Malcolm Gladwell sets out to show in Outliers that culturally we have some misconceptions about the road to success, and that by looking at how our meritocracy really works we can do our best to both give people a fair playing field and also stop pointlessly thwarting the futures of people whose chances are lowered for purely arbitrary reasons.
Gladwell is at his best attacking these kinds of arbitrary but systematic discrimination. When schools set a cut-off age for each grade, the oldest kids end up labeled the most talented while the younger ones, who are really just less mature and younger, are left behind. Since more teaching and hard work compound innate talents, those older kids just end up getting better and better while the young ones stay the same. This sort of problem is pointless and easily remedied, as is, for example, the unnecessarily long summer vacation enjoyed by American students.
The way teaching and hard work can compound individual merit is critical to each story in Outliers. Geniuses, experts, and star players are naturally talented—they really do have to be. But they also have to work hard (10,000 hours of practice is the magic number in pretty much any field) and get lucky. Genius with no opportunity won’t, unfortunately, amount to much.
While some opportunities are given and taken away through purely bureaucratic means, like the age cut-offs for schools and sports teams, others are more complicated. Some cultures instill a strong work ethic, some cultures instill a certain respect to authority. These are things that can deeply affect the choices people make and how they will lead either to compounded merit and opportunity or stagnation. Here it becomes more difficult to give easy prescriptions.
For example, take the two parenting styles Gladwell describes based on a study by Annette Lareau, “concerted cultivation” and “accomplishment of natural growth.” The first is what typical middle- and upper-class parents do: make sure kids adhere to a constant schedule of learning and activities like piano lessons, football practice, summer camp, and tutoring. Lower- or working-class parents tend, instead, to let children occupy themselves, spending their time playing with each other, watching TV, and being generally independent. As someone raised in the latter style, I can’t help but see how many opportunities for education and advancement I lost because my parents just didn’t think to rear a child that way. At the same time, kids raised in environments like mine are better able to occupy their own time and take care of themselves. Concerted cultivation creates kids with a sense of entitlement—and that’s not necessarily a bad thing—while natural growth breeds more distrust of authority.
In general, Gladwell finds good anecdotes to illustrate larger points that seem valid and important. He’s willing to explore cultural influences on success and failure despite the fear of being accused of stereotyping, and I think in this particular case it’s very valuable. I’m not an expert in most of the areas of research, so it’s somewhat hard for me to evaluate whether all the studies are methodologically sound and cited without distortion as to meaning. But the only claim I took issue with was one made toward the end of the book about why Chinese students are so good at math.
In Chinese, the words for numbers one through ten are shorter than they are in English—they simply take less time to say. Since short-term retention of numbers is based on how long it takes you to “say them to yourself,” it makes perfect sense that Chinese speakers would be able to remember a longer string of digits than English speakers (and this effect holds true for other languages as well, which may have longer or shorter number names). But where Gladwell gets into trouble for me is where he claims that since Western number-naming is less logical than it is in Chinese, kids never get the basic, visceral understanding of math they could. A psychologist at Northwestern, Karen Fuson, explains that, “Instead of being a rote learning thing, there’s a pattern I can figure out. There is an expectation that I can do this. There is an expectation that it’s sensible. For fractions, we say three-fifths. The Chinese is literally ‘out of five parts, take three.’ That’s telling you conceptually what a fraction is.”
Frankly, you only need to be told conceptually what a fraction is once and after that three-fifths will sound just as “sensible” to you as anything else, and I can see little more here than a purely pedagogical problem. If American students think math doesn’t make sense and isn’t made of patterns, it’s not because of what the numbers are named—math is done in figures, with equations, not written out in words and sentences. An American can just as clearly distinguish the hundreds from the tens from the ones place as a Chinese child can, because we write them down in the same base-ten format. Gladwell thinks “twenty-four” is too far removed from the idea of “two-tens four,” but (a) the words are clearly there in slightly phonologically altered form and (b) it doesn’t matter, because the problem you need to solve will say “24” anyhow. But as I said, this was the only claim I would seriously dispute, and I would actually like to do more research on it myself now that I have seen it. Math pedagogy is a pet peeve of mine and I think there are probably far too many confounding factors here to ascribe poor American math skills only or even largely to language. And when Gladwell himself refers to the tens place as the “decade” of a number, I can only wonder whether he too is math illiterate or whether he just feels the need to talk down to his audience. Both possibilities are unpleasant, marring an otherwise interesting and enjoyable read.