher and ends with the child’s

attempts to write his/her own message.


In some other early childhood programmes, children plan their activities

aloud. However, we found that planning on paper is much more effective than

planning orally. Both the children and the teacher often forgot the oral plan. The

drawn/written plan is a tangible record of what the child wanted to do that other

children as well as that child and the teacher could consult. Many of our teachers

take dictation and write what the child dictates about their plan at the bottom

of the page, thus turning the planning session into a literacy activity.

For Vygotskians, the external mediation feature of planning on paper

strengthens play’s self-regulation function. It provides a way for both the child

and the teacher to revisit the plan because it serves as a mediator for memory.

In creating, discussing and revising their plans, children learn to control their

behaviours in play and beyond, thus acquiring self-regulatory skills. Finally,

teachers use play planning to influence dramatic play without intervening in

and disrupting the play as it is occurring. The teacher suggests to children

ahead of time how they can try out new roles, add new twists to the play scenario,

or think of a way to substitute for missing props. Potential ‘hot spots’

are worked out in advance.

In the Tools of the Mind classrooms, play plans increased the quality of

child play and the level of self-regulation, both cognitive and social. When

teachers did planning every day, children showed gains in the richness of their

play. In addition, there was less arguing and fighting among the children.

Asking the parties if the argument was ‘part of their plan’ easily solved the

disputes. Of course, they had not planned to argue and immediately returned

to their original plan. Arguments seldom blew up into situations where there

were power struggles with the teacher. In the long run, after plans had been

used for several months, there were few fights since potential problems were

defused before the play began.

There are several other benefits to play plans that are worth noting. First, the

play plans provided a wonderful way for parents to find out about what goes

on in the classroom. They provided a context for parents and children to discuss

the day and help parents to feel more involved. Second, the written plans

documented the child’s progress in both symbolic representation and literacy

skills. Third, the plans provide a meaningful context in which to use literacy

skills. In our findings, many children began to act like writers by drawing and

writing their plan in ‘pretend writing’ and then telling the teacher what the

‘words’ meant. For the at-risk children who have not had opportunities to

‘write’ at home, this is a good place to start literacy activities. Finally, teachers

reported that play plans provided a special moment of connection with each

child. They gave the teacher time to talk about what the child was interested in

doing. The play plans also provided time to talk about what the children had

drawn. Although the play plans required ten to fifteen minutes to complete,


once teachers really began using them, they found that the time was well spent.

After using plans for only the dramatic play area, many of our teachers ended

up using them at other times because they helped children to practise self-regulation

in a number of contexts.


Scaffolded Writing is a technique invented in the Tools of the Mind project by

applying the ideas of the orienting basis of activity, external mediation, private

speech and shared activity (Bodrova & Leong, 1996; 1998b). In Scaffolded

Writing, a teacher helps a child plan his/her own message by drawing a line

to stand for each word the child says. The child then repeats the message,

pointing to each line as he or she says the word. Finally, the child writes on

the lines, attempting to represent each word with some letters or symbols.

During the first several sessions, the child may require some assistance and

prompting from the teacher. As the child’s understanding of the concept of a

word grows, the child learns to carry the whole process independently—selfscaffolded

writing—including drawing the lines and writing words on these


The figures appearing at the ends of chapters show how Scaffolded Writing

influences writing development. Figure 7 shows a kindergarten-aged child’s

writing prior to using Scaffolded Writing. Figure 8 shows his first attempt to

use scaffolded writing with teacher assistance and Figure 9 shows the same

child’s self-scaffolded writing two months later.

Through our research, we found that Scaffolded Writing must be implemented

differently for children, depending on their background knowledge

about literacy. While the major components of Scaffolded Writing—childgenerated

message, line as an external mediator, private speech engaged during

the writing process—remain unchanged, the contexts in which the technique

is introduced and then practised might differ. In addition, the particular

order of steps children follow when progressing from teacher-assisted

Scaffolded Writing to using self-scaffolded writing may also vary.

All children watch the teacher model the use of Scaffolded Writing. The

teacher models that the words convey a message and shows the children how to

plan the message using the lines. The teachers use messages designed to highlight

different aspects of literacy, changing the emphasis as the year progresses.

For example, many messages modelled early in the year are used to just reinforce

the relationship between spoken and written language—they might be

about what is for lunch or what children will do on a particular day. When children

are already using the lines on their own, modelled messages highlight

meta-linguistic features of words, such as long and short words, or words that


begin with the same sound. Later, the modelled messages are used to teach

sound-to-symbol correspondence.

If children have little literacy knowledge, the child’s own use of scaffolded

writing occurs in specific contexts such as their play plans. The message

written usually starts with a stem, such as ‘I am going to’ or ‘My plan is’.

After using the stem in the first sentence, children can go on and add more

sentences. Children are encouraged as quickly as possible to make their own

lines to represent each of the words in their own oral message. At this stage,

the teacher focuses on learning voice-to-print match by emphasizing that

each word spoken has a corresponding ‘line’ or representation. A second emphasis

is on the idea that writing carries a message. The fact that letters represent

sounds is discussed, but children are not expected to write letters and

words. They are asked instead to use whatever they wish to help them remember

the message—a scribble, a letter-like form or a letter.

When children are familiar to some degree with letters and letter–sound

relationships, the procedure adopts a more directed format. This is an evolving

process and is individualized to fit the child’s emerging skills. The child

dictates the message, the teacher draws the lines to stand for the words, and

then both the child and the teacher repeat the message, pointing to the line as

they say each word. Once the child can repeat the message, the child attempts

to write words on the lines. After several sessions of teacher-assisted scaffolded

writing, the child is encouraged to try planning the message with the

lines all by him/herself. Children are encouraged to write long and complete

oral messages to prompt attempts at encoding or writing as many different

sounds as possible. Children have a special alphabet chart, called a ‘sound

map’, to help them find the corresponding letter if they do not know it.

At this more advanced stage, children are asked to reread their messages to

the teacher after they have finished writing on their own. At this time, the

teacher and the child will work on ‘editing’ the message. Editing consists of

working on a certain aspect of literacy at the assisted level. For example, when

a child has one phoneme represented in each word of the message, the teacher

will help the child hear more sounds by drawing out one of the words. If a

child has represented more than one phoneme in the word, the teacher will

work on another missing phoneme. In addition, the teacher may reinforce

meta-linguistic concepts already introduced in modelled messages. Editing is

very individualized and requires that the teacher be very knowledgeable about

patterns of literacy development and what kind of assistance would work best

with a specific child. At this point, ‘estimated spelling’ (spelling that is phonologically

accurate but not conventionally correct) is acceptable and conventional

spelling is not emphasized.


Description of the Early Literacy Advisor

To facilitate the transfer of expert knowledge to the classroom teacher, the

Tools of the Mind project developed the ELA system with Dr Dmitri

Semenov. Dr Semenov is an expert in mathematical modelling of psychological

processes and in the design of artificial intelligence systems. The ELA is

conceived as an advisor to the teacher—helping the teacher to assess children

more effectively, to analyse assessment data, and to make choices between a

number of appropriate teaching techniques. Teachers receive expert advice in

the form of individual student profiles that make possible a truly individual approach

to address the unique needs and strengths of each student.1

Each profile has four parts that could be printed out in any combination. The

first part contains the report on the student’s performance in a test (such as an

overall score and the specific items answered correctly or incorrectly). The second

part contains the analysis of error patterns detected in the student’s performance.

The third part provides the interpretation of these error patterns. The

fourth part lists instructional strategies recommended for this particular student.

Expert knowledge derived from research and collective expertise of master

teachers is built into each component of the student profile, so that teachers

will receive accurate and research-based information. Without fully understanding

the expert knowledge behind the recommendations, teachers can still

use effective instructional recommendations that would otherwise require attending

many hours of in-service training. However, for those teachers who

want to become experts themselves, the student profiles provide detailed information

about developmental trajectories in literacy acquisition and specific

error patterns.

The major components of the ELA include a battery of early literacy assessments,

a set of instructional strategies, and computer software designed to

interpret the results of the assessment in terms of student literacy development

and recommended interventions.


The battery of assessments consists of instruments that target the skills and

concepts most critical for early literacy development along with the development

of meta-cognitive and meta-linguistic skills. The design of the ELA instruments

is based on the Vygotskian principles on the ZPD and scaffolding,

and combines assessment of a child’s independent performance with the assessment

of the child’s ability to respond to the teacher’s assistance.


An authentic assessment, the ELA uses game-like formats and activities

similar to what children would experience in school. Unlike on the typical machine-

scored answer sheet used in many assessments, children are not asked

to ‘bubble in’ their answers. Since the assessment battery is designed for nonreading

children and emergent readers, adults record the child’s actual response

on special forms (student response protocols). These forms are then

scanned into the computer and processed to generate individual student profiles.


The set of instructional strategies contains new strategies developed within the

Tools of the Mind project along with other instructional strategies empirically

proven to be effective in supporting early literacy development. Instructional

strategies are recommended on basis of the ‘window of opportunity’ for each

strategy estimated to be most beneficial for an individual child. Thus, depending

on the assessment results, different strategies could be recommended

for different children. To make the strategies’ implementation more feasible,

similar strategies are grouped into larger categories to be recommended for

groups of children with similar instructional needs.


The core of the ELA is a proprietary artificial intelligence engine that combines

pattern analysis algorithms with an expert system. The expert system is

programmed to emulate the decision-making process of master teachers by

making connections between an individual student’s raw assessment data and

effective instructional strategies that are most likely to benefit a particular student

at a specific time. In addition, the expert system defines where a child is

in the developmental trajectory and estimates the range of skills that will be

emerging next. It also identifies the patterns of a child’s errors that can be critical

in attaining the next milestone in the child’s development. The modular

design of the expert system makes it applicable to other subject areas and

grade levels, but it was first adapted to early literacy instruction.

Thus, the ELA is a logical outgrowth of the previous developments in the

Tools of the Mind project designed to facilitate the delivery of its theoretical

foundations and effective instructional strategies to classroom teachers.

The ELA has been field-tested on over 3,000 children in various samples

ranging from pre-kindergarten to Grade 1. Teachers who have used the ELA

in their classrooms have found it easy to administer and engaging for the



The ELA has been correlated with a general set of standards and benchmarks

derived from the most current research on literacy as well as from state

documents, documents from professional organizations with set literacy standards,

and research reports (e.g. National Reading Panel, 2000; Snow, Burns

& Griffin, 1998). From this body of information, a set of general standards and

benchmarks were compiled as well as a set of developmental patterns.



To increase public knowledge about Vygotsky and the principles on which

this project was built, we wrote a book, Tools of the mind: the Vygotskian approachto early childhood education (Bodrova & Leong, 1996) and participated

in the creation of a video series on Vygotsky with Davidson Films.

Three of the teaching videos cover a general introduction to Vygotsky, the role

of play in development, scaffolding, and the tactics that are used in teaching—

external mediation, private speech and shared learning. The fourth video,

which covers literacy, includes much of the Vygotskian approach to the development

of literacy.2

FIGURE 6. Play plan by Krystine in May


Implementation of the innovation

The implementation of the Tools of the Mind project can be divided into four

phases. The first phase involved our preliminary attempts at adaptation of the

Vygotskian approach to the classroom and the creation of new strategies that

better fit the American classroom while staying true to Vygotskian theoretical

foundations. In the second phase, we attempted to train a large number of

teachers to use these strategies. In the third phase, we evaluated the effects of

our approach on student achievement and experimented with methods of

training teachers. In the fourth phase, we further developed the computerized

assessment system, continued to develop strategies and applied them in more

diverse settings. In this phase, we worked on aligning the assessment with

standards and benchmarks.



The Tools of the Mind project first implemented Vygotskian activities in two

classrooms, a mixed-aged classroom with children from kindergarten to

Grade 2 (5-7 years of age) and in a large kindergarten class that had three

teachers in a private school. Each teacher had more than ten years of classroom

teaching experience. These teachers had shown an interest in the techniques

and had volunteered to participate.

As we began to implement the strategies, we discovered that many of them

did not work when they were imported directly into classroom practices. The

classroom practices and the content taught differed substantially. For example,

training teachers using the same method to teach reading skills did not translate

from Russian to English without major changes to accommodate a different

language system. Also, the curriculum in kindergarten and Grade 1 was

not the same in different countries. Children in the United States were actually

introduced to reading earlier than in the Russian Federation. American

children are allowed to attempt to write using ‘estimated’ spelling before they

know all of the sound-to-symbol correspondences and prior to reading, while

Russian children are taught to write conventionally from the very beginning.

We had to adjust Vygotskian activities so that the content in the activities was

meaningful, and we had to synchronize them with American expectations for

children of this age. Many of the Russian activities were designed for children

who were developmentally much older than their American counterparts,

although the learning tasks were similar. Thus, even the level of directions re26

quired to complete the task had to be changed to meet the developmental level

of American children since younger children’s memory skills are not as advanced.

As a result, we began to create new techniques that used Vygotskian principles

but that addressed the needs of American children. Luckily, we were

working with a wonderful group of very thoughtful teachers who were able to

help us adjust the activities to meet the needs of the American classroom. In

fact, these teachers had much higher degrees and more education than teachers

in the Russian Federation of equivalent grade levels. This made modifications

of our programme much easier. Finding a strong group of practitioners

with inquiring minds was crucial to this phase of our project and proved to be

very important all the way along.



In 1996, we began a massive implementation of our programme in a large

urban school district. We worked with seventy-eight teachers in teams in

eight schools. The teachers taught pre-school (4-year-olds), kindergarten

(5-year-olds), Grade 1 (6-year-olds) and Grade 2 (7-year-olds). We met with

small groups of teachers and support staff (special education teachers, reading

specialists) for a one-hour session. These sessions were scheduled so

that we were able to meet with all seventy-eight teachers once every three

weeks. In addition, trained district staff developers provided support in the


The intensive training process involved in this phase was very timeconsuming

and yielded inconsistent results. We did not have a full-blown curriculum

with teacher manuals and activity kits, and so it was more difficult for

teachers to implement our techniques. Teachers who understood and learned

the Vygotskian approach did better at implementing the techniques in the

classroom. When we gave specific suggestions to teachers, such as after child

evaluations, teachers were better able to implement suggestions. Using the assessment

data as the basis for teacher training was even more successful than

watching the teachers’ videotapes of classroom problems. This led us to the

idea of making the assessment more closely tied to teaching strategies and developmental


At the end of the year, the school district administration was reluctant to

have the entire project evaluated and blocked the final assessment. The district

felt that the assessments should only be given to the children who would pass

the test. Otherwise, they argued, it was too painful and difficult for the children.

Thus, we were not able to complete an empirical study or even an eval27

uation of our programme. We learned that the word ‘evaluation’ had different

meanings for researchers and school district staff and that this had to be negotiated

at the beginning of the project.

However, of the children we were allowed to assess, we found that in those

classrooms where our Vygotskian-based programme was faithfully implemented,

the children’s progress was very strong, much greater than expected.

All of the children progressed relative to their initial literacy levels. In addition,

progress outweighed the effects of demographic—African-American and

Latino students did as well as their Caucasian and Asian counterparts.

During this phase we developed our first three videos.


Realizing the need for a complete and real evaluation of our programme, in

Phase III we began an empirical study using control and experimental groups.

We narrowed our focus to kindergarten with a small pilot sample of preschools.

For the kindergarten study, we worked with a small district with a

large population of at-risk children. The plan was to have a six-month trial

(January to the end of school) and evaluation of the programme. The preschool

programmes were in an urban district.

This marked the first large-scale use of the computerized assessment system.

It required that all of the children’s assessments (control and experimental)

be analysed within a week. By this time the system could analyse an individual

protocol and produce a profile in five to ten minutes. More than 500

protocols had to be scanned and analysed in the course of a few weeks. Just

the logistics of working this out showed that the computerized assessment system

could handle a large volume and still perform flawlessly. The procedures

used in this phase of the project and the results of the study are described in

the section entitled ‘Evaluation’.

The implementation was more successful than we had expected. The children

had benefited greatly from the project; even the large number of non-

English-speaking students had progressed during the six months to a greater

extent than those in the control group. The techniques were successful with atrisk

populations. We believed that a more intensive effort would prove them

to be even more successful.

The introduction of the computerized assessment allowed us to give less

support compared with Phase II, but we ob tained more potent results for children.

Thus, tying the techniques directly to the assessment speeded up implementation

of the teaching strategies.

When we statistically controlled for fidelity to the programme, we found

that those teachers who were most faithful in the implementation of the pro28

gramme every week were the ones who had the strongest results, even though

their children as a whole began the year at a lower level. These teachers had

the greatest gains overall.

