Almost anyone who loves narrative journalism or music or social experiments or who simply believes that children are wiser than adults knows the Gene Weingarten story “Pearls Before Breakfast.”

In this Washington Post magazine piece, which won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing, Weingarten arranged for the famed violinist Joshua Bell to play incognito at the L’Enfant Plaza public transit station in Washington, D.C., during the morning rush hour. The question, as Weingarten phrased it, was this:  “In a banal setting at an inconvenient time, would beauty transcend?”

The answer? Well, no.  More than 1,000 people simply ignored the ethereal music in their midst; only 27 stopped. Most notable, however, was one particular observation about those who did pause, an observation that helped turn the story into a legend (one meriting its own entry on the debunker website

“There was no ethnic or demographic pattern to distinguish the people who stayed to watch Bell, or the ones who gave money, from that vast majority who hurried on past, unheeding. Whites, blacks and Asians, young and old, men and women, were represented in all three groups. But the behavior of one demographic remained absolutely consistent. Every single time a child walked past, he or she tried to stop and watch. And every single time, a parent scooted the kid away.”

In addition to winning the Pulitzer Prize, “Pearls Before Breakfast” became the subject of countless cocktail party conversations and research papers — even, according to the Post, a children’s book.

Earlier today, Bell returned to a D.C. Metro station to play, this time as part of a well-publicized effort to promote music education and his new album. Crowds thronged the main hall of Union Station to hear him; some listeners, the Post reported, had arrived two hours early to get a spot.

Bell, the newspaper’s account says, looked out upon the audience and said, “This is more like it!”

You can watch video of the original experiment here:

Most popular articles from Nieman Storyboard

Show comments / Leave a comment