Kumbaya

When I was a kid, my brothers and I used to go to a YMCA camp on the Chesapeake Bay for a month every summer. My mother said that it was cheaper than feeding us, which was my first exposure to cost-effectiveness analysis.

At the camp, we did all the usual camp things. One of those was evening campfires with singing. This was a YMCA camp in the early 1960s, so we sang a lot of folk songs about peace, love, and understanding. I was reminded of this because I now have a granddaughter who loves a Peter, Paul, and Mary disk with just those songs on it, including Kumbaya.

Skip forward a few decades from those long-ago campfires. Today, the very word Kumbaya is used as an insult of sorts. It means that the person being insulted is an unrealistic idealist, who expects that social progress can be made by sitting around the campfire and singing. As a data-minded social scientist who expects evidence from randomized studies for just about everything, I should be firmly in the anti-Kumbaya camp, so to speak. But I’m not.

Let me be clear: I do not think that singing around campfires causes important social change. Yet I’d argue that a lack of Kumbaya is just as much a problem. Kumbaya-fueled idealism is the very core of evidence-based reform, in fact.

Here’s why. The greatest danger to evidence-based reform is the widespread belief that doing well-intentioned things is good enough, even if we don’t know whether they work. An idealist should never accept this. Good intentions are nice, but they do not bring about real Kumbaya. That depends on good outcomes.

Sitting around campfires and singing about peace, love, and understanding should be good preparation for actually caring whether your actions make the difference you intend them to make. Sure, life teaches you that it takes toughness to insist that good intentions become good actions, but you have to start with the good intentions.

So here is another verse to that ageless song:

Someone’s experimenting, Lord
Kumbaya
Randomizing, Lord
Kumbaya
Someone’s analyzing, Lord
Kumbaya
Oh Lord,
Kumbaya

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