In this phase we came across several unexpected problems due to the population

we were working with. In some classrooms, 30–60% of the children

who began the school year left before the end of the year. A significant number

of children were absent for substantial amounts of time—for weeks and

months. This complicated issues such as the child’s exposure to the techniques

as well as data collection for the evaluation.



During this phase, we moved our project to McREL (Mid-Continent Research

for Education and Learning), one of ten regional educational laboratories

sponsored by the Office of Educational Research and Improvement (OERI) of

the United States Department of Education.

The move to McREL increased development of training materials and the

degree to which both the assessments and techniques addressed state and national

standards for early literacy. This occurred at a time when the field of

early childhood education underwent a move to more accountability and the

need to address child outcomes. McREL is known nationally for its work in

school reform and the development of standards; McREL staff made valuable

contributions to the original Vygotskian-based techniques and assessments. At

this time, we divided our project into three parts:

• Technique development;

• Dissemination and distance learning; and

• Test and computerized assessment development.

Technique development

We began to work intensively in only two model classrooms as the sites for

the development of techniques. We could closely interact with both teachers

and children and could receive constant feedback. From this effort, we developed

a more coherent curriculum with activities covering more of the components

of a pre-school or kindergarten daily programme. With the support of

nationally known consultants in reading and early childhood education, the

techniques continue to improve and develop as new problems arise.

Dissemination and distance learning

The computerized assessment programme, which included assessments and

techniques, became one of the products offered by McREL to school districts


across the United States. The ELA is being used in thirty districts as the accountability

measure for kindergarten. Distance training of teachers using the

ELA has begun. In addition, we worked with Davidson Films to complete our

fourth video to teach early childhood educators about literacy.

Test and computerized assessment development

Test development included setting numerical indicators for the benchmarks

using the ELA and the correlation of the assessments with standards and

benchmarks. The Best Teachers with At-Risk Children Study, completed in

1999, established numerical indicators for the assessment profiles. For this

study, a group of teachers were chosen because of high child achievement

scores and school district recommendations. The teachers in the final sample

were teaching in schools with a history of very low test scores on standardized

assessments in the upper grades and a large number of at-risk children. The

computerized assessment was administered at the beginning and at the end of

the year. Teachers received all developmental information but did not receive

any information about techniques and strategies. The study was designed to

identify how far during one year good teachers were able to take at-risk children.

In addition to test development, we have been engaged in an intensive survey

of the literature that has resulted in a compilation of the standards, benchmarks

and developmental patterns in the area of literacy. These developmental

patterns have been used to refine the profiles that were generated from the

assessments. The compilation has also been posted on the web for states and

school districts to use when setting their own standards.

The primary problem at this time is establishing a stable base of funding for

the project. Because the approach to literacy development advocated in the

project is not mainstream, it has been difficult to obtain funding through traditional



Evaluation: selected experimental studies


In January 1997, the Tools of the Mind project began collaboration with a

public school district to improve the underlying cognitive and early literacy

skills of kindergarten students. The study was conducted with ten kindergarten

teachers—five experimental and five control. Each teacher had two sessions—

in the morning and in the afternoon. Each session had twenty to twenty-five

students. There were a total of 426 children in the selected schools—218 children

in the project classrooms and 208 in non-project classrooms.

Experimental and control classrooms were selected so that demographic characteristics

of students as well as teachers’ educational background and teaching

experience would match. In addition, all kindergarteners in the district

were given a writing test prior to the beginning of the study. The analysis of

the writing samples collected allowed us to make sure that children in the experimental

and control classrooms did not differ significantly in their early literacy


Teachers implemented three teaching techniques: Scaffolded Writing, written

learning plans and sound analysis (using Elkonin boxes and the sound

map). We estimate that this comprised (in the best case) about 10% of the

classroom instructional time per week. A staff member was assigned to each

of the project teachers to assist him/her in implementing these techniques and

to collect samples of the children’s work. These aides were available for each

of the project teachers for one day a week.

To compensate for the extra time during which an aide was available to

work with children in the project schools, project staff spent one day a week

in the non-project schools doing whatever the teacher asked them to do. For

some teachers, this meant reading or writing with the children. In other cases,

the staff member freed the teacher up to do other things. In only one case was

the aide asked to not participate in the classroom, and so she sat on the sidelines.

Both children in the project and non-project schools attended the IBM Writeto Read ® lab, a computerized phonics programme. Children in the non-project

schools had a literacy period during which they practised writing, looked

at books or read a story. This was similar in all kindergartens. Both project and

non-project schools were held accountable for a specific set of crucial skills.

Children were also assessed using a district-wide assessment.


Children were assessed twice—at the beginning of the semester (January)

and at the end of the semester (May). Both times testing was done during a

one-week period. Assessments were administered primarily by undergraduate

college students majoring in education. About 40% of the children in the project

schools were assessed by their teachers. Of all the children participating

in the study, 231 were assessed on all assessments—pre- and post-tests. In addition,

for some children partial pre- and post-test data were available (e.g.

January and May data on the sound-to-symbol correspondence test were collected

for 316 children). The significant decrease in the number of children

tested in relation to the initial sample size can be attributed to a high turnover

rate and high absenteeism typical of urban school districts.

All of the assessments, except the writing sample, were administered in a oneto-

one session that lasted about twenty minutes per child. When the writing sample

assessment was administered, children began writing in a large group, and

then as each child finished, the tester would have the child read his/her writing

on an individual basis. Five assessments were given in the pre-test and these five

were repeated with two additional assessments in the post-test. The assessments

used both for pre- and post-tests were letter recognition, sound-to-symbol correspondence,

words versus pictures, instant words and writing sample. Reading

concepts and the Venger Graphical Dictation Test, which measured self-regulation,

were only administered in spring (Venger & Kholmovskaya, 1978).

Assessment data were analysed using S-Plus statistical software. General accuracy

scores were calculated for four assessments: letter recognition, soundto-

symbol correspondence, words versus pictures and instant words. Multiple

scales were used to analyse the writing sample and reading concepts tests.

The scales for the writing sample analysis included scribbling versus writing,

number of words, message complexity, word complexity, message decoding, controlled

vocabulary usage, accuracy of word encoding, completeness of phonemic

representation, correctness of phonemic representation and concepts of writing.

The scales for the analysis of the reading concepts data included voice-to-printmatch, concept of a word, concept of a sentence and comprehension.

Owing to the time-consuming nature of the manual coding involved in the

analysis of the Venger graphical dictation test, analysis of the data collected

with this instrument was not completed.


On all pre-tests, the children in the project and non-project schools had very

similar distributions on all assessments. Thus, project and non-project samples

did not differ statistically on any measures before the introduction of the innovative

teaching techniques.


Comparisons of the pre-test and post-test results between the project and

non-project schools were made. The students of the project schools demonstrated

both higher levels of performance and faster rates of progress than the

students of the non-project schools. Significantly stronger growth was documented

in several pre-literacy variables most closely associated in the literature

with reading achievement in later grades. Overall, children in the project

schools performed at higher levels on all measures. In no case did the techniques

have a negative effect on development on any scale.

Statistically significant differences between project and non-project classrooms

in the area of writing included:

• The number of words written by children who were not writing on the pretest;

• The number of words written by children who were writing some words on

the pre-test;

• Increase in the complexity of the child’s written message;

• Better correspondence between the written story and the re-read of that

story by the child;

• More consistent use of writing conventions;

• More words that are new and fewer words from controlled vocabulary;

• More accurate spelling; and

• Better phonemic encoding of words that are not a part of the controlled vocabulary.

Statistically significant differences between project and non-project classrooms

in the area of pre-reading competencies included:

• Improvement in sound-to-symbol correspondence;

• Better voice-to-print match;

• Better understanding of the concept of a sentence; and

• Better understanding of the symbolic function of a printed word.

In the following areas no statistically significant differences were found between

project and non-project classrooms: letter recognition, instant words

and words versus pictures. Two of these assessments—letter recognition and

words versus pictures—proved to be too easy for most of the children by the

end of the year to reliably discriminate between those who made greater

progress and those who did not. The instant words measure, on the other

hand, appeared to be too difficult even for the end of the year assessment: the

median post-test result was only three words recognized out of 100 administered.

Given the comparable performance of children in the project and non-project

schools on measures of letter recognition and sight words, the difference

in writing at the time of the post-test is even more indicative of the specificity

of the techniques used. Although children began at the same initial levels, chil33

dren in the project schools demonstrated significantly higher levels of writing—

a strong argument for the effectiveness of Scaffolded Writing, written

learning plans and sound analysis.


The pre-school project compared two teachers using the Tools of the Mind

curriculum with two control classrooms. In project schools all of the children

were included in the study, while in non-project schools only about half—

those who had permission slips from their parents to be tested—participated.

There were a total of seventy-five children in the selected schools, fifty-three

children in the project school and twenty-two in non-project schools. All of

these children were assessed on all assessments pre- and post-tests. Three assessments—

letter recognition, sound-to-symbol correspondence and words

versus pictures—were given in the pre-test and these three were repeated in

the post-test with the addition of the reading concepts assessment. The pre-test

was given in January and the post-test in May.

Assessment data were analysed using S-Plus statistical software. For three

assessments—letter recognition, sound-to-symbol correspondence and words

versus pictures—general accuracy scores were calculated. For the reading

concepts assessment, data were analysed using four scales: voice-to-print

match, concept of a word, concept of a sentence and comprehension.

In project classrooms, teachers implemented two teaching techniques:

Scaffolded Writing and play plans. These two strategies were typically implemented

in a combined fashion and required ten minutes of classroom time daily.

Since the adult–child ratio was higher in pre-school classrooms than in

kindergarten classrooms (two adults per eighteen children in pre-school compared

with one adult to twenty children in kindergarten) no additional personnel

were placed in either project or non-project classrooms.


Since the sub-sample of children from non-project schools was ‘self-selected’

in the sense that only children whose parents signed permission slips were included,

the following procedure was used to make project versus non-project

schools comparisons meaningful.

Each child from a non-project school was paired with a child from a project

school so that their pre-test scores on letter recognition and sound-tosymbol

correspondence tests were as close as possible. This step resulted in

twenty-two pairs. On the post-test, data were compared for these twenty-two

pairs of children.


The results for both pre- and post-tests are reported for the following measures:

letter recognition, sound-to-symbol correspondence and words versus

pictures. The reading concepts test was used to compare children from project

and non-project schools on the post-test only.

The children in the project school showed statistically stronger growth compared

with children in non-project schools in many pre-literacy variables

closely associated in the literature with reading achievement in later grades. In

no case did the techniques used have a negative effect on development on any

scale. Statistically significant increases included:

• Improvement in letter recognition;

• Better sound-to-symbol correspondence;

• Better comprehension of pattern in a text;

• Better understanding of the symbolic function of a printed word; and

• Better separation of a printed word into its component letters.

Thus, the statistical analysis of the results for both groups (kindergarten and

pre-school) proved that the innovative teaching techniques used in the project

classrooms produced gains in children’s early literacy development beyond

what was accomplished by the teachers in non-project classrooms. In the absence

of comprehensive normative data on literacy development for this age

group, it is difficult to evaluate the magnitude of these gains. However, data

reported by many researchers in the field suggest that the results demonstrated

by the children in the Tools of the Mind classrooms exceed expectations

for the respective grade levels, given the demographic characteristics of the


While the data collected provide strong evidence of the innovation’s shortterm

effects, there is not enough data to demonstrate its long-term effects.

Collection of follow-up data was made difficult by the fact that participating

schools use different instruments to assess reading and writing achievement

beyond kindergarten, and thus students’ scores could not be compared. The

state of Colorado, however, mandates that all fourth graders take the same

achievement test. As the two cohorts participating in the study will take this

test at the end of fourth grade, we will be able to compare reading and writing

scores for children who were initially in project and non-project classrooms.

Although longitudinal data are yet unavailable, teachers’ reports provide

some encouraging evidence of lasting effects of the innovative teaching strategies

on the students. Teachers from the project classrooms quote first and second

grade teachers who notice that students who participated in the study are

usually more self-regulated learners, express more interest in writing and

reading, produce more writing than their peers, and demonstrate mastery of

reading and writing at higher levels.



The reaction of the teachers involved in the project was mainly positive. The

teachers who were more intensively involved in the project, and consequently

whose results were better in terms of their students’ achievement, continued to

implement the instructional strategies they learned in the project even if they

received less support or no support from the project staff. Their students’

scores continued to improve. For example, when the school district began

mandating standardized assessments in kindergarten, 97% of students in the

project classroom scored at the ‘proficient’ level, while the average level for

the district was 50%. The following year, when the district results were reported

in terms of grade levels, students in this classroom scored between 1.4

and 1.8 at the moment of testing. This means that their literacy level in the

eighth month of their kindergarten year equalled what was expected by the

district to be accomplished only in the fourth or even eighth month of Grade 1.

These results are especially impressive given that in this classroom one-third

to one-half of the students started the year with limited English proficiency

and would usually be placed in an ‘at-risk’ category on the basis of their

socio-economic and demographic characteristics. Teachers attributed their

success to the new instructional strategies they were using.

Impact on the local level also included interest and growing support from

the school administration. The teachers who participated in the project were

invited to speak at local and national conferences and to describe their experiences

in articles addressed to classroom teachers.

It is hard to isolate the impact of the innovation on the larger educational

community from the impact of other events that were taking place at the same

time. However, there is some indication that the scope of the impact of our

project has been substantial. For example, the videotapes that explain the theoretical

foundations for the project and demonstrate some of the instructional

strategies used in project classrooms are currently used in more than 900 colleges

and universities nation-wide in their teacher preparation programmes.

Local educational agencies and school districts also use the innovations for

their professional development workshops. Tools of the Mind, which describes

the philosophical foundations and the theoretical principles underlying the instructional

strategies, remains one of the best-selling books on the subject. We

have been invited to speak on early childhood assessment at the national office

of the Head Start programme.

The greatest unintended consequence of the project has been increased

awareness in the educational community about the potential for early literacy


in pre-school and kindergarten. In our model classrooms, children demonstrate

that they can go far beyond current expectations for their age group. In

one classroom, which has a particularly high number of at-risk non-Englishspeaking

children, all of the children exceeded the district kindergarten expectations

and scored at the Grade 1 level. This was the first time in the district

that children from a classroom with this demographic make-up had

performed so well.

In addition, the developmental patterns and benchmarks developed in the

course of creating the ELA are now being used by other states and school districts

to set expectations and standards for young children. As these have been

posted on the Internet, the number of people who are interested in them has


Finally, since so many school districts have begun to use the ELA, we have

had a chance to collect data from diverse populations in a way we never could

before. We are now collecting data from many different types of schools, and

we have data from teachers with different levels of implementation to help us

refine our tools.

FIGURE 7. Five-year-old Aaron’s independent journal writing prior to Scaffolded Writing technique.


Future prospects/conclusions

Currently, we are working in several arenas. First, we are establishing the

reliability and validity of the ELA for younger children through a study of

340 children in a Head Start programme. Head Start is the federally funded

early childhood intervention programme for at-risk children. This empirical

study will not only show the validity of the assessment battery, but will

also validate a number of special early childhood teaching strategies designed

to improve both self-regulation and foundational literacy skills. The

teaching strategies are heavily play-based and lead into the kindergarten

curriculum we have already developed. This study will be completed in

June 2001.

We are increasing the quality of the distance training provided through the

computerized assessment programme by creating CD-ROM-based training

clips to be used in the current training model and eventually to be housed on

the Internet.

We have begun to explore the use of the techniques with non-standard-

English speakers (African-American Vernacular English) and with non-

English-speaking populations (immigrant populations from a number of countries).

One of the most interesting results of the last four years of work is that

these children make substantial progress in our programme, much more than

those children who begin at similar levels without our interventions.

A site licence version of the software system was developed and has been

used in thirty school districts, assessing over 1,000 children. In total, the assessment

has been administered in various forms for over 3,500 children, and

these have all been analysed by computer. This fact shows the promise of the

use of the computer as a support to the teacher instead of merely as a teacher

replacement. Instead of directly teaching the children, the computer is used to

help teachers decide what children need to learn next.

In addition, advances in computer technology have been and will continue

to be incorporated into the ELA computer system. For example, the assessments

are all JAVA-based, so that they are platform-independent. We will have

an Internet-ready version of some assessments available within the year. We

are exploring additional kinds of data entry—other than scannable forms—

that would still be user-friendly.

