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May 2011 Book Club
by Malcolm Gladwell
Hosted by Karl Alexander
John Dewey Professor of Sociology
"Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers instructs us that the aphorism ‘no man is an island” holds across the spectrum – from inner city kids struggling to master the first grade curriculum to the Bill Gateses and, yes, even the Malcolm Gladwells of the world."
— Karl Alexander,
John Dewey Professory of Sociology,
How to Participate
About this Month's Selection
"Talent doesn’t rise to the top on its own. Rather, it has to be nurtured and the circumstances conducive. And for Gladwell, “circumstances” run the gamut, from the in-close conditions of family life, to broad cultural conventions, to the intersection of demography and historic circumstance. At that intersection, he tells us, lay the fate not just of individuals (e.g., Chris Langdon versus Robert Oppenheimer), but also entire classes of persons (Jews entering the garment industry in turn-of the century New York) and even nationalities (Chinese math prowess built on a lineage of rice cultivation). And a bit of good fortune doesn’t hurt, like being born at the right time of year in order to rise through the ranks of Canadian hockey.
The principles, once extracted out, seem hardly profound – call it Sociology 101. But Gladwell has a knack for weaving a good tale, and for connecting dots that most of us wouldn’t even recognize as dots. The ability to discern patterns where others see none is one definition of operational intelligence, and no doubt Gladwell has that in abundance. It is all so very clever, even awe-inspiring. But perhaps too clever. Maybe, on average, talent does tend to find its own level, and Gladwell’s outliers are exceptions to an otherwise natural order of things. Gladwell has been accused of cherry-picking evidence (e.g., Terman’s gifted children in fact were quite successful, on the whole) – and being a bit too self-certain (e.g., there are numerous credible alternatives to his rice paddy account of Asian math prowess).
A story well woven tends to seem a natural whole, but how damning is it to suggest that someone else could come along and weave an equally convincing interpretive account for at least some of his anecdotes? I don’t think this fundamental failing, as “proof” isn’t the right standard – the test for Outliers, rather, is plausibility and Gladwell earns high marks on that score. His elaborate superstructure of interpretation is used to make a simple point about social justice, one advanced with admirable restraint: we all bear the imprint of that which we experience, and if we tend to give too much credit to those who rise to greatness, doesn’t it hold also that we attribute to much blame to those who lag behind? That’s effectively where Outliers ends. It trails off at precisely the point when one might expect advocacy for some sort of progressive political or policy agenda, but that’s not the stuff of Outliers. Instead, Gladwell walks us to the crossroads and leaves it to us to decide what path to take.