November 30, 2008 by William Hennessy
Outliers: The Story of Success
Rarely does a book require immediate action from the reader. "The Rights of Man" by Thomas Paine moved America’s founder’s to action. "The Communist Manifesto" moved Vladimir Lenin to enslave a nation–and allowed Stalin to enslave many more. "The Origin of Species" launched a crusade against tradition that grows in intensity with each subsequent generation. (Listverse has a list of the 10 most influential books of all time, admittedly subjective.)
I Can’t Believe It’s Not a Novel
Malcolm Gladwell might have penned the next book to change history. "Outliers: the story of success" (Little Brown, New York) takes the reader on a marvelous tale of men and women who toiled and strained to rise above their meager starts to become . . . great. There are world-class hockey players, software and computer billionaires, great lawyers, mathematicians. All of these "outliers" fall many standard-deviations from the top of their kind.
And like a great fairy tale writer, Gladwell deftly draws the reader deeply into his little secret: "All is not as it appears."
Was there foul play that made these people rich?
Did the hockey players’ parents cheat?
Were these geniuses not as smart as they pretended to be?
Like the titillating headlines in supermarket tabloids, "Outliers" makes you turn the page to find out Bill Gates’s dirty little secret of success and why certain hockey players were heads and shoulders above peers of the same age.
Masterful Plot Twists
As the story unfolds–and Gladwell’s action and tension rise and fall like a Dean Koontz novel–you learn facts far from scandalous yet more intriguing, even, than an illicit affair between Queen Elizabeth and Elton John.
I’ll leave the details to your reading of this fine book. But I’ll tell you why this book will change the world if we let it. And why we should.
America’s Shameful Education Results
Walter Williams once said that if he were the Grand Wizard of the KKK he could think of no better way to destroy blacks in America than to send them to our public schools. Just this past Saturday, Morton Kondracke on Fox News’ "The Beltway Boys" said that education could be Obama’s Achilles’ Heel–it is so bad and the teachers’ unions so corrupt and selfish. (Kondracke is the liberal.)
If you have children in public school today, unless it’s one of the top 100 or so districts in the country, you probably realize that your children will leave high school far less educated than you did. Somehow we have to fix it.
Not so much recently, but a whole lot when my kids were tiny, I read reams on education reform. I drew many conclusions about the causes of our declining education–the unions, government meddling, bad homes, emphasis on entertainment over learning–but inventing a solution seemed out of reach.
The Solution to a Quagmire
Enter Gladwell. "Outliers" explains the most plausible and unmentionable (in liberal elite circles) cause and solution to American education problems since Carl Childers identified the problem with a broken roto-tiller in "Sling Blade": "I reckon it ain’t got no gas, um hmm."
The model for fixing education quickly, inexpensively, and permanently is pretty straightforward. Except for the special interests. The young girl Gladwell models, Marita, has, like so many others in the book, made herself into an outlier. From single female head-of-household home with a single bedroom for the family and a minimally educate mother, Marita has become a math wizard in a special KIPP middle school in one of the worst neighborhoods in New York.
"Marita doesn’t need a brand-new school with acrews of playing fields and gleaming facilities," writes Gladwell. "She doesn’t need a laptop, a smaller class, a teacher with Ph.D., or a bigger apartment. She doesn’t need a higher IQ or a mind as quick Chris Langan’s. All those things would be nice, of course. But they miss the point. Marita just needed a chance. And loot at the chance she was given!"
That chance, according to Gladwell, was the opportunity to work as hard as a wet-rice farmer in rural South China.
Imagine how the NEA will attack Gladwell’s recommendations: longer hours in school, fewer but more intense "specials," hours of homework every night, weekend classes, and no summer vacation. The New York Times has already panned the book, as Gladwell gores one of its favorite oxen. (h/t Yglesias) Yet Michiko kakutani, the reviewer, almost certainly did NOT read the book. If he did, he clearly has little interest in education–he doesn’t mention the only prescriptive part of "Outliers!" That would be like reviewing the Bible and leaving out the part about God.
Yet his evidence is unmistakable. Summer break separates the rich kids from the poor kids. In his always-remarkable research, Gladwell proves that kids from the wrong side of the tracks learn more in school–even in supposedly crappy schools in the inner city–than the rich kids in prestigious districts. The problem is that they unlearn in the summers while the rich kids keep on learning. The kids start pretty close, but each new school year, the poor kids start further behind the rich kids. As Gladwell points out, "School works. The only problem with school, for the kids who aren’t achieving, is that there isn’t enough of it."
How To Make It Work
Before Christmas, buy and read "Outliers." For Christmas, buy a copy for one member of your local school board. I have already ordered a copy for a board member in my district.
This could be the most important book in a generation, but only if we are serious about fixing education in America. If not, at least you’ll enjoy one of the best books I’ve read in a year.
(cross-posted to The Work Works)
Also see a 2 part, thoughtful review on The Quick and the Ed (part 1 | part 2). I believe the author of this post found something I did not: that Gladwell claims more hours of school is the only solution. Gladwell says that bringing the Chinese wet-rice farmer’s work ethic to school, not just hours, is the key to KIPP.