The story of the Tools of the Mind project does not end here. We continue

to apply the Vygotskian approach to help young children and their teachers.

In the future, we hope to extend the types of tools we develop to older children

and to other areas of learning.


FIGURE 9. Aaron’s journal two months after using the Scaffolded Writing technique.

FIGURE 8. Aaron’s writing after the teacher helped him to use the Scaffolded Writing technique.




2. The titles are Vygotsky’s developmental theory: an introduction; Play: a Vygotskian approach; Scaffolding self-regulated learning in the primary grades; and Building literacy

competencies in early childhood. See


Berk, L.E.; Winsler, A. 1995. Scaffolding children’s learning: Vygotsky and earlychildhood education. Washington, DC, National Association for the

Education of Young Children.

Bodrova, E.; Leong, D.J. 1996. Tools of the mind: The Vygotskian approach toearly childhood education

. Englewood Cliffs, NJ, Merrill/Prentice Hall.

——; ——. 1998a. Development of dramatic play in young children and its effectson self-regulation: the Vygotskian approach.

Journal of early childhood teacher education (Stamford, CT), vol. 19, no. 2, p. 38–46.

——; ——. 1998b. Scaffolding emergent writing in the zone of proximal development.

Literacy teaching and learning (Columbus, OH, Ohio State University,

Reading Recovery Council of North America), vol. 3, no. 2, p. 1–18.

——; ——. 1999. Play and its role in development and learning: the Vygotskian

approach. In: Guddemi, M.; Jambor, T.; Skrupskelis, A., eds. Play in achanging society. Little Rock, AR, Southern Early Childhood


Bodrova, E.; Leong, D.J.; Paynter, D.E. 1999. Literacy standards for pre-school

learners. Educational leadership (Alexandria, VA), vol. 57, no. 2,

p. 42–46.

Bowman, B.; Donovan, M.S.; Burns, M.S. 2000. Eager to learn: educating our

preschoolers. Washington, DC, National Academy Press.Bredekamp, S.; Rosegrant, T. 1992.

Reaching potentials: appropriate curriculum

and assessment for young children. Washington, DC, NAEYC.Elkonin, D.B. 1963. The psychology of mastering the elements of reading.


Simon, B.; Simon, J., eds. Educational psychology in the U.S.S.R.

London, Routledge and Kegan Paul.


——. 1977. Toward the problem of stages in the mental development of the child.

In: Cole, M., ed. Soviet developmental psychology. White Plains, NY,

M.E. Sharpe.

——. 1978. Psichologija igry [The psychology of play]. Moscow, Pedagogika.

Galperin, P.Y. 1969. Stages in the development of mental acts. In: Cole, M.;Maltzman, I., eds.

A handbook of contemporary Soviet psychology. New

York, NY, Basic Books.

——. 1992. Organization of mental activity and the effectiveness of learning.

Journal of Russian and East European psychology (Armonk, NY), vol. 30,

no. 4, p. 65–82.

Leont’ev, A. 1978. Activity, consciousness, and personality. Englewood Cliffs,

NJ, Prentice-Hall.

Luria, A.R. 1979. The making of mind: a personal account of Soviet psychology.

Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press.

National Association for the Education of Young Children. 1987. Standardized

testing of young children 3 through 8 years of age: a position statement

of the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

Washington, DC, National Association for the Education of Young


National Reading Panel. 2000. Teaching children to read: an evidence-based assessment

of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications

for reading instruction. Washington, DC, National Reading Panel.

Shepard, L.; Kagan, S.L.; Wurtz, E. 1998. Principles and recommendations forearly childhood assessments

. Washington, DC, National Education Goals


Snow, C.E.; Burns, S.M.; Griffin, P. 1998. Preventing reading difficulties in youngchildren. Washington, DC, National Academy Press.

Venger, L.A. 1988. The origin and development of cognitive abilities in preschool

children. International journal of behavioral development (Hove,

UK), vol. 11, no. 2, p. 147–53.

Venger, L.A.; Kholmovskaya, V., eds. 1978. Diagnostika umstvennogo razvitijadoshkol’nikov

[Assessment of cognitive development in pre-school children].

Moscow, Pedagogika.

Vygotsky, L. 1978. Mind and society: the development of higher mental

processes. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press.——. 1987.

The collected works of L.S. Vygotsky. New York, NY, Plenum Press.

Wood, D.; Bruner, J.; Ross, S. 1976. The role of tutoring in problem solving.

British journal of psychology (London), vol. 66, p. 181–91.

Bartleby is the role model for how to survive a cubicle job; an office is just a large cubicle

February 27, 2008

Melville and Bartleby: Facing the End of an Audienceby Jon Thompson
Posted: February 18, 2008

Everything is again set in motion–called into question–by writing.

-Edmond Jabès

§ What can we face? The face as mystery, sign, image. “Bartleby” stages the terrible unworkability of faces, the equally terrible unknowability of our own. Facing it, face offs, to turn one’s face to the wall, to lose face, to gain it. The tragedy of each is the tragedy of all…

§ The worker consents or faces death. This is Bartleby’s recognition. But in consenting, ironically, he also faces death, the death of the self. It doesn’t matter that the self is a fiction. In fact, the murder of the fictive self, the self that finds a place within society, that has basked in social approval, is more tortuous and painful than the death of any actual self. This is what it means to “lose face.”

§ Becoming a pariah is one thing; becoming exiled from who you thought you once were is another. Or is Bartleby’s slow, deliberate journey of self-exile a journey to freedom? So: Heaven has levels, degrees. In reality, it is only an idea.

§ The slow, sad spectacle of the self, staging its own death for an audience that doesn’t exist.

§ The audience that has not yet found the means to look about and see that the drama is in the clapping, not in the performance, the one loud roar of approval that sweeps aside both the past and the future.

§ Freedom from external restraint, unto death. “Freedom-from” versus “freedom-in”: in this most free of nations, there is no freedom-in being. Your freedom is guaranteed by the right to die by yourself, with whatever self you can covet unencumbered by love or relation. No one would dream of curtailing that freedom. Bartleby: the nineteenth-century ancestor to every homeless person wandering aimlessly on America’s streets, each one the sovereign of all he surveys.

§ Bartleby never argued with anyone; he never tried to prove a point, win converts, vanquish foes. What does this lack of rhetorical aggression signify? The fruitlessness of conversion via argumentation? The failure of rhetoric? The contamination of rhetoric by a culture in which most “disinterested” expressions cloak naked self-interest? Bartleby’s “I prefer not to” exists as an assertion of will–but not will-to-truth.

§ The most destructive of all faces: benign tolerance. This is the face of Bartleby’s employer. It disguises its own intolerance within a mask of benevolence. Worse: because that intolerance cannot be admitted, it does not exist. And because it does not exist, it is free to become pitiless.

§ Behind the narrator’s courteousness, theatrical benevolence, and good manners lurks the threat of violence. Without these rhetorical forms, manners, forms of self-presentation, capitalist society would be undressed, its violence made manifest. With them, it is dressed up as civilized, moral, benevolent. Bartleby forces it to undress; he forces it to endure the shame of exposure, the danger of self-recognition. Therefore society takes its revenge upon Bartleby.

§ About Bartleby, the narrator says, “No materials exist, for a full and satisfactory biography of this man.” In being unknown and unknowable, Bartleby exists as a threat to society’s will-to-know, to narrative itself. That which is un-narratable must be narrated, must be known.

§ Everyone, everything must be faced, categorized, reported upon. To be unknown and unknowable is to incur the wrath of custom and law that demands a modest amount of submission.

§ Those about “whom nothing is ascertainable” defy the order of things, which rests on the ability to recognize, ascertain, assess. One death meets another.

§ “What my own astonished eyes saw of Bartleby, that is all I know of him.” Astonishment polices reality: it turns it into heaven or hell. Hell is what is unrecognizable; heaven is only a name for what can be recognized.

§ The voice of doxa is the voice of comfort and reassurance. It speaks–not in terms of certainties, but givens. It refuses its own name.

§ To trade in “bonds,” “mortgages” and “title deeds” is to trade in articles of possession. Within this world, language–writing–becomes the guarantor of ownership. The language of the law attempts to contain the irreducible play of meaning in language, its fundamentally mercurial dynamic nature, by means of complete discrimination, complete description. Through exactitude and precision it attempts to forestall all contingency, all unforeseen contexts. Bartleby’s refusal to yield his soul defies a social order possessed by the desire to possess everything and to translate its own imperial ambition into an idiom of benevolence and generosity.

§ The soul is what is withheld; the soul is that which is proffered without being acknowledged as such. It is then material and invisible. The achievement of Bartleby is that he maintains, in large part, the invisibility of his soul. This, too, is his tragedy; it is also the tragedy of the society that demands it.

§ What is safety in a world made “safe” by money? The mansion becomes the mausoleum.

§ “Poetic enthusiasm” will always be an embarrassment in the face of prudence and method. Prudence–thou knows not what thou art!

§ In a society in which the lack of “poetic enthusiasm” is judged to be good, any evidence of it will be seen as a weakness, a failure of restraint.

§ Wall Street. Even the name is mythological: destiny materialized within the flux of numbers rising or falling on the stock exchange. The market depends upon fluctuation, but fluctuation within limits. Wall Street creates walls, as well as the need for them. It also creates a demand for a limit to tolerance. In a market society, tolerance must be limited else there will be no profit. To be infinitely tolerant, that is, to be meaningfully tolerant, would require unending expenditure. Thus in market societies, tolerance becomes a most precious commodity; its value is dependent upon it being “cashed in” only rarely.

§ In 1653, Wall Street was named for a “barricade built by Peter Stuyveysant to protect the early Dutch settlers from the local Indians,” writes Peter Geisst in Wall Street: A History. Wall Street has always been then a place of barricades, an instrument of separation, a means to distance “entrepreneurial” settlers from the locals, a place of appropriation and exploitation. Indeed, it marks a border, a boundary, a space designed to produce both wealth and alienation. It marks a frontier; a defensive establishment already prepared against the backlash of the people beyond it. It thus exists as a predatory commercial site, though so “normalized” it virtually ceases to look or feel like one. Necessarily, it is a place of self-righteousness; wealth must be a sign of God’s favor. Yet there is uneasiness here too, rooted in the partially repressed recognition of the illegitimacy that comes from appropriation, which must always be legitimized. The aggressor must always be the victim.

§ Through his unorthodoxy, Bartleby challenges the liberal definition of benevolence. His employer, however, writes to convince us of his unsullied liberalism. The reader too is called upon to confirm the narrator’s own skewed self-image. In doing so, Melville shows the insecurity of the liberal mind–and its monstrosity. The entire world exists to confirm it in its essential benevolence. But since at some level it knows that it is not benevolent, the world exists to prop up a tattered fiction. Everything is sacrificed. The liberal mind: pitiless, egotistical, endlessly benign, endlessly serene.

§ Wall Street is presented to us as dialectic of “industry and life” by day an “emptiness” and “vacancy” by night. Bartleby shows, by contrast, the emptiness and vacancy of industry itself. Even to the narrator, Wall Street is a “Petra” and a ruined “Carthage.”

§ To blot a document for a scrivener is a mortal sin, for it reminds the reader that the law is not a distant, Olympian arbiter of right and wrong, but a frail, imperfect human institution… lawyers, not surprisingly, want to exorcise blots form their records. As if the law could be unblemished.

§ The impertinence of Bartleby: he does not negotiate the terms of his employment; he decides and acts off his own bat. Despite his mildness, his is the grossest kind of insubordination. Subordinates who take their own preferences in hand and follow them up challenge the legitimacy of authority. Thus the latent, nearly extinguished utopianism of “Bartleby”: what would be if all the wretched of the earth declared, “I prefer not to”?

§ Bartleby alone appears to be self-conscious, undeceived. This degree of self-awareness renders him unfit for labor which depends, to varying degrees, upon a dimming of self-knowledge, self-consciousness. Within American capitalism, self-knowledge brings the individual to a state of unfreedom. Its price: exile. To be self-conscious in America is to become an exile, a social outcast. Individualism becomes the compensatory myth for a society intolerant of it.

§ What is the black wall that Bartleby sees through his windowpanes? It is nothing but sheer blankness, Necessity, the limitation that he endures, the sum of limitations upon individual desire by the rule of law and social custom. It is the pitilessness of all laws, written and unwritten, that demand conformity and obedience. It is the primal scene of socialization in which the implacable order of things confronts human desire with its inhuman face.

§ To write the law over and over again, to copy it repeatedly, is to perform the individual’s subjection to the law: he is embodying it within language, enabling it to take material form; he is giving it his life force. The scrivener is not writing the law; it is writing itself through him. It is impervious to death and decay; the scrivener, by contrast, is mortal, temporal, frail, corruptible. The scrivener embodies the fate of the subject: to be subjected to the law is to be its subject. Which is synonymous with being subject-less. The irony of Melville’s parable: fleeing the death of the subject only hastens it.

§ The labor of the scrivener: writing without thinking, writing that faithfully and mindlessly duplicates the signifier, writing that has as its sole object the reproduction of the word of law–is this not a symbol of the co-opted labor of the intellectual working under the aegis of a reifying capitalism?

§ Bartleby arrives at his employer’s premises as an adult, but an adult without a history. It is this emptiness, this lack of a knowable past, the silence of his past, his solitude and lack of connection that distinguishes him, paradoxically, as history’s subject. His silence about his past only amplifies that untold drama. That past, that history, becomes too monumental to be written. It is unrepresentable, but in becoming unrepresentable, it acquires a ghostly presence. History haunts Bartleby. It is unseen but everywhere it makes itself felt with its uncanny presence. (Bartleby, too, becomes a wraith.)

§ Bartleby is stricken with life, with the burden of living.

§ Why does Bartleby begin his employment with an orgy of productivity? To obliterate the past? To identify himself with social expectation in a failed attempt to conform? The reasons are unknowable, perhaps to himself as well as Melville. That is respect for fiction.

§ Alternatively: Bartleby’s orgy of productivity at the beginning of his employment is the sign of the unconsciousness responding to the demands of everyday life. Bartleby’s frenzy mimics the law of productivity, becoming a grotesque parody of it. To live as a conformist is to live as a parody, to live as a mimic man. Bartleby prefers to live as a grotesque.

§ For Bartleby’s employer as for most representatives of the law, civil disobedience–“I prefer not to”–is a species of madness. In Paradise, refusal has always been a form of heresy, of madness. “What right do you have to reject Eden, my Eden”? (Even Ginger Nut thinks Bartleby is “luny.”)

§ For Bartleby, “reason” is unreason. Its tyranny is met by mildness, mildness that exists as reproach, gentle condemnation, a refusal to enter into the ugly economy of compulsion. Bartleby’s mildness, then, is utopian–or at least a faint sign of the utopian in a world degraded by imperatives. By contrast, Turkey affirms his employer’s rules “with submission.”

§ Bartleby is regarded by his employer as unreasonable, the very embodiment of unreason. What Bartleby forces us to see is that reason is a fiction authored by certain interests (the legal profession, the middle class, etc.) in order to legitimize themselves. Reason, of course, is always what you have but the other person does not. Since the Enlightenment, reason has been deified as Truth, but in so doing it betrays its own idealization. That which cannot be proven wrong becomes, by definition, an article of faith. We should speak of reasons rather than Reason. In actual practice, Reason has little to do with itself.

§ “Come forth and do your duty ” declares Bartleby’s employer to Bartleby. Duty: every society induces it to ensure its own reproduction. Duty is needed to overcome the inevitable revulsion toward the menial, the abhorrent, as well as the mundane. Doing one’s duty always involves an annihilation of the self–as well as a fulfillment of it.

§ Without irony, the master looks to the slave for confirmation of his essential benevolence; similarly, the employer demands of his employee that he confirm his employer’s sense of tolerance and benevolence. The annoyance Bartleby’s employer feels toward Bartleby is, if anything, exceeded by the irritation the other scriveners feel toward Bartleby for “shirking” his work. Turkey and Nipper’s inflamed response to Bartleby’s non serviam–“Shall I go and black out his eyes”–expresses the narrator’s own rage against Bartleby, a rage he cannot express himself inasmuch as it would give the lie to his own magnanimity. But it also allows him to act the role of the liberal, long-suffering employer (which in truth he is). “Bartleby” thus explores the psychic organization of labor under capitalism in which the wage earner expresses the anger and frustrations of his boss, which also become his. Melville reveals a system in which one class not only exploits another, but it also expects the exploited class to voice the angers, the frustrations, and the point of view of the dominant class, that is, the middle class. For Melville, this system is essentially two-faced. The question of voice or expression (the representation of what is internal) then becomes immensely fraught, caught up in the unconscious social imperative to speak for interests that are not one’s own. In part this explains Bartleby’s linguistic miserliness: to speak more would be to invite his speech to be infected by the speech and interests of another class. Bartleby’s linguistic minimalism resists this enforced class-based ventriloquism.

