I like Malcolm Gladwell. Yes, I know all the common and usual objections to his work—he oversimplifies, he doesn't like gray areas. He overquantifies, if that's a word. His claims aren't fully supported or supportable. One friend (hi, Scott) notes that he loves ideas but thinks the ideas sometimes don't seem quite correct; another (hi, Karen) says he's a popularizer of other peoples' research—research which, in full parade dress and in the proper academic settings, is often more subtle than Mr. Gladwell portrays it to be. Okay. All duly noted.
I still like him. If you look at his growing oeuvre holistically, it seems clear that he's really just trying to get people to look at things from different angles—to turn ideas inside-out, or stand them on their heads, and look at them afresh, and see what can be seen that way. I personally love those kinds of thought experiments, and I agree with him, broadly, that, often, conventional truths and received wisdom shape our thoughts and our beliefs more than we admit they do, sometimes to society's detriment.
His latest book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants is as stuffed with unconventional ideas as any of his books. And yes, he does make some typically Gladwellian jumps to conclusions in a couple of places: he accepts the assumption that "three strikes" laws are always counterproductive, for example, on reasoning that seems a bit rushed and not quite convincing, when the truth is probably more complicated than he makes it out to be.
But he also—again typically—makes some great points. One of the most interesting thoughout the book is his fondness for the inverted-U shaped graph—the idea that many good things get better up to a point and then start to become less good again*.
"Small class size" in schools is one of his primary examples. He points to research that suggests that our conventional assumption throughout society at large is that smaller class sizes are always better, when in fact that is only true up to a point: a class that is too small makes individual students feel too vulnerable, like too much attention is being focused on them, and too-small classes don't allow for the diversity of viewpoints that contribute to good discussions.
There is an optimum class size, and, generally, the more you depart from it—in either direction—the worse things get.
I actually concluded the same thing years ago when I was a teacher. I decided that the optimum size for a class was 15 to 19 students. Turns out that's right in line with a broad spectrum of research on the topic.
One very interesting effect of this is actually not brought up—not brought up forcefully, at least—until the notes. It's that our overwhelming belief in "smaller is better" in class size leads us to make the exact wrong choices in trying to effect reforms. What we do is hire more teachers so that class sizes can be smaller. Because payroll is the #1 expense of schools, that means we can pay all teachers less. But research strongly suggests that the teaching skills of the teacher has far more of an overall effect on the quality of the education than class size does—and there are never enough gifted and talented teachers to go around. What we should be doing, instead of marginalizing the gifted and talented teachers by giving them fewer and fewer students, and demoralizing them by paying them less, would be to work at identifying the really good teachers and then pay those people more to accept the heavier workload and more demanding responsibilities of larger class sizes. By exposing more students to the best teachers (and retaining more of them with higher rewards), we'd be getting a better deal for our educational dollars.
It's a typical Gladwellian idea—turn the conventional widsom inside out, take a fresh look at it, and see what you can discover.
Gladwell, to me, is just not a good "dictator." That is, he's not a writer you have to swallow whole or wholly reject. He's an author whose ideas you turn over in your mind and take or leave. They're triggers to further inquiry and inspiration for further thought on readers' parts—perspectives to put to use in coming to our own conclusions. Whether you agree with him or not. Or both, in the case of different ideas. Nothing at all undesirable about that, if you ask me.
Oh, and who knew there was a real David and a real Goliath, and that we actually know quite a lot about them? That another nice thing about a Gladwell book—you'll always learn something you never knew before.
"Open Mike," the editorial page of TOP, is often off-topic, and appears on Sundays.
P.S. More recommended reading: If you happen to have a college-attending child who either belongs to a fraternity or parties at them, you must read this article at The Atlantic (it's free, online)—and I mean must! Especially at the part that begins:
Gentle reader, if you happen to have a son currently in a college fraternity, I would ask that you take several carbon dioxide-rich deep breaths from a paper bag before reading the next paragraph. I’ll assume you are sitting down. Ready?
Urgent need-to-know stuff. Seriously.
*I've always believed that. Water is my favorite rhetorical example—it's critical to our survival, but ingest too much in the wrong manner and we have a very negative word for what happens...it's called "drowning."
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(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
[Note: Several teachers responded with their thoughts about class size. I didn't want to "promote" one over another, but they're very interesting and insightful. See the Comments Section for those. —Ed.]
"This is more than just using writerly (if that's a word) license to make people think out of the box. It feels to me like he's walking a fine line and trying to present appealing narratives that are clothed in an aura of academic support but he really does not do the work make sure those narratives are in any way based in fact."
Patrick: "I more or less threw in the towel on Gladwell after Blink. He reads a bunch, he is somewhat smart in some sort of non-analytical way, he is a very good writer, but half of that book seemed to contradict the other half. Steven Pinker absolutely killed Outliers in a review, you could look it up sometime...."
Mike replies: I know, and as I said, okay. If you don't like him I won't argue.
Gladwell-bashing has gotten common enough to qualify as a regular olympic sport in some quarters. In truth, the bashing is almost as entertaining as the books (so thanks for the links). If I were Gladwell, or editing him, I would insist on a whole lot more qualifying, and much more elbow room for ambiguity. It's well known that he drives some academics crazy. He has a way of saying "here's a little research that supports the conclusion I like, so now we're going to accept that as completely true." The trick is just to interpret such jumps as him saying "here's what I think."
Don't discount the possibility of professional jealousy in the bash-fest, either. Most social-science types can only dream of selling (and earning) like Gladwell does. He's the superstar.
And Patrick, have you read much of Pinker? I'll take Gladwell's faults over Pinker's—at least I can figure out what they are. I admit that of the two I'd take Pinker to the desert island, though, where I'd have ample time to figure out what the hell he's talking about and no one would mind me ranting away at the books like a guy yelling at the TV.
They're both just writing about their own ideas and beliefs, really.
John Camp: "I've been force-fed a couple courses in statistics in the context of newspaper reporting, with an emphasis on 'what's wrong with these statistics?' From that viewpoint, what bothers me about much of Gladwell's work is, first, that you don't get much hint of the other side, and second, when you look back at original sources, you find that his popularization of certain ideas mean that he has had to ignore the details, which means nothing is quite as clear cut as Gladwell makes it. I read most of Blink, and gave up; I thought the most interesting book was the one [Outliers —Ed.] that argued (essentially) that work is more important than 'talent,' whatever talent is. I found that idea so interesting that I did go back and read some of the original work, and feel some debt to Gladwell for bringing my attention to it; but to say that he oversimplified it is to oversimplify it."
Robert Roaldi: "I almost feel like telling the critics that if they wanted academic rigor, then they should join academia. You could make the argument, though, that the kind of thoughtful criticism that his works generate are useful parts of the 'thinking outside the box' that he seems to want to encourage. When I read his stuff, I often think, 'Oh yeah, that's interesting.' And then when I read a criticism, I sometimes think, 'Oh yeah, that's interesting too.' Why does there seem to be the need to have winners and losers in such discussions? Gladwell doesn't have to totally correct, and neither do his detractors. It's not a baseball game."