Malcolm Gladwell has a new book out, which means that he’s so popular that the backlash will be automatic, a product of muscle memory more than genuine resentment. Though I do understand that there’s a bit of burning resentment and anger at anyone who has managed to write books that so well lend him to getting those $40,000 a speech consultant fees he can command. I can’t bring myself to be angry with him or jealous, though. Someone’s got to be pulling down that dough, and I’d prefer it if it were a cheeky, liberal-minded writer rather than the alternatives.
This is why I can’t help but like the guy: He’s reached the “automatic bestseller list” point in his career, and what does he choose to do with that automatic audience, many of whom are management wanks? He chooses to explain how yes, nurture is more important than nature when it comes to genius and success. This sounds very “duh” to us (think of all the reams and reams of academic work and blogging that can be boiled down to the word “privilege” alone), but believe me, it’s far from settled in the popular culture. I’m sure if you put it to a nationwide poll and asked if the great geniuses of Western civilization were almost all white and male until the 20th century, a majority still to this day would suggest that something about being white and male inherently inclines you to genius, instead of the much more likely answer, which is that the oppression of non-white people and women throughout said history means that their genius had little expression. And that even when it was expressed, history suppressed it.
What sounds interesting about this book is that Gladwell wrestles the discourse away from just the subject of privilege and seems to be asking about background in a less loaded way. I mean, most of it is about privilege, it looks like, but by phrasing the question a little differently, you can see how there’s other factors at play. For instance, Barack Obama is going to be heralded for a long time as a political genius, but it’s not that it’s inborn so much as he’s got a fresh perspective due to having a much different career than a lot of the more traditional Democratic politicians who in the past would be considered the only eligible ones to run for President. And it’s not just the race thing, but also that he comes from an urban perspective (almost every politician except JFK I can think of was more rural), and that he’s more writerly and introspective.
Still, there’s no way around it—the books sounds foremost like a dissection of privilege. And he shoved it into a space that’s usually hostile to that message, that successful people owe it more to their background than their inherent superiority over people who aren’t as successful, but likely as smart and creative. Unfortunately, according to this review, Gladwell indulges his urge to wank off on pet theories a little too much, using rice paddies to explain why some Asian nations best the rest of the world in math scores. I think the likelier explanation is more mundane, which is that Asia began to rise in the world markets at precisely the time that economies started to be driven more and more by science and technology, and they reacted to that environment by putting the focus on math in schools. Americans, alas, just don’t care as much. But I’m curious to read the book and see if Gladwell makes his case.
The reviewer makes a couple of sloppy criticisms I want to address.
Gladwell’s “Outliers” model — the idea that success is shaped by environment, not genetics — has two additional problems. First, it is insufficiently predictive. We can easily see that favoring people with January birthdays over people with September birthdays, as Canadian hockey leagues do, can have consequences. But how could anyone have predicted that postwar Jewish lawyers would be rewarded for their expertise 20 years down the road? Or that, 20 years after Bill Gates was born, the advent of the personal computer would turn programming geeks into masters of the universe? These are historical accidents, for which it is impossible to prepare. Success, in these instances, is simply a byproduct of luck.
This leads us to the second problem with Gladwell’s model: It is every bit as deterministic as the “genius” model. “The successful are those who have been given opportunities,” he writes, “and who have had the strength and presence of mind to seize them.” But opportunity is as much out of our control as genetics. What if the opportunity doesn’t come? If, as Gladwell suggests, we are prisoners of our ethnic or cultural legacies, what if we are of the wrong ethnicity or the wrong culture? How can we ever hope to succeed? If, on the other hand, we can overcome these environmental barriers through relatively quick fixes, as Gladwell suggests elsewhere, then how significant are those barriers?
That luck is hard to predict and that determinism is depressing have nothing to do with whether or not Gladwell is right. It’s funny, because the reviewer criticized Gladwell earlier (and correctly) for the habit of ignoring evidence that doesn’t fit his theory. I fail, however, to see how rejecting a theory because you find the implications unpleasant is any better. I’d also add that quick fixes don’t necessarily mean barriers are insignificant. Sometimes big problems do have elegant solutions. Plus, a lot of the fixes implied by this theory only sound quick on paper. For instance, “This American Life” had a segment on one of the so-called quick fixes, a program on the Harlem Children’s Zone’s pipeline program that starts with the Baby College. On paper, the program sounds like a classic quick fix—the idea behind it is to create a childhood that more closely resembles that of a privileged child for underprivileged kids starting from infancy on. (The Baby College teaches parents who don’t have access to child psychology books and magazines and social circles the principles of child psychology. Little things like time outs instead of spankings supposedly pay off in big dividends down the road. I’m not saying I agree or disagree, just reporting on what they’re doing.) But in reality, it’s not a small, quick thing at all. It requires a big commitment, huge amounts of work, and I suspect there’s a lot of time spent putting out fires and clinging to kids whose circumstances make it hard to stick to the pipeline.
And that’s why it’s not fair to say that the nurture theory is just as deterministic as the nature theory. Because you can, with research, funding, and will, change people’s circumstances. This shouldn’t be especially controversial. Look at what happened after unionizing lifted white working class people into the middle class—their kids flooded colleges, and intermarriage with the professional classes happened, and now you have rich white people pretending to be country music listening, pick-up driving hillbillies.