§ Failing to reform Bartleby, his employer takes it upon himself to read Bartleby’s protest as an opportunity to exercise his own moral improvement. That he fails is not a sign of his moral turpitude but a sign that moral improvement in a Puritan society is impossible.

§ Bartleby repossesses his employer’s premises. He has a fine indifference for property. Is it any wonder he must die?

§ “Immediately then the thought came sweeping across me, what miserable friendlessness and loneliness are here revealed.” To have his life interpreted for us by one with such suspect motives: this is Bartleby’s fate and that of all the dispossessed. He cannot narrate his own life, tell his own story in his own words. In Melville’s America, identity is not something you have or own; it is instead something conferred upon you by others. Identity is a function of how you are seen. In a society possessed by the drama of individualism, the social rears its ugly head by silently and efficiently forging an identity for every American, an identity that is never wholly available for inspection and understanding by the individual. The American self: one who thinks he knows himself utterly.

§ Spectre, spectator, specimen: Bartleby cannot escape the imprisonment of categories, more carceral than mortar.

§ The narrator says he feels a “bond of a common humanity” with Bartleby, yet his actions do not acknowledge the sanctity of any such bond. This then is the fate of the liberal mind: to feel one thing, but to have that feeling, that liberal sentiment, overborne by the “more practical” demands of class and the conformities a market society exacts.

§ “Pallid,” “miserable,” “silent,” “pale” “cadaverously gentlemanly”: Bartleby is not only deathly in appearance; he is death. Death to social convention, death to social custom, to normative expectation, to social behavior. Negating social expectation, Bartleby is negated. That is, he becomes more like who he is. He approaches the horizon of his identity, which is paradoxically nothing as well as being the unspeakable form of his resistance to social law. This is why the narrator pities him, hates him, loves him. As an object of pity, Bartleby’s unspoken critique of everything that narrator stands for (professionalism, class, respectability, tolerance, etc.) does not have to be engaged. Indeed, once made an object of pity his unspoken condemnation can be dismissed as eccentricity or lunacy.

§ The laws of property permit all kinds of plunder, invasion, appropriation. Because the narrator observes that Bartleby’s desk “is mine,” it, too, can be penetrated by him. He has in law, if not in ethics, a right to rifle Bartleby’s desk. The narrator possesses a will-to-truth vis-à-vis Bartleby: his mysteriousness, his reserve, his enigmatic taciturn character must be made explicable. That it is not defies the narrator’s complacently bourgeois worldview, which demands attribution, causal hermeneutics, simplicity, clarity. Bartleby gives this will-to-truth, which is also a will-to-power, no relief. What knowledge cannot know it must dismiss, pity or deligitimize as contemptible or a mere object of curiosity.

§ Bartleby: the exemplary American. He tries–and fails–to make a home for himself within the ever-mutating, ever-the-same precincts of capitalism and ends up being imprisoned by it.

§ “… standing in one of those deadwall reveries of his”: the reverie, long the ally of American self-invention, self-fashioning, can also be its undoing, especially when reverie becomes a substitute for doing. Bartleby is Benjamin Franklin’s nemesis, the presence of a horrific unproductivity in American culture that Franklin sought to annihilate or at least shame out of existence. The narrator (Benjamin Franklin’s alter ego in the story) initially feels pity for Bartleby, a pity that transmogrifies into repulsion. It is not only that Bartleby represents an entirely different principle of living; it is that he cannot be changed to be in alignment with the narrator’s complacent establishment values (“What I saw that morning persuaded me that the scrivener was the victim of an innate and incurable disorder.”) Hence Bartleby must be cast out.

§ The initial test of Bartleby’s excommunication will be whether he will divulge the particulars of his deliberately veiled history. If he refuses to do so, the narrator is determined to fine him. Significantly, he is not first asked to become more efficient. He is asked to reveal his soul, to become transparent before the gaze of his employer, to lose his identity as a separate, equal, and distinctive life, indeed to lose his private history. He is asked, in short, to become a case, an aggregate of facts, an object of narration, a known story, an employee instead of an individual. To the question, “Will you tell me anything about yourself?” Bartleby responds “I would prefer not to.”

§ Bartleby’s presence, his example, is a contagion that must be contained. Within the highly conventionalized world of employer-employee relations, preference cannot be allowed to have much more than a rhetorical significance. Preference speaks to individual will, which in Melville’s America, exists only ideologically, or at the level of enunciation. Individual will haunts America, its brick and mortar, its devil-deal with Wall Street, its boom times and its bust ones; it is dead, but its uneasy spirit is everywhere, a reminder of what has been lost, or perhaps what once was envisioned but never realized.

§ In the face of society’s “thou must,” Bartleby heroically maintains his own sense of will. He cannot be bribed to conform; he will not acknowledge the coercion of politeness, the ascendancy of manners. Yet he is not free. Obedience to social law and defiance of it are seen by Melville to be equally constraining. Defying social law defines Bartleby, almost absolutely. Wherever he turns there are walls. Bartleby is an individual who cannot free himself from his narrator, even from his author. Melvillean tragedy: narration itself as a form of subjection, unless the reader rewrites the story…

§ Self-interest, too, dictates the ultimate removal of Bartleby from the narrator’s law offices; the narrator decides he cannot afford generosity beyond the recognized border of conventional liberalism: the silent uncooperative presence of Bartleby has begun to affect his “professional reputation.” In a society actuated in the main by the profit motive, self-interest will always be the cardinal value; other pretenders exist, but none command the same degree of allegiance.

§ “What earthly right do you have to stay here? Do you pay any rent? Do you pay my taxes? Or is this property yours?” In nineteenth-century America, as now, rights are, in practice, guaranteed by money and property, not by “higher” ethical, legal, or constitutional principles. Melville’s postmortem on the body politic reveals not so much a divide between ethical and political life but a conquest of ethical principles by capitalist premises such that thinking beyond them requires an immense act of the imagination. By 1854, the “cash-payment nexus” had thoroughly colonized America; the only space outside it was the space of the imagination. The great achievement of capitalism is that it forces its dissidents and critics into exile, it forces us to inhabit the territory of the imagination, which it then delegitimizes as unreal, as mythical, a place of childish fantasy, a land of improbability. From whence will come the beast, slouching toward Bethlehem.

§ Horror–that Bartleby should dispossess his employer. He worries that “…in the end [he might] perhaps outlive me, and claim possession of my office by right of his perpetual occupancy.” Fear of dispossession leads to dispossession. Fear the devil! Possession, the devil! Legitimacy, the devil!

§ From valued employee to recalcitrant employee to enigma to apparition: by the end of the story Bartleby is made to metaphorse again: in a final incarnation he is seen to be an “intolerable incubus.” This is no exaggeration; he is an incubus. He haunts the living by his mere being. Merely being in a nonconformist fashion becomes an affront to bourgeois propriety, to professional decorum, to normativity itself. Bartleby becomes burdened with the socially unsaid in America, particularly the gap between our idealistic image of the American body politic and the harsher reality. Bartleby is–the worst sin of all–an embarrassment. He embarrasses the narrator’s notion of himself as a generous individual; he embarrasses society’s pretense to be a society in which action is grounded in principle. His mere presence mocks the American claim to have established a uniquely free polity.

§ “Bartleby” is about the magical power, the horrific power, of representation to transform lives. The narrator defines Bartleby’s life; his definition of Bartleby as an outsider, an “intolerable incubus,” becomes material, actual, in the body of Bartleby, wraithlike in prison, by the wall, awaiting death. In representing others as inhuman, supernatural, mythical, fantastic, they are metamorphosed into fiends, spirits, ghosts, devils, diseases, witches. Via this magic they can be annihilated, burned, slaughtered, converted, exorcised, chained, imprisoned, starved and mocked–made to gabble, made to flee, made to fly.

§ Once Bartleby’s employer deserts his law offices, he is finally able to separate himself from any sense of responsibility to Bartleby. But his departure does not signify a new disavowal of Bartleby, only the acting out of a disavowal that has already taken place. The disavowal merely becomes visible, public, as he makes clear to the new occupant of his former premises on Wall Street: “‘I am very sorry, sir,’ said I, with assured tranquillity, but an inward tremor, ‘”but really the man you allude to is nothing to me–he is no relation or apprentice of mine, that you should hold me responsible for him.'” What fear there is here:–fear of a social contract that would bind one individual to another, make one responsible to another, or merely genuinely responsive to another. Bartleby’s employer is desperate that he not be made “responsible for him.” He expresses a horror toward social responsibility. “Bartleby” is in this sense a dramatization of the American horror toward the notion of the social as the environment in which individual destiny receives completion. It ironizes–despairingly!–the narrator’s desire for the social to be replaced by an environment in which individuals pursue their ambitions limited only by the pressures of economic necessity, class, and a legal system firmly rooted in the prerogatives of wealth and property.

§ Within this vision, the social makes no demands on individuals vis-à-vis other ones, and should not. It is a space populated only by a single individual and his solipsistic ambitions. Yet the emptiness of this social space demands the most rigorous policing. It must not be filled up, certainly not by a vision of the social as fulfilling. The social is defined by Melville as the space of the prison yard, demarcated by “the surrounding walls, of amazing thickness.”

§ Ironically, in so privatizing the dream of the social as a source of support and enrichment, the social domain actually is reduced to becoming barren, coercive and exploitative. Melville’s irony: horror at the horror we have allowed the social to become.

§ “As I afterwards learned, the poor scrivener, when told that he must be conducted to the Tombs, offered not the slightest obstacle, but, in his pale, unmoving way, silently acquiesced.” The shameless of false pity, false piety! Bartleby acquiesces in the face of death. Pity is death too–in this sense, Bartleby’s removal to the Tombs is merely the actualization of the living death that he has already endured. Bartleby faces this fate without flinching. He acquiesces not only because he knows his end is inevitable, but because it is the ineluctable fulfillment of the social law, of social life. (To say that the social does not exist in “Bartleby” would be to simplify and to miss a finer irony. The social exists–but it exists in its purest form only negatively, punitively; it exists as a coercive power applied to those who violate the law of unfettered individualism or the law that sanctifies existence as a process of accumulation.)

§ Bartleby is imprisoned with other social discontents as a way punishing him for resisting the dictates of individualism. The strongest social taboo in Melville’s America is a taboo against thinking beyond the narrow confines of individualism. If you cannot live as an individual conforming to a liberal worldview, then you will die as something unrecognized: a true individual. Whether or not you want to conform then becomes a superannuated consideration.

§ In refusing to become an object of his employer’s gaze, Bartleby becomes an object of the gaze of murderers and thieves. His dissident behavior is lower than that of the lowest of criminals. How ironic that this most private of individuals should suffer the indignity of having his privacy stripped away, made an object of curiosity, a spectacle for the amusement of society’s outcasts (who only violated the letter, not the spirit of the law). Glassed in, he lives under the gaze of society’s condemned; his unrecorded sentence is to suffer the loss of privacy endlessly. Having defied the imperatives of materialistic individualism, he is made to endure a degraded and grotesque sociality. This is his “freedom.” And in giving him the run of the prison, society can be persuaded of its own generosity. “Being under no disgraceful charge, and quite serene and harmless in all his ways, they had permitted him freely to wander about the prison, and especially, in the inclosed grass-platted yards thereof. And so I found him there, standing all alone in the quietest of the yards, his face towards a high wall, while all around, from the narrow slits of the jail windows, I thought I saw peering out upon him the eyes of murderers and thieves.”

§ Bartleby is never charged with any crime; to charge him with one would be to face the unacknowledgeable, the brutality of the unwritten law of individualism. He is, indeed, “under no disgraceful charge.”

§ Bartleby’s face is “toward a high wall,” the wall of Necessity, the wall of repression, the wall of the law that condemns Bartleby. Bartleby can see it; he knows what it is. Likewise when saluted by his former employer who visits him in the Tombs, Bartleby replies “‘I know you,’ he said, without looking around–‘and I want nothing to say to you.'”

§ And the meretriciousness of his former employer’s response! “‘It was not I that brought you here, Bartleby,’ said I, keenly pained at his implied suspicion. ‘And to you, this should not be so vile a place. Nothing reproachful attaches to you by being here. And see, it is not so sad a place as one might think. Look, there is the sky, and here is the grass.'” The narrative voice smoothly defines reality. There is no presumption in this–for he belongs to that class that has defined reality. For those who do not have to live with the falseness of representation, hell can be a form of heaven.

§ But there is meretriciousness here, meretriciousness based on an invincible form of self-deceit. While the narrator did not technically remove Bartleby from his premises, his own behavior made that all but inevitable. The narrator will not face his complicity in bringing Bartleby to this end. He will not accept responsibility for it, or for his own actions; his is the voice of individualism: not thou but I! His rhetoric transforms himself into a martyr to Bartleby’s unwarranted and unjust suspicion; likewise, it makes a heaven of hell.

§ In the narrator’s last attempt to convert Bartleby to accept the world as it is, he encourages Bartleby to accept the “grub-man” in the Tombs as his servant. Bartleby rejects the role of master just as he rejected the role of servant.

§ His emaciated, wraith-like body symbolizes his lack of visibility, his social invisibility. Bartleby is out of bounds, beyond the narrator’s ability to recognize him. Why then eat? What is there to eat? Eating is a form of hopefulness. It expresses a hope about the future, or at least the belief that the future will be responsive to individual human desire. What is there to sustain Bartleby? His frail body records the cost of defying the social law, which enshrines mastery and slavery as society’s modus vivendi. He becomes–another–invisible man.

§ “‘Deranged? Deranged is it? Well, now, upon my word, I thought that friend of yourn was a gentleman forger; they are always pale and genteel-like, them forgers. I can’t help pity ’em–can’t help it, sir.'” This, the grub man to the narrator, about Bartleby at the story’s end. Forgers pass off fake documents as manufactured ones, as “authentic” originals. Forgers thus exist as the doppelganger to scriveners. Scriveners produce copies, but copies recognized as copies. Their copies do not destabilize this economy of authenticity; indeed they affirm it. Bartleby’s refusal to work is also a refusal to work as a scrivener, as a worker who supports this economy of authenticity. Has not the law forged itself? Has it not declared itself authentic–indeed the source of authentic behavior for the body politic? Doesn’t the law’s excessively punitive stance toward forgery betray its own anxiety about its own “authenticity,” its own insecurity about its status as the embodiment of transcendent truths about justice? Doesn’t Bartleby’s wasted body declare the inauthenticity of the law, and the inauthenticity of the lawyer-narrator who presumes to narrate Bartleby’s life?

§ “Dead letters! does it not sound like dead men? Conceive a man by nature and misfortune prone to a pallid hopelessness, can any business seem more fitted to heighten it than by continually handling these dead letters, and assorting them for the flames. For by the cart-load they are annually burned. Sometimes from out the folded paper the pale clerk takes a ring–the finger it was meant for, perhaps, moulders in the grave; a bank note sent in swiftest charity–he whom it would relieve, nor eats nor hungers any more; pardon for those who died despairing; hope for those who died unhoping; good tidings for those who died stifled by unrelieved calamities. On errands of life, these letters speed to death. Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!”

§ The fact that the narrator–the agent of Bartleby’s destruction–is also his elegist is a sign of the text’s veiled outlook: he signifies either the first shoots of change, or the final cruelty of the dream of a New Jerusalem in the New World.

§ “Bartleby the Scrivener” is composed of dead letters: the dead letter of the law; the dead letters of a constitutional democracy; the death of individualism; the death of narrative’s power to transform social failure; the death of authenticity and benevolence; the death of humanity. Just as dead letters are letters sent too late to those who were despairing, and now are dead, so too “Bartleby” is a dead letter sent to a reading public, which by accepting, indeed internalizing, compromised versions of freedom and community, is also dead.

§ But the letter itself, like the letters Bartleby consigned to the flames, is also charged with redemptive energy, with the desire to redeem loss and failure. The irony is ineluctable: redemption for those who are beyond it. The imperative is to look at the death-face of the American body politic face on, to see it in all of its ghastly pallor. Seeing–recognition–is the necessary prerequisite for social transformation. Melville’s text is haunted by loss, by almost-extinguished hopes. Hauntings terrorize, but they may also be quests for redemption. Just as it awaits a general resurrection of all dead letters, Melville’s text awaits, still, its audience.

All references to “Bartleby the Scrivener” are from Herman Melville’s Billy Budd and Other Stories, edited and introduced by Frederick Busch (New York: Penguin Classics, 1986).


Jon Thompson teaches at North Carolina State University where he edits the online journal Free Verse: A Journal of Contemporary Poetry & Poetics and the new poetry series, Free Verse Editions. His first collection, The Book of the Floating World, has just been reissued in an expanded edition. Thompson’s essay on “Bartleby” is part of a book-length manuscript entitled After Paradise: Essays on the Fate of American Writing.

Good intentions; unintended consequences

February 27, 2008

N Y Times, February 26, 2008

Transplant Surgeon Charged in Patient’s Death

SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. — On a winter night in 2006, a disabled and brain damaged man named Ruben Navarro was wheeled into an operating room at a hospital here. By most accounts, Mr. Navarro, 25, was very near death, and doctors hoped that he might sustain other lives by donating his kidneys and liver.

But what happened to Mr. Navarro quickly went from the potentially life-saving to what law enforcement officials say was criminal. In what is believed to be the first such case in the country, prosecutors have charged the transplant surgeon, Dr. Hootan C. Roozrokh, with trying to hasten Mr. Navarro’s death to retrieve his organs sooner.

A preliminary hearing begins here on Wednesday, with Dr. Roozrokh facing three felony counts relating to Mr. Navarro’s treatment as a donor. At the heart of the case is the question of whether Dr. Roozrokh, who studied at a transplant fellowship program at the prestigiousStanford University School of Medicine, was pursuing organs at any cost or had become entangled in a web of misunderstanding about a lesser-used harvesting technique known as “donation after cardiac death.”

Dr. Roozrokh has pleaded not guilty, and his lawyer said the charges were the result of overzealous prosecutors. But the case has already sent a shudder through the tight-knit field of transplant surgeons, because if convicted on all counts, Dr. Roozrokh could face eight years in prison. The case is also worrying donation advocacy groups that organ donors could be frightened away.

“If you think a malpractice lawsuit is scaring surgeons off,” said Dr. Goran Klintmalm, the president of the American Society of Transplant Surgeons, “wait to see what happens when people see a surgeon being charged criminally and going to jail.”

David Fleming, the executive director of Donate Life America, a nonprofit group that promotes donations, said the case had “given some support to the myths and misperceptions we spend an inordinate amount of time telling people won’t happen.”

Mr. Fleming said about 18 people a day die in the United States waiting for transplants. That has created a tremendous demand for donor organs and over the years the medical community has established strict protocols to govern organ harvesting.

Cardiac-death donations began to go out of vogue in the late 1960s and early 1970s after medical advances like life support and subsequent changes in the legal definition of death made brain-death donations more appealing. But the procedure has been encouraged by health officials in recent years.

There were a decade-high 670 cardiac-death donations through the first nine months of 2007, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing, which oversees organ allocation. In all, there were 13,223 organ donations over the same period, the vast majority with brain-dead donors

In brain-death donations, the donor is legally dead, but the organs are kept viable by machines.

In cardiac-death procedures, after the patient’s respirator is removed, the heart slows. Once the heart stops, the brain function ceases. Most donor protocols also call for a five-minute delay before the patient is declared dead. Transplant teams are not allowed in the room of the potential donor before that.

Cardiac-death donations can make some doctors and nurses skittish if they have not previously witnessed one, said Dr. Robert Sade, the former chairman of the American Medical Association’s Council on Ethical and Judicial Affairs.

“It all works exactly the same, the cuts and the procedure,” Dr. Sade said. “But the circumstances are quite different.”

Several days after Mr. Navarro was hospitalized at the Sierra Vista Regional Medical Center here, a decision was made to remove his respirator. According to the criminal complaint, Dr. Roozrokh ordered excessive doses of morphine and Ativan, an anti-anxiety medicine, both of which are commonly used as comfort medicines for dying patients. He also ordered the introduction of Betadine, an antiseptic usually used after death to clean organs for transplantation, the criminal complaint says.

Mr. Navarro died about eight hours later of what the coroner would later rule as natural causes. In the end, because the death was not more immediate, his organs had deteriorated so much that they were unusable for a transplant.

Prosecutors have charged Dr. Roozrokh with felony counts of dependent adult abuse, mingling a harmful substance and unlawful controlled substance prescription. The doctor’s lawyer, M. Gerald Schwartzbach, said Dr. Roozrokh, a 34-year-old Iranian émigré and academic All-American swimmer who grew up in Wisconsin, did “nothing that adversely affected the quality or length” of Mr. Navarro’s life.

“Dr. Roozrokh is a brilliant young surgeon, who has dedicated his life to saving lives,” Mr. Schwartzbach said. Neither the police nor prosecutors would comment on the case.

Mr. Navarro was diagnosed with adrenal leukodystrophy, or A.D.L., a debilitating nerve disease, when he was 9. “He would walk like he was drunk,” said his mother, Rosa, a Guatemalan immigrant. “And when he would play, he would fall like Bambi.”

By his early 20s, however, Mr. Navarro’s mental and physical condition had deteriorated to a point where he was placed in an assisted-care facility.

On Jan. 29, 2006, Ms. Navarro received a call from the facility that her son had been found unconscious, in cardiac and respiratory arrest, but that he had been revived and transported to Sierra Vista. His brain had been damaged from lack of oxygen.

Several days later, with no sign of improvement, Ms. Navarro says she was told by a doctor at the hospital, whose name she did not know, that her son would never recover and that he would be disconnected from life support.

Ms. Navarro, a disabled machinist from Oxnard, Calif., said she did not have enough money to stay another night near her son. She said that

shortly after leaving the hospital, she received a call from the California Transplant Donor Network, a nonprofit organ procurement organization. On a tape recording made by the transplant network, Ms. Navarro agreed to donate her son’s organs, saying she did not want her “boy to suffer too long.”

Late on Feb. 3, a transplant team including Dr. Roozrokh arrived at the hospital. .

According to a police interview with Jennifer Endsley, a nurse, Dr. Roozrokh stayed in the room during the removal of the respirator and gave orders for medication, something that would violate donation protocol. Ms. Endsley, who stayed to watch because she had never seen the procedure, also told the police that Dr. Roozrokh also asked an emergency room nurse to find and administer more “candy” — meaning drugs — after Mr. Navarro did not die after the removal of his respirator.

Mr. Schwartzbach, the lawyer for Dr. Roozrokh, said he would address the allegations in court. “I think a great many people, — lay and medical, — will realize they have been significantly misinformed,” he said.

Several months after the incident, , federal health officials cited the hospital for a series of lapses, including allowing a person without clinical privileges, Dr. Roozrokh, to prescribe controlled substances. Last February, the United Network for Organ Sharing reprimanded the California Transplant Donor Network, for breaking “established protocol” in the case. The donor network declined to comment.

Ms. Navarro has filed a civil suit against Dr. Roozrokh, the donor network and other doctors in the operating room and has settled a lawsuit against the hospital. A spokesman for the hospital, Ron Yukelson, said it was correcting the problems raised by the case.

Ms. Navarro said she remained angry about the way her son’s life ended.

“He didn’t deserve to be like that, to go that way,” she said. “He died without dignity and sympathy and without respect.”

Melanie Carroll contributed reporting from San Luis Obispo.

If the races had been reversed; i.e. white home owner & carloads of black teenagers, do you have any doubt that the charge would have been dismissed?

February 27, 2008



Race, memory, and a killing in the suburbs.

by Calvin TrillinMARCH 3, 2008

John White’s trial made two fathers the focus of Suffolk County’s racial divide.

John White’s trial made two fathers the focus of Suffolk County’s racial divide.

hat happened at the foot of the driveway at 40 Independence Way that hot August night in 2006 took less than three minutes. The police later managed to time it precisely, using a surveillance camera that points directly at the street from a house a couple of doors to the north. The readout on the surveillance tape said that it was 23:06:11 when two cars whizzed by going south, toward the cul-de-sac at the end of the street. At 23:09:06, the first car passed back in front of the camera, going north. A minute later, a second car passed in the same direction. In the back seat of that second car—a black Mustang Cobra convertible—was a seventeen-year-old boy named Daniel Cicciaro, Jr., known to his friends as Dano. He was unconscious and bleeding profusely. He had been shot through the cheek. A .32-calibre bullet was lodged in his head.

Normally, at that time of night, not many cars are seen on Independence Way, a quiet street in a town called Miller Place. Just east of Port Jefferson, on the North Shore of Long Island, Miller Place is in the part of Suffolk County where the commuters have begun to thin out. To the east is a large swatch of the county that doesn’t seem strongly connected to the huge city in one direction or to the high-priced summer resorts and North Fork wineries in the other. The house at 40 Independence Way is part of a development, Talmadge Woods, that five or six years ago was a peach orchard; it’s now a collection of substantial two-story, four-bedroom houses that the developer started offering in 2003 for about half a million dollars each. The houses vary in design, but they all have an arched front door topped by the arched glass transom known in the trade as a Palladian window—a way to bring light into the double-height entry hall. When people are asked to describe the neighborhood, they tend to say “upper middle class.” The homeowner with the surveillance system is an orthodontist.

Miller Place could also be described as overwhelmingly white. According to a study released a few years ago, Long Island is the single most segregated suburban area in the United States. The residents of 40 Independence Way—John and Sonia White and their youngest son, Aaron—are African-American and so are their next-door neighbors, but the black population of Miller Place is less than one-half of one per cent. The Whites, who began married life in Brooklyn in the early seventies, had moved to Miller Place after ten years in North Babylon, which is forty minutes or so closer to the city. “You want to raise your family in a safe environment,” John White, a tall, very thin man in his early fifties, has said, explaining why he was willing to spend three hours a day in his car commuting. “The educational standards are higher. You want to live a comfortable life, which is the American dream.” One of the Whites’ sons is married, with children of his own, and a second is in college in the South. But Aaron was able to spend his senior year at Miller Place High School, which takes pride in such statistics as how many of its students are in Advanced Placement history courses. Aaron, an erect young man who is likely to say “sir” when addressing one of his elders, graduated in June of 2005. He was one of four black students in the class.

In an area where home maintenance is a priority, 40 Independence Way could hold its own. John White is a serious gardener—a nurturer of daylilies and clematis, a planter of peel-bark birch trees—and someone who had always been proud, maybe even touchy, about his property. People who have been neighbors of the Whites tend to use the word “meticulous” in describing John White; so do people who have worked with him. He has described himself as “a doer”—someone too restless to sit around reading a book or watching television. He says that he’s fished from Nova Scotia to the Bahamas. He’s done a lot of hunting—a pastime he was taught by his grandfather Napoleon White, whose family’s migration from Alabama apparently took place after a murderous attack by the Ku Klux Klan. At the Faith Baptist Church, in Coram, Long Island, John White sang in both the men’s choir and the mixed Celebration Choir. A couple of polished-wood tables in the Whites’ house were made by him. He’s a broadly accomplished man, and proud of it. His wife, who was born in Panama, works as a manager in a department store and has that Caribbean accent which, maybe because it’s close to the accent of West Indian nurses, conveys both competence and the firm intention to brook no nonsense. The Whites’ furniture tastes lean toward Stickley, Audi. Their sons dress in a style that’s preppy. Sitting in his well-appointed family room, John White could be taken for middle management.

But he doesn’t have the sort of education or occupation that would seem to go along with the house he lives in. After graduating from a technical program at Samuel Gompers High School, he worked as an electrician for seven or eight years and then, during a slow time for electricians, he began working in the paving industry. For the past twenty-five years, he has worked for an asphalt company in Queens, patching the potholes left by utility repair crews. He is often described as a foreman, which he once was, but he says that, partly because of an aversion to paperwork, he didn’t try to reclaim that job after it evaporated during a reduction in the workforce. (“I’m actually a laborer.”) On August 9, 2006, a Wednesday, he had, as usual, awakened at three-thirty in the morning for the drive to Queens, spent the day at work, and, after a stop to pick up some bargain peony plants, returned to what he calls his “dream house” or his “castle.” He retired early, so that he could do the same thing the next day. A couple of hours later, according to his testimony, he was awakened by Aaron, who, with a level of terror John White had never heard in his son’s voice, shouted, “Dad, these guys are coming here to kill me!” Instead, as it turned out, John White killed Daniel Cicciaro, Jr.

here had been a birthday party that evening for Craig Martin, Jr., a recent Miller Place High School graduate. Craig lives with his parents and his younger sister, Jennifer, in Sound Beach—a town just to the east that grew into a year-round neighborhood from what had begun as beach lots purchased in the twenties as part of a Daily Mirrorcirculation-promotion scheme. The party was mostly in the Martins’ back yard, where there was an aboveground pool, a lot of cold beer, and a succession of beer-pong games. This was not the A.P.-history crowd. Craig was connected to a number of the boys at the party through an interest in cars. Some of them were members of the Blackout car club, a loose organization of teen-agers who, in good weather, gather in the parking lot of the Stop & Shop mall in Miller Place on Thursday nights for an informal car show—displaying cars whose lights and windows are likely to have been tinted in pursuit of sleekness. Dano Cicciaro (pronounced Danno Cicero) was a regular at Stop & Shop, driving a white Mustang Mach 1 with two black stripes. Dano had grown up in Selden, a blue-collar town to the south, and finished at Newfield High School there after his family moved in his senior year to one of a half-dozen houses clustered around a cul-de-sac called Old Town Estates, in Port Jefferson Station.

His father, Daniel Cicciaro, Sr., runs an automobile-repair shop in Port Jeff Station called Dano’s Auto Clinic—a two-bay operation that also has some used cars parked in its lot, their prices marked on the windshields. Dano’s Auto Clinic is where Dano, Jr., spent a lot of his spare time. As a boy, he had the usual range of interests, his father has recalled, but “as he turned into a teen-ager it was all cars.” Even as a teen-ager, he ran a car-detailing business out of the shop, and he’d planned to keep that up when he started at Suffolk County Community College in the fall. Dano, Jr.,’s long-term plan was to take over Dano’s Auto Clinic someday and expand its services. “He did exactly as I did, in that he set goals for himself and conquered them, never sitting idle,” a Newsday reporter was told by Daniel Cicciaro, Sr., a father who’d felt the validation of having a son who was eager to follow his calling and work by his side.

Aaron White, who had finished his first year at Suffolk County Community College, was having dinner that evening in Port Jefferson with Michael Longo, his best friend from Miller Place High School. From having attended a few of the Stop & Shop gatherings, Aaron knew some of the car crowd, and, while phoning around for something to do, he learned about the birthday party at the Martins’. Craig greeted Aaron cheerfully enough, but a few minutes later Jennifer, who was then fifteen, told her brother that, because of a past incident, she felt frightened in Aaron’s presence. Dano Cicciaro was assigned to ask Aaron to leave. It isn’t clear why he was given that task. It couldn’t have been his size: Dano was five feet four and weighed a hundred and twenty-nine pounds. It certainly wasn’t his sobriety. Dano was drunk. When his blood-alcohol content was checked later at the hospital, it was almost twice the level required to prove intoxication. Still, Dano, who thought of himself as a protective older brother to Jennifer, handled the situation smoothly, saying to Aaron something like “It’s nothing personal, but you’ll have to leave.” Aaron later said that he was puzzled (“I never get kicked out of parties”), but he got into his car and drove back to Miller Place.

When Dano learned exactly why Jennifer felt uncomfortable around Aaron, she later testified, “he freaked out.” While in an Internet chat room with a couple of other boys, Jennifer told Dano, Aaron had posted a message saying that he wanted to rape her. Obtaining Aaron’s cell-phone number from Michael Longo, Dano touched off what became a series of heated calls involving several people at the party. Dano wanted to confront Aaron immediately. It didn’t matter that Aaron denied having posted the message. It didn’t matter that the posting had taken place nine months before and that Jennifer’s real older brother, Craig, had actually forgotten about it. In court many months later, Jennifer Martin was asked if she’d eventually learned that the offending message had not, in fact, been sent by Aaron—it had grown out of something said on a MySpace account set up in Aaron’s name as a prank—and she answered in the affirmative. That didn’t matter, either, because by then it was much too late. On the evening of August 9th, when Jennifer told Dano about the rape posting, there were other elements involved. A lot of beer had been consumed. It was late in the evening, a time when the teen-age penchant for melodrama tends to be in full flower. Dano was filled with what Paul Gianelli, one of John White’s defense attorneys, called “a warped sense of chivalry” and Dano’s godfather, Gregg Sarra, preferred to characterize as “valor, protecting a woman, honor.” For whatever reason, Dano Cicciaro and four of his friends were soon heading toward the Whites’ house in two beautifully painted and carefully polished cars that passed the orthodontist’s surveillance camera when its readout said 23:06:11.

What happened when they got there remains a matter of sharp dispute. There is no doubt that the boys were displaying no weapons when they got out of their cars, although one of them, Joseph Serrano, had brought along a baseball bat that remained in the back seat of the Mustang. There is no doubt that John White emerged from his garage carrying a pre-Second World War Beretta pistol that he kept there—part of an inheritance from his grandfather that had also included, White later said, “rifles and shotguns and a lot of advice.” Aaron was a few steps behind him, carrying a 20-gauge shotgun. There is no doubt that Dano “slapped” or “whacked” or “grabbed” the Beretta. There is no doubt that, before the shot was fired, there had been shouting and foul language from both sides. The tenor of the conversation, the defense team eventually maintained, could be surmised from the tape of a 911 line that the boys did not realize was open as they rushed their friend to a Port Jefferson hospital in the black Mustang Cobra. The 911 operator can be heard saying, “Sir . . . hello . . . hello . . . sir, pick up the phone.” The boys, their muffled voices almost hysterical, can be heard shouting directions to one another and giving assurances that Dano is still breathing. The operator keeps saying, “Hello . . . sir.” Then the voice of Joseph Serrano, sitting in the back seat with his bleeding friend and his baseball bat, comes through clearly: “Fucking niggers! Dano, I’ll get ’em for you, Dano.”

Back at 40 Independence Way, John White and his son were sitting in front of their house, hugging. Sonia White was screaming, “What happened? What happened?” In the trial testimony and police reports and newspaper accounts and grand-jury minutes dealing with what occurred in the meticulous front yard of 40 Independence Way after the cars had sped away, three statements attributed to John White stand out. One was in the testimony of Officer David Murray, the first Suffolk County policeman to reach the scene, who said that John White approached him with his arms extended, saying, “I did what I had to do. You might as well put the cuffs on me.” Another is what Officer Murray said he heard John White say to his son: “I told you those friends of yours would turn on you.” The third is what Sonia White testified that her husband said to her as he walked back into their castle: “We lost the house. We lost it all.”

week after the death of Daniel Cicciaro, Jr., several hundred people turned out for his funeral, held at St. Sylvester’s Roman Catholic Church, in Medford, Long Island. The gathering was heavy with symbolism. Some of the younger mourners displayed “Dano Jr.” tattoos. Dano, Jr.,’s main car was there—the white Mustang that was familiar from Stop & Shop and had won Best Mach 1 Mustang in a competition at McCarville Ford. Gregg Sarra, a boyhood friend of Daniel Cicciaro, Sr., and a local-sports columnist for Newsday, gave the eulogy, praising his godson’s loyalty and his diligence and his gift for friendship. After the burial, some of Dano, Jr.,’s car-club friends revved their engines and chanted, “Dan-o, Dan-o, Dan-o.” As a tribute to his son, Daniel Cicciaro, Sr., attended the service in a Dano’s Auto Clinic tank top. The Stop & Shop car show that Thursday, according to a Newsday piece, turned into a sort of vigil for Dano, Jr., with Jennifer Martin helping to light a ring of candles—red and white candles, for the colors of Newfield High—around his Mustang and his first car, a Mercedes E55 AMG.

The sadness was accompanied by a good deal of anger. John White found that understandable. “I know how I would feel if someone hurt my kid,” he said in a Times interview some weeks later. “There wouldn’t be a rock left to crawl under.” Speaking to one reporter, Daniel Cicciaro, Sr., had referred to White as an “animal.” For a while after the shooting, Michael Longo—the friend who had accompanied Aaron White to the birthday party and had, as it turned out, telephoned to warn him that there were plans to jump him if he returned—slept with a baseball bat next to his bed. Sonia White later testified that after some particularly menacing instant messages (“i need ur adreass you dumb nigger”), to which Aaron replied in what sounded like a suburban teenager’s notion of gangster talk (“u da bitch tlaking big n bad like u gonna come down to my crib n do sumthin”), the Whites decided that he was no longer safe in the house, and they sent him to live outside the area.

The mourners who talked to reporters after the service rejected the notion, brought up by a lawyer for the White family shortly after the shooting, that Dano Cicciaro and his friends had used racial epithets during the argument in front of 40 Independence Way. Daniel Cicciaro, Sr.—a short man with a shaved head and a Fu Manchu mustache and an assertive manner and a lifelong involvement in martial arts—had called any connection of his son with racism “absurd.” But by the time a grand jury met, a month or so after the shooting, even the prosecutor, who would presumably need the boys as witnesses against John White, was saying that racial epithets had indeed been used. The district attorney said, though, that if John White had simply remained in his house and dialled 911, he wouldn’t be in any trouble and Daniel Cicciaro, Jr., would still be alive. The grand jury was asked to indict White for murder. Grand juries ordinarily go along with district attorneys, but this one didn’t. When the trial finally began, in Riverhead, fifteen months after the shooting, the charge was second-degree manslaughter.

The grand-jury decision may have reflected public opinion in Suffolk County, where there are strong feelings about a homeowner’s right to protect his property and his family. Suffolk County is a place where a good number of residents are active or retired law-enforcement officers, and where even a lot of residents who aren’t own guns—a place where it is not surprising to come across a plaque that bears the picture of a pistol and the phrase “We Don’t Dial 911.” James Chalifoux, the assistant district attorney who was assigned to try the case against John White, apparently had that in mind when, during jury selection, he asked jurors if they would be able to distinguish between what might be considered morally right—what could cause you to say, “I might have done the same thing”—and what was permissible under the law. He asked jurors if they could put aside sympathy when they were considering the case—meaning sympathy for John White. Judging by comments posted online in response to Newsday articles, public opinion seemed muddled by the conflict between two underpinnings of life in Suffolk County—a devotion to the sanctity of private property, particularly one’s home, and an assumption that the owner of the property is white.

Dano’s mother—Joanne Cicciaro, a primary-school E.S.L. teacher who had grown up in Suffolk County—said she was extremely disappointed that the grand jury had declined to indict John White for murder. Daniel Cicciaro, Sr., told a reporter, “Here this man points his gun at the boys and says, ‘I’m going to shoot.’ He says it three times. Then he shoots my son. To me, that’s intentional murder.” On the other hand, some of White’s strongest supporters—people like Lucius Ware, the president of the Eastern Long Island branch of the N.A.A.C.P., and Marie Michel, a black attorney who joined the defense team—believed that if a white homeowner in Miller Place had been confronted late at night by five hostile black teen-agers there would have been, in Marie Michel’s words, “no arrests, no indictment, and no trial.” The homeowner would have been judged to have had “a well-founded fear,” they thought, and if the justice system dealt with the incident in any way it would have been to charge the boys with something like breach of the peace or aggravated harassment (“What were they doing in that neighborhood at that time of night?”). For that matter, these supporters would argue, would Dano have “freaked out” if the male accused of wanting to rape Jenny Martin hadn’t been black? Wouldn’t teen-agers spoiling for a fight have dispersed if a white father walked out of the house, with or without a gun, and told them in no uncertain terms to go home? In other words, before a word of testimony had been heard, some people attending the trial of John White believed that in a just world he would have been on trial for murder instead of only manslaughter, and some believed that in a just world he wouldn’t have been on trial at all.

he Arthur M. Cromarty Court Complex is set apart from Riverhead, the seat of Suffolk County, on a campus that seems to be mostly parking lots—a judicial version of Long Island shopping malls. Those who were there to attend John White’s trial, which began just after Thanksgiving, seemed to be roughly separated by race, on opposite sides of the aisle that ran down the center of the courtroom’s spectator section. That may have been partly because the room was small and on many days the prosecution’s supporters, mostly Cicciaro relatives and young friends of Dano’s, nearly filled half of it. Dano, Jr.,’s parents did not sit next to each other—they had separated before their son’s death—but they came together as a family in hallway huddles of supporters and in speaking to the press. The people who stood out on their side of the courtroom were a couple of friends of Daniel Cicciaro, Sr., who also had shaved heads, but with modifications that included a scalp tattoo saying “Dano Jr.” Although they looked menacing, both of them could be described as designers: one is a detailer, specializing in the fancy painting of motorcycles; the other does graphic design, specializing in sports uniforms.

People on the Cicciaro side might have felt some menace emanating from the phalanx of black men, all of them in suits and ties and many of them offensive-tackle size, who escorted Aaron White (wearing a bulletproof vest) through the courthouse on the first day of his testimony and then took seats across the aisle, near some women from John White’s church choir. The escorts were from an organization called 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care. On that first day, their ranks were augmented by members of the Fruit of Islam, wearing their trademark bow ties, although the black leader called to mind by John White’s life would probably be Booker T. Washington rather than Louis Farrakhan. As it turned out, there was no overt hostility between those on either side of the courtroom aisle, and, at the end of testimony, the Cicciaros made it clear that they would accept any decision the jury brought in—none of which, Joanne Cicciaro pointed out, would bring their son back. Talking to a Newsday reporter after the trial about prejudice, Daniel Cicciaro, Sr., maintained that bias existed toward what some people called skinheads. “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” he said.

The four boys who accompanied Dano Cicciaro to Aaron White’s house that night are all car enthusiasts who now hold jobs that echo their high-school hobby. Alex Delgado does maintenance on race cars. Joseph Serrano is a motorcycle mechanic. Tom Maloney, who drove the Mustang Cobra, sells Volkswagens. Anthony Simeone works for his father’s auto-salvage business. Among those who testified that they’d tried to prevent Dano from going to the Whites’ house were Alex Delgado, who drove him there, and Joseph Serrano, who brought along a baseball bat. (“He’s stubborn,” Anthony Simeone had explained to the grand jury. “When he wants to do something, he wants to do it.”) Although there had been testimony that Dano Cicciaro used the word “nigger” once or twice in the cell-phone exchange with Aaron White, his friends denied using racial slurs at 40 Independence Way. (With the jury out of the courtroom, Paul Gianelli brought up an incident that had been investigated by the police but not included in the notes and reports that they are required to turn over to the defense: according to two or three witnesses, Daniel Cicciaro had gone to Sayville Ford with a complaint a few weeks before he was shot and, when approached by a black salesman, had said, “I don’t talk to niggers.” The judge wouldn’t admit that into evidence, but the headline of the next day’s Newsday story was “ATTORNEY: COPS HID MILLER PLACE VICTIM’S RACISM.”) The friends who’d gone with Dano, Jr., to the Whites’ house that night testified that after John White’s gun was slapped away, he raised it again and shot Dano in the face. As they described how Dano Cicciaro fell and how he’d been lifted from the street by Tom Maloney and rushed to the hospital, there were occasional sobs from both Joanne and Daniel Cicciaro.

Dano’s friends had said that both of their cars were in the street facing north, but the Whites testified that one was in their driveway, with the lights shining up into the house—a contention that the defense bolstered by analyzing the headlight reflections on the orthodontist’s mailbox in the surveillance tape. The boys testified that they’d never set foot on the Whites’ property—that contention was bolstered by pictures showing Dano’s blood and his cell phone in the street rather than in the driveway—but the Whites claimed that the boys had been advancing toward the house. “They came to my home as if they owned it,” Sonia White said on the stand. “What gall!”

John White testified that, believing the young men had come to harm his family, he backed them off his property with Napoleon White’s old pistol. In the frenzy that followed his abrupt awakening, he said, he had yelled, “Call the cops!” to his wife as he raced into the garage, but she hadn’t heard him. He described Dano Cicciaro and his friends as a lynch mob shouting, among other things, “We could take that skinny nigger motherfucker.” Recalling that evening, White said, “In my family history, that’s how the Klan comes. They pull up to your house, blind you with their lights, burn your house down. That’s how they come.” In White’s telling, the confrontation had seemed over and he was turning to go back into the house when Dano Cicciaro grabbed the gun, causing it to fire. “I didn’t mean to shoot this young man,” John White said. “This young man was another child of God.” This time, it was John White who broke down, and the court had to take a recess. One of the jurors was also wiping away tears.

o convict someone of second-degree manslaughter in the state of New York, the prosecution has to prove that he recklessly caused the death of the victim—“recklessly” being defined as creating a risk so substantial that disregarding it constitutes “a gross deviation from the standard of conduct that a reasonable person would observe”—and that he had no justification. In its decision in the case of Bernard Goetz, the white man who in 1984 shot four young black men who had approached him on the subway demanding money, the New York Court of Appeals, the highest court in the state, ruled that justification could have a subjective as well as an objective component—fears raised by the defendant’s past experiences, for instance. By bringing up the history that White’s family had with the Klan, the defense team raised a subjective component of justification, along with the objective component of home protection. “We are all products of our past,” Paul Gianelli said of his client during one of the breaks in the trial. “He brought to that particular evening who he is.” The defense was making a case for, among other things, the power of race memory.

The racial divide is obviously less overt in John White’s Long Island than it was in Napoleon White’s Alabama. Tom Maloney, who’d also graduated from Miller Place High School, had apparently thought of Aaron White as a friend. Alex Delgado, who drove Dano Cicciaro to Aaron’s house on August 9th, had been there before as a guest. In John White’s testimony, Delgado was described as Hispanic. Joanne Cicciaro, who by name and appearance and accent might be assumed to have come from one of the many Italian-American families that moved to Suffolk County in recent decades from the boroughs, is actually Puerto Rican—a fact brought up to reporters by the Cicciaros in countering any implications of racism in Dano’s upbringing. (“Our family is multicultural.”) Even without those complications, the case for race memory would be harder to make to white people than to black people. White people are likely to say that times have changed: these days, after all, a real-estate agent who tried to steer John White away from buying a house in an overwhelmingly white Long Island neighborhood would be risking her license.

If times have changed, black people might ask in response, how come Long Island is still so segregated? In his summation, the prosecutor asked a series of questions as a way to illustrate how White’s behavior had deviated from the behavior of a reasonable person. Two of the huge black men who had been part of Aaron White’s escort were sitting in the courtroom at the time, and when the D.A. asked whether a reasonable person would really be guided partly by the memory of a Ku Klux Klan attack that happened years before he was born, they both began to nod their heads.

In that closing statement, James Chalifoux said that it wasn’t until the trial began that John White started talking about a lynch mob. (It’s true that in a newspaper interview in September of 2006 White seemed to downplay race, but it’s also true that in his grand-jury testimony, less than a month after the shooting, he spoke about a “lynch mob.”) Race, Chalifoux said, was being used to distract the jurors from the simple fact that by walking down the driveway with a loaded pistol John White, a man intimately familiar with firearms, had engaged in conduct that had recklessly caused the death of Dano Cicciaro. Matching up testimony with cell-phone logs, Chalifoux argued that the Whites had more time before the arrival of the cars than their story of a panicky few minutes implied. Chalifoux acknowledged that Dano and his friends were wrong to go to the Whites’ that night, that Dano was wrong to use a racial epithet when he phoned Aaron White, and that John White had found himself “in a very bad situation that night and a situation that was not his fault.” But how White responded to that situation, Chalifoux said, was his fault.

Chalifoux’s summation followed that of Frederick K. Brewington, a black attorney, active in black causes on Long Island, who was Paul Gianelli’s co-counsel. “Race has so much to do with this case, ladies and gentlemen, that it’s painful,” Brewington told the jury: Dano Cicciaro and his friends thought they had a right to go to John White’s house and “terrorize his family with impunity and arrogance” because of “the false racial privilege they felt empowered by.” In Brewington’s argument, John White thought, “ ‘Once they see I have a gun they’ll back off’ . . . but they did not take ‘the skinny old nigger’ seriously.” While Chalifoux presented Joseph Serrano’s slur on the 911 tape as, however deplorable, an indication that the argument at the foot of the driveway didn’t include the barrage of insults that the Whites had testified to—if it had, he said, “you would have heard racial epithet after racial epithet after racial epithet”—Brewington saw it as a mirror of the boys’ true feelings. “What we do under cover of darkness sometimes comes to light,” he said.

Shortly after the beginning of deliberations, ten jurors, including the sole African-American, were prepared to convict John White of having recklessly caused Dano Cicciaro’s death. Two jurors resisted that verdict for four days. Then they capitulated. They later told reporters that they felt bullied and pressured by jurors who were impatient to be liberated as Christmas approached. In a courtroom crowded with court officers, the jury reported that it had found John White guilty of manslaughter and a weapons charge. The Cicciaros and their supporters were ecstatic. Dano’s parents seemed to take John White’s conviction principally as proof that the accusations of racism against their son had been shown to be false. “My son is finally vindicated,” a tearful Joanne Cicciaro said, outside the courtroom. Daniel Cicciaro, Sr., said, “Maybe now they’ll stop slinging my son’s name and accusing him of all this racism.” Outside the courthouse, friends of Dano, Jr., honked their horns and revved their engines and chanted, “Dan-o, Dan-o, Dan-o.” The next day, Sunday, the celebration continued with a sort of open house at Dano’s Auto Clinic, which bore a sign saying “Thank You Jurors. Thank God. Dano Jr. Rest in Peace.” In Miller Place, John White briefly spoke to the reporters who were waiting in front of his house. “I’m not inhuman,” he said. “I have very deep feelings for this young man.” But before that he went to the Faith Baptist Church, in Coram, and sang in the choir.

hn White is a hero,” Frederick Brewington said two weeks later, addressing a crowd of several hundred people, almost all of them black, who had gathered on a cold Saturday afternoon in front of the criminal-court building in Riverhead. He repeated, “John White is a hero.” The guilty verdict had made White the sort of hero all too familiar in the race memory of African-Americans—someone held up as an example of the unjustly treated black man. On the podium were black officeholders, speakers from the spectrum of black organizations on Long Island, and two people who had come from Manhattan—Kevin Muhammad, of Muhammad Mosque No. 7, and Al Sharpton. A lot of N.A.A.C.P. people were in the audience, and so were a lot of people from Faith Baptist Church. Various speakers demanded a retrial, or called for the resignation of the district attorney, or pointed out the difference in how white homeowners in similar situations have been treated, or called for the young white men involved to be indicted. (“We will raise this to a level of national attention until these young men are brought to justice,” Sharpton said.) There were chants like “No Justice—No Peace” and, loudest of all, “Free John White.”

That chant was not meant literally. For the time being, John White is free—he addressed the rally briefly, mainly to thank his supporters—and his attorneys hope that, while an appeal is pending, he will be allowed to remain free after his sentencing, scheduled for March 19th. (“I think he should get as much time as possible,” a Post reporter was told by Jennifer Martin, whose response to Aaron White’s arrival at her house set the events of August 9th in motion. “I really do.”) Until the sentencing, White is back to rising at three-thirty every morning to go into the city and patch utility holes. Everything he was quoted as saying in the aftermath of the shooting that night turned out to be true. The fatalism reflected in his statement to Officer Murray as he held out his hands to be cuffed was well founded. Aaron White accepted the fact that those friends of his had indeed turned on him. In his testimony, he said, “They have no respect for me or my family or my mother or my father. . . . They have no respect for life whatsoever. They’re scum.” And, of course, John White had understood the situation well when he told his wife that they had lost their dream house—a comment that, as it turned out, particularly incensed Joanne Cicciaro. (His sorrow, she said to reporters after testimony had ended, “was all for themselves—sorrow about losing their house, about their life changing. He never said, ‘Oh, my God! What did I do to that boy? Oh, my God. This kid is bleeding on the driveway. What did I do to him?’ He had no sympathy, no sorrow for shooting a child.”) Even before the trial, 40 Independence Way was listed with a real-estate broker. Its description began, “Stately 2 year young post-modern colonial in prestigious neighborhood.” 

Hmm… do you suppose W’s affection for Condi is a nostalgic throwback to his family’s slaveholding past just like the war in Iraq is a nostalgic throwback to Poppy’s failure to croak Saddam?

February 20, 2008

The Bush Family’s Slaveholding Past
Was their dynasty built on slavery?
By Edward Ball
Updated: 12:08 PM ET Feb 15, 2008
The image most people have of slavery involves a cotton plantation with a big white house, a black village where 300 people live in cabins and a cruel overseer in the wings. This was not the model followed by the ancestors of President George W. Bush when, 175 years ago, they enslaved about 30 people on the shores of the upper Chesapeake.It is an apt time to contemplate the link between slavery and the White House. This week President Bush is in the midst of a six-day trip to Africa, his second tour of the continent. He will visit several countries – including Benin, Ghana, and Liberia – from which the United States once drew slaves. That the trip falls on either side of President’s Day, which honors statesmanship in the White House, makes the occasion all the more fitting. The moment is mature for the president to speak about slavery, especially given his personal connection to slavery’s legacy.A new book by Jacob Weisberg, The Bush Tragedy, mentions in passing that at one time some of the president’s family owned slaves. Weisberg doesn’t dwell on the links between the White House and the antebellum past except to say the Bush clan’s story is a long-held “family secret.”The Bush Tragedy, a revealing book about family dynamics in the Bush political dynasty, treats the slavery matter only briefly, focusing instead on the “spectacular, avoidable flame-out” of the receding administration. But the story that joins the 43rd president to predecessors who held title to dozens of people bears retelling in detail.The skeletal facts surfaced in April 2007, when an amateur historian named Robert Hughespublished his research in the Illinois Times, a small paper out of Springfield. Hughes found census records showing that during the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries, in Cecil County, Maryland, five households of the Walker family, the president’s ancestors via his father’s mother, Dorothy Walker Bush, had been slaveholding farmers. The evidence is simple but persuasive: genealogies of the Bush family match up with census data that counted farmers who used enslaved workers. With this, the president joins perhaps fifteen million living white Americans who trace their roots to the long-gone master class.It’s not as though the president is the only politician whose family owned slaves. Of the first eighteen presidents, from George Washington to Ulysses Grant, twelve owned people, eight of them while in office. At one time, Andrew Jackson was even a slave trader. Since Emancipation in 1865, a number of presidents have come from families that once contained slave masters. Even the current presidential hopefuls are likely to have slave owners among their ancestors. The descendants of slaveholders do not wear special tattoos or announce themselves in secret handshakes, but most know who they are.The tragic story of America’s slave days inspires disabling levels of fear among whites and anger among blacks. Probably neither the 43rd president nor his father, the 41st, possesses the introspection needed to grasp the relationship between the Bush family’s slaveholding past and its present circumstances without escaping into defensiveness. Still, President Bush has talked about slavery from several microphones, most memorably in a 2003 speech on Gorée Island, one of the “slave castles” in West Africa from which captive youth and children were dispatched to the Americas. Speechwriters likely supplied the words on that occasion when the president said, “slavery was one of the greatest crimes of history.” But the words fell short of an accounting by the White House for America’s role in the Middle Passage, and they came before the revelation of the Bush family’s own link to the slave past.As for the African Americans in this tale, the Walker family slaves, neither names nor biographical details about them have survived.  According to the genealogist who uncovered the records, Robert Hughes, the census accounts show that they lived at four different farms in Cecil County, Maryland, on a string of land called Sassafras Neck, which separates two slender rivers that empty into upper Chesapeake Bay. There, in 1790, William and Sarah Davis, direct ancestors of the president, owned seven people, while another branch of the family owned five. Twenty years later, in 1810, a third couple in the president’s ancestral clan were counted as masters to eighteen people. The last appearance of the family as slaveholders of record comes in 1830, when George E. and Harriet Walker, great-great-great grandparents of President George W. Bush, owned 321 acres and two slaves, a female between 10 and 24 and a male between 24 and 36. The namelessness of the slaves is the fault of the so-called slave schedules used in the census, which called for nothing more than approximate ages.With their small farms, the Walkers and their cousins did not belong to the class of oligarchs, whose vast plantations held scores or hundreds of workers. I’ve looked, and there were dynasties in Cecil County, places like Cherry Grove, former residence of a Maryland governor, and Mt. Harmon, a vast tobacco estate with a Georgian mansion. The president’s forebears probably saw themselves as little people in competition with these fat-cat neighbors.Still, all slaveholders were also slave traders. The president’s family had to avail themselves of a slave auction on at least two occasions: initially, to buy people, and later, when a Walker farm failed, to sell some of the same people, much the way a stockholder liquidates an investment. No story has surfaced about how it happened, but in the mid-1830s, it appears that George E. Walker, the president’s third great-grandfather, lost his land. After that, in 1838, he packed his family into a wagon and went west, settling in southern Illinois on a homestead near the town of Bloomington. It is from this branch of migrants that the current Bush clan descends.Since the Walkers, in effect, declared bankruptcy, and there is no evidence they kept slaves after 1838, it is difficult to follow a money trail from the family’s commercial stake in slavery to the White House. However, before he took his family west, it’s likely that George Walker sold the people he owned, handing them off to a speculating slave dealer; thereby financing the family’s fresh start in Illinois. Things get worse when you contemplate the probable circumstances. In the 1830s, the old tobacco economy of Maryland and Virginia was waning, while the new king, cotton, had caused Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia to boom. The tobacco states were selling tens of thousands of slaves to the cotton states, and sending these people south. It is quite possible the Walker slaves were marched 500 miles from Maryland to Alabama to end up on a giant cotton plantation, where the work regime – large crews on vast, unshaded fields – was crueler than the one they’d left behind.The Walkers eventually quit farming and made a fortune as dry goods wholesalers in Missouri; later, they made another as investment bankers in New York. Nearly all the Bush/Walker family money dates from this more recent period, after the Civil War.The family, nevertheless, seems to have looked back with nostalgia on their old slave hold. There are two pieces of evidence for this. In The Bush Tragedy, Jacob Weisberg refers to one of the later patriarchs, David Walker, as “a believer in eugenics and the ‘unwritten law’ of lynching,” and cites as proof a letter Walker published in the St. Louis Republic in 1914. Black people, he wrote at the time, were more insidious than prostitution and “all the other evils combined.”The second piece of evidence is within living memory. In 1930, when they could afford it, the family again embraced the antebellum lifestyle. That year President Bush’s great-grandfather, George Herbert Walker, bought Duncannon plantation, an old cotton estate in South Carolina, to use as a hunting retreat and vacation home. His namesake, George Herbert Walker Bush, the current president’s father, spent many youthful vacations on Duncannon, where teams of black cooks, valets, and drivers served him and opened doors when he approached. The Bush heirs no longer own Duncannon plantation; but for a time, the estate provided a version of the baronial life, to which the antebellum Walkers aspired, but never achieved.The heirs of slaveholders are not responsible for the past; but in a better world, they would be accountable for that past. They would make an effort to deal with the slave story, talk about it, and try to come to terms with it.At present the Bush political dynasty seems to be dying in misrule, finished off by a president who, as Weisberg writes, is “driven by family demons, overflowing with confidence, and lacking any capacity for self-knowledge.” The Bush clan may not be capable of reckoning personally with the tragic inheritance of the slave days. But this week, on a state visit, the president sets foot in three countries that sent hundreds of thousands of captives to America. Today, some of the tens of millions of descendants of those captives want a White House that is accountable. In West Africa President Bush has a superb opportunity, like one presented to a physician attending a wound. A sound physician would chose instinctively to apply medicine, not simply turn away in denial and neglect.Edward Ball is the author of Slaves in the Family and, most recently, The Genetic Strand.

If the Gary Post-Tribune gets it, why don’t the IU Trustees and IU President Michael McRobbie get it? Herman B. Wells (IU President from 1938 to 1962) would not have hesitated to fire a couple of sleazebags like Athletic Director Rick Greenspan and Men’s Basketball Coach Kelvin Sampson.

February 18, 2008
Dan Dakich would restore IU’s credibility

Gary Post-Tribune, February 16, 2008

Until Kelvin Sampson came along, Indiana and Penn State were the only Big Ten programs who remained on squeaky-clean terms with the NCAA over the last four decades.

Give Penn State an asterisk because the Nittany Lions didn’t compete until the 1992-93 season and have been dealing with recent football thuggery.

Thanks to Sampson’s multiple indiscretions with a cell phone, he’s $500,000 poorer and teetering on the edge of unemployment and IU’s reputation is tarnished.

Why should Hoosier partisans be surprised? In Oklahoma, the former president of the National Basketball Coaches Association was charged with the same violations before IU athletic director Rick Greenspan hired him on March 29, 2006.

At the time I expressed reservations, suggesting IU would be better served by Mark Turgeon or Marquette’s Tom Crean, both with impeccable credentials.

Turgeon rescued floundering Wichita State with 128 victories in seven years, including a 2006 trip to the Sweet 16, then bolted to Texas A&M, and is now 20-4 in his first year.

Crean is 182-92 at Marquette, his resume enhanced by a 27-6 record and a Final Four cameo in 2003. He is just three shy of his fifth 20-victory season in the last seven years.

Now, after years under an honest tyrant with integrity, Indiana is stuck with an accused cheater. Don’t even think about replacing Sampson with Bob Knight, who shed too much blood before cowboying to Texas, or pretty-boy Steve Alford, who failed at Iowa.

NCAA timing couldn’t have been worse, Sampson being forced to address its accusations just before Wednesday’s loss to Wisconsin.

Suddenly faltering in the Big Ten race, the Hoosiers must carry Sampson’s baggage when they should be focusing on critical visits from Michigan State (today) and Purdue (Tuesday).

Student-athletes are under enough stress without such added pressure. It will only get worse unless IU’s administration acts now. At the very least, Sampson should be suspended for the rest of the year.

If Greenspan, also on shaky ground, acts promptly, Dan Dakich would be a logical choice as interim coach with an option of making it permanent.

Think about it. Dakich is wrapped in IU roots, having spent 16 years there since graduating from Andrean in 1981.

After twice serving as Knight’s team captain, he joined the General’s staff, contributing to a national title in 1987 and four Big Ten championships before a memorable fallout.

Dakich returned to IU as Director of Operations for the 2007-08 season after coaching Bowling Green to 156 victories, one of only three coaches to win 18-plus games four times in school history.

Untainted by Sampson’s scandalous behavior, Dakich was activated to coaching after Rob Senderoff was fired.

Because the Merrillville native bleeds Cream and Crimson he would provide instant stability. Promoting Dakich would short-circuit a dangerous downward spin.

Such wavering recruits as New Yorker Devin Banks, a standout 6-8 forward, and highly regarded juniors Stephan Van Treese of Lawrence North and Derek Elston of Tipton must be reassured.

Contact John Mutka at

The French establishment is even stronger and less accountable than the French unions; in any other economy (except maybe Zimbabwe) Daniel Bouton would be fired for losing $7 billion

February 18, 2008
NY Times, February 17, 2008
In France, the Heads No Longer Roll
PARIS — OF all the clubs in the world, the Club of 100 in France may be the most exclusive. Its ranks include leaders in business, politics and law, but it’s the admission policy that really makes the Club des Cent, as it is known here, truly remarkable: only when an existing member dies is space made for a new one.Officially, the club, now 96 years old, is devoted strictly to gastronomy, and when the group gathers Thursdays for lunch at legendary Paris restaurants like Maxim’s, politics and business are not on the menu. Claude Bébéar, the chairman of AXA, the French insurance giant, and a club member for more than two decades, says that there is “an atmosphere of real friendship; we are very close.”The same is true of the French business establishment. A close-knit brotherhood — it’s nearly all male — that shares school ties, board memberships and rituals like hunting and wine-tasting, the French business elite is a surprisingly small coterie in a nation of more than 60 million people.But in the wake of a $7 billion loss attributed to a rogue trader at one of the nation’s leading banks, Société Générale, France’s modern-day aristocracy finds itself in the one place it never wants to be: the spotlight.

While the trader, Jérôme Kerviel, now jailed, wasn’t a graduate of a top school or a member of an elite group like the Club des Cent, Société Générale’s embattled chief executive, Daniel Bouton, is both. And the fact that Mr. Bouton and other top managers of the bank have kept their posts since the scandal erupted nearly a month ago has unleashed criticism here that the French elite is an ancien régime — playing by old rules (largely its own) and quick to shift blame to protect itself.

“Is there a tendency in France for the elites to be made in the same mold and close ranks?” asks Bernard-Henri Lévy, the French philosopher and social observer. “Yes, it’s an old French disease.”

In the United States, Britain or Germany, Mr. Lévy adds, “Daniel Bouton would not only have been relieved of his job, but he’d be in a judge’s office being questioned.”

Indeed, the controversy comes at a time of broader tension in both French business and politics, with a new generation fighting for power against an entrenched old guard, says Stéphane Fouks, executive co-chairman of Euro RSCG, one of the largest marketing and communications firms in France.

“At the moment, French capitalism is in a crisis, and it’s creating momentum for a change,” Mr. Fouks says. Within the traditional establishment, he says, “everybody was friends, very diplomatic, and it was a club where at the end of the day, it was always better to find an arrangement.”

Members of the elite make no secret of the rules of the game. “When you are part of a small group, it is difficult to have an attitude of antagonism toward someone else in the group,” says Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, the former president of France. “In a bigger group, there is less interference of personal considerations.”

Mr. Bouton was not available for comment. But Philippe Citerne, Société Générale’s co-chief executive and a member of its board of directors, said establishment connections have nothing to do with the fact that Mr. Bouton is staying on.

“The board of directors twice unanimously confirmed its confidence in Mr. Bouton,” he said. “There’s no way we could deliver services to 27 million customers in 82 countries if we were a small French club.”

AT least half of France’s 40 largest companies are run by graduates of just two schools, the École Polytechnique, which trains the country’s top engineers, and ENA, the national school of administration. That’s especially remarkable given that the two schools together produce only about 600 graduates a year, compared with a graduating class of 1,700 at Harvard.

“They behave like blood relations,” says Ghislaine Ottenheimer, a journalist and author who has written extensively about the French elite. “There is a sense of impunity because there is no sanction in the family.”

Nevertheless, l’affaire Kerviel and especially the fate of Mr. Bouton — even President Nicolas Sarkozy has suggested that Mr. Bouton should step down — have shaken the French establishment to its core and encouraged those, like Ms. Ottenheimer, who favor change.

“The old system is dying; this is its last gasp,” she says. “Bouton is part of a generation that will soon have to hand control of French capitalism to a more diverse elite.”

Perhaps. But it doesn’t appear that Mr. Bouton is facing an imminent slice of the guillotine — unlike American executives at Citigroup and Merrill Lynch, who were forced to step down last fall after their banks suffered huge losses from the subprime mortgage crisis.

While some analysts and business people expect Mr. Bouton to step down within a year, if not sooner, Mr. Bébéar of AXA says French chief executives have more staying power than their counterparts in the United States.

“In France the board does not fire a C.E.O. as easily as in the U.S.,” Mr. Bébéar says. “We think the C.E.O. is responsible, but to suddenly fire the C.E.O. is not the best way to improve things.”

Mr. Bébéar, who acquired broad experience in the United States with AXA’s purchase of well-known American companies like Equitable Life Insurance and Mutual of New York, also says that “sometimes, I feel like the C.E.O. is a scapegoat in your country.”

To reach Mr. Bébéar’s office, visitors walk through an ultramodern glass atrium off of one of Paris’s most fashionable streets, the Avenue Matignon, and enter a private mansion built in 1767. The high-tech hustle and bustle of the atrium quickly fades as they pass through the grand salon, which features a Louis XVI crystal chandelier, gilt-edged mirrors, and red and green chairs and settees.

Mr. Bébéar’s office is similarly resplendent, and appropriately enough, he sits at a desk carved in the era of Louis XIV, the Sun King. The regal status accorded celebrated American executives like John F. Welch Jr., the former chief of General Electric, pales in comparison to the standing enjoyed by the titans of French finance and industry.

“The C.E.O. of a French company is more of a monarch than in the United States,” Mr. Bébéar says. Expanding on that theme, he compares the French chief executive to Voltaire’s enlightened king, or monarque éclairé. Within France itself, Mr. Bébéar, 72, is considered to be as much a kingmaker as a king.

“The press sometimes calls him the godfather of French capitalism. He is emblematic,” says Philippe Favre, president of Invest in France, a government agency that encourages foreign companies to do business in France.

While Mr. Bébéar built AXA in the 1980s and 1990s through bold acquisitions, the power he now wields derives from the corporate boards on which he serves and the close friendships he has made through organizations like the Club des Cent — as well as hunting parties for which he is host at his estate near Orléans. And like other members of the establishment, he finds many close associates drawn into the Société Générale affair, one way or another.

For example, Jean-Martin Folz, the member of the Société Générale board who is heading up the company’s internal investigation of the losses, is also a board member at AXA. Mr. Bébéar, meanwhile, serves on the board of BNP Paribas, which is the biggest bank in France and is rumored to be preparing a bid for Société Générale. And the chairman of BNP Paribas, Michel Pébereau, is also an AXA board member. All three men also attended the same school, the École Polytechnique.

“It is a small universe,” acknowledges Jean-René Fourtou, the chairman of Vivendi, the French entertainment giant, who is a close friend of Mr. Bébéar and is an AXA board member.

Mr. Fourtou, who is also an École Polytechnique graduate and a Club des Cent member, recalls that Mr. Bébéar played a role in persuading him to take over as chief executive of Vivendi in 2002 after the company fell into deep financial distress after a dot-com-era acquisition spree.

“Initially, I refused to take the job,” Mr. Fourtou says. But over dinner at the Four Seasons Hotel George V, Mr. Bébéar and Mr. Giscard d’Estaing (another École Polytechnique alum) eventually persuaded him to lead Vivendi. He quickly turned around the company, making it one of France’s biggest business success stories of recent years.

“They said I had to go,” he recalls of the push he received to run Vivendi. “I felt obliged.”

As for the current crisis at Société Générale, Mr. Fourtou says he doesn’t think Mr. Bouton should step down right away. But he says he takes that stance not because he is an acquaintance of Mr. Bouton, or because of their intersections at the Club des Cent or any other establishment ties.

“If you change the C.E.O. immediately, you add confusion to a problem which is localized,” he says. He also says he thinks that Société Générale’s support for Mr. Bouton makes sense: “The board took the right decision, and not because of networks.”

WHILE dining and discoursing at Michelin-starred restaurants might seem the epitome of aristocratic living — at each lunch, one Club des Cent member, designated the week’s “Brigadier,” makes a presentation about the selection of food and wine while another critiques the meal — many members come from relatively humble backgrounds.

Mr. Fourtou, for example, was raised in the Basque region of Spain by his grandfather, who did not attend college, and he briefly ran a newspaper and book kiosk on the side to help support his wife’s family after graduation from the École Polytechnique.

“I grew up not rich, not poor,” Mr. Fourtou says. “My father was a professor of mathematics.” Similarly, Mr. Bébéar’s parents were teachers in the Dordogne region in southwest France.

Rather than a rigid class system, it was Mr. Fourtou’s and Mr. Bébéar’s admission into the École Polytechnique that assured their place in the elite. And that is one of the great ironies of the French establishment: while it enjoys the privileges associated with the elites of the United States, entry is, if anything, much more rigorously meritocratic, based on exams and ever-narrowing selection from an early age.

Indeed, getting into Harvard, which accepted 9 percent of its applicants last year, is a breeze compared with getting into the École Polytechnique.

Out of 130,000 students who focus on math and science in French high schools each year, roughly 15 percent do well enough on their exams to qualify for the two- to three-year preparation course required by the elite universities. Of those who make it through that, 5,000 apply to École Polytechnique, which is commonly called simply “X,” and just 400 are admitted from France.

Admission is based strictly on exam grades; there isn’t even an essay requirement or interview. And there are no legacy admissions, sports scholarships or other American-style shortcuts for getting into X.

“You can be the president’s nephew and it won’t help you get in,” says Bernard Oppetit, a 1978 graduate of X who later worked for BNP Paribas before starting Centaurus Capital, a London investment fund with $4 billion under management.

The École Polytechnique was founded in 1794, during the French Revolution, to train the country’s military engineers, and it officially remains under the umbrella of the French ministry of defense. Not only is the school free, but students also receive a stipend from the government to cover their expenses.

“We call it l’élitisme démocratique,” says Pierre Tapie, dean of Essec, a leading French business school. “These are places where you meet extraordinary people who are there because they worked hard and are among the most brilliant of a generation.”

Although the school teaches high-end fare like physics, engineering, and computer sciences, its broader goal is to create a leadership cadre that shares an ordered, prioritized view of the world, says Xavier Michel, the president of the École Polytechnique and an active-duty general in the French armed forces.

In France, this is known as the Cartesian system, after the mathematician and philosopher René Descartes, and Mr. Michel says the school encourages its students “to modelize” the world. And when they eventually become chief executives, he says, “they understand what are the capabilities of their companies. They understand what they can do and what they can’t do.”

Until, of course, models run off the rails — as they so often do in the business and financial worlds, regardless of what country devises them.

Mr. Kerviel’s $7 billion loss couldn’t be predicted by any model, even one designed by Descartes himself. And this is one reason the story of Société Générale has been such a shock to the French establishment, which prides itself on the predictability and order that Mr. Michel instills in his students.

At the same time, among the French masses, the very different fates of Mr. Kerviel and Mr. Bouton reinforce skepticism of the free-market values increasingly espoused by the business establishment as well as the country’s most prominent political and economic maverick, President Sarkozy.

“It is certainly a shock,” says Pierre Gadonneix, an École Polytechnique graduate who is chief executive of EDF, the country’s biggest power company. “The population is upset with the management of the bank as a whole. I’m convinced the market economy is a way to create value, but not all the French are convinced.”

For all the recent criticism of the business establishment in France — or the predictions that its power will soon weaken — it has proved to be a remarkably durable institution.

Although a female candidate, Ségolène Royal, came within three percentage points of being elected president of France last year, women account for only 7 percent of board members of French companies, according to a recent study by Korn/Ferry International, the recruiting and consulting firm.

Rigid as it appears to outsiders, the system has its benefits, according to Olivier Le Fournier, a professor at the Lille School of Management. In particular, he cites the success of large French companies outside France, noting that CAC 40 companies, the Gallic equivalent of the Dow 30, typically generate more than two-thirds of their revenue abroad.

“The elite is more concentrated than in the U.S.,” he says. “But there is the solidarity of a common approach. I think it’s positive. It’s a good way for our companies to work together at the international level.”

France has always been known for luxury goods and fashion, but in recent years less glamorous industrial companies like Airbus and Total have been able to hold their own against American competitors like Boeing and Exxon Mobil. The hotel chain Accor, meanwhile, has successfully expanded into the United States as the owner of Motel 6, a brand that’s anything but haute.

And while the pace of change might seem glacial, academic and business leaders say that there are some notable differences between the elite of today and those of 20 years ago.

For example, much as 53-year-old President Sarkozy replaced Jacques Chirac, who retired at 74, younger executives are increasingly taking the helm of the biggest companies, according to Mr. Favre of Invest in France. Over the last five years, he estimates, the average age of a CAC 40 C.E.O. has dropped by about a decade, with business leaders now typically in their early 50s.

AT the same time, fewer top executives are going from École Polytechnique or ENA to high-level government jobs and then moving to the top ranks of private companies, a practice the French call “parachutage.”

Mr. Bouton, 57, “was a pure product of that approach,” says Mr. Favre, having joined Société Générale in 1991 after nearly two decades at the finance ministry and an education at ENA. The Grande Écoles, the top universities, are still the incubators of the elite, says Mr. Favre, himself an ENA graduate, but today’s aspiring chief executives are more likely to join a private company in their mid-20s and work their way up.

If Mr. Bouton is pushed from his pedestal, though, it’s likely that his replacement will have followed a similar trajectory to the top and be someone well acquainted with the members and the rituals of the establishment.

“The pool is simply smaller in France; there is not as much choice as in London or New York,” says Mr. Giscard d’Estaing.

To paraphrase Adam Protextor, auteur of the Resist Evil trilogy, “Resist Gannett”

February 18, 2008
NY Times February 18, 2008
College Paper Vows to Fight a Takeover by Gannett
J. David McSwane, the student editor of The Rocky Mountain Collegian, was looking forward to a quiet spring semester at the Colorado State University after drawing global attention last fall for a four-word editorial criticizing President Bush.What he got instead was another storm.On the first day of classes in January, Mr. McSwane learned that the university president was meeting with representatives from the local daily, The Fort Collins Coloradoan, which is owned by Gannett, to discuss a potential “partnership” with the student newspaper.

The Collegian, now worried about its future as an independent student newspaper, is planning to fight any possible takeover by a media company. And Gannett and The Coloradoan have become targets for harsh criticism from college newsrooms and journalism departments across the country, who portray Gannett as a “dark lord” that wants to rein in student press freedom.

“If The Coloradoan were to take over The Collegian, only Gannett would win,” The Daily Nebraskan, the campus newspaper at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said in an editorial.

Gannett dismissed any suggestion that it planned to conquer student journalism.

“There is no grand Gannett strategy,” said Tara Connell, a spokeswoman at its headquarters in McLean, Va. “Gannett is not looking to buy college newspapers. We look at all sorts of things.”

Gannett owns two student newspapers in Florida, however — The Tallahassee Democrat owns The FSView & Florida Flambeau at Florida State and Florida Today owns The Central Florida Future at the University of Central Florida in Orlando. Both are for-profit newspapers, although the vast majority of student newspapers, including The Collegian, are nonprofit.

Media companies find college newspapers attractive properties for several reasons: operating costs are low because student labor is inexpensive, sometimes even free. Advertising is on the rise. And perhaps most important, the newspapers are read — frequently — by a young audience with relatively deep pockets.

In 2006, MTV acquired Y2M: Youth Media and Marketing Networks, whose subsidiary, College Publisher, is host of Web sites for 450 campus newspapers.

“College communities are fairly healthy economic engines. There’s a constant influx of students coming in with cash,” said Kevin Schwartz, the general manager of The Daily Tar Heel, the student newspaper at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. “The underpinnings of a healthy market are found in a state university town.”

According to Alloy Media and Marketing, which places advertisements in college publications, advertisers spent $30 million on ads in college papers in 2006. Alloy also estimated that advertising in college newspapers increased 15 percent in 2007, from 2006.

And as John Morton, a newspaper industry analyst in Silver Spring, Md., noted, college newspapers have a captive audience. A 2006 survey conducted by College Publisher found that 44 percent of undergraduate students read their campus newspaper twice or more a week — compared with 28 percent who read the local newspaper that often — and 77 percent read it at least once a month.

College print publications are still beating their online counterparts as well — only 24 percent of respondents said they read the college paper online twice or more a week. (Of national publications, USA Today, Gannett’s flagship publication, has the second-highest readership on campuses, behind The New York Times, the survey noted.)

College newsrooms are also relatively immune to the market pressures of the industry. “Our primary focus isn’t bringing money to stockholders, it’s providing opportunities for students,” said Mr. McSwane, The Collegian editor, who is a junior from Arvada, Colo. “We don’t ever have to worry that someone’s going to come down and say, ‘Hey, we have to cut our newsroom budget because someone in Kansas isn’t making enough money.’ “

That independence from the bottom line is what keeps student journalism fresh and irreverent, or so holds the common wisdom in college newsrooms, and journalism professors tend to agree. “If there is free press, it’s probably on the college campuses,” said Donna Rouner, a journalism professor at Colorado State who wrote an op-ed for The Collegian criticizing any deal.

No proposal has yet been submitted, but an advisory committee composed of students, including a representative from The Collegian, and Colorado State faculty members held its first meeting Thursday to decide whether a deal with Gannett or any other media company was worth pursuing.

Blanche Hughes, the vice president for student affairs, who sits on the committee, said its goal was to gauge how the proposal would work for students as well as the university. She said the committee would look for job and education opportunities for students and assurances from any company that made a bid for The Collegian that the quality of the newspaper would be maintained.

Mr. Morton said he doubted that Gannett’s ownership would change a student newspaper. “I’m sure Gannett has absolutely no interest in having anything to do with the editorial product,” he said.

But buying student newspapers, Mr. Morton said, made financial sense. “It’s a way of enlarging your footprint,” he said.

Mr. Schwartz, the general manager of The Daily Tar Heel, said he thought Gannett was going after young readers. But he said campus newspapers, with their easy availability and focus on community-based journalism, helped to instill the newspaper habit in students.

“Let us make them newspaper readers for you,” he said.

Lewis Black is better than the four blue collar comedy guys put together

February 17, 2008

Lewis Black will host his own Comedy Central series in March of 2008. The show, titled The Root Of All Evil, will pit two people or pop-culture topics against each other as a panel of comedians argue which is more evil, two examples being “Paris Hilton vs. Dick Cheney” and “Internet Porn vs. YouTube”. At the end of the argument Lewis Black will make the final decision as to which is more evil.

On February 18, 2008, Lewis Black will host “History of the Joke, with Lewis Black”, a comedy-documentary on The History Channel. confirms it, saying “Join comedian Lewis Black in his provocative quest for the secret ingredients of a great joke. Black discovers living history among America’s greatest joke tellers, including George Carlin, Shelley Berman, Robin Williams, Robert Klein, Kathleen Madigan, Penn & Teller, Kathy Griffin, and Dave Attell; and he looks to the future of joke-telling, with jokes and interviews from over 50 standup comedians working today. Black’s hilarious journey uncovers where jokes come from, what inspires comedians to get into comedy, the nature of laughter, improv, the dirty joke and the role of truth in comedy. Black recounts what it takes to tell the perfect joke.”