Malcolm Gladwell explains the underdog perspective in ‘David and Goliath’

DAVID AND GOLIATH: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants. Malcolm Gladwell. Little, Brown. 305 pages. $29.
DAVID AND GOLIATH: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants. Malcolm Gladwell. Little, Brown. 305 pages. $29.

Malcolm Gladwell has made a career of extracting sometimes counterintuitive and often highly debatable insights from other social scientists’ research (duly acknowledged in copious endnotes). He is a master of synthesis. This perennially best-selling author prides himself on radical re-thinking and urges the rest of us to follow suit.

The focus of Gladwell’s book Outliers was highly successful people and the “hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities” that helped them. In David and Goliath, his focus shifts to underdogs who manage to prevail. He argues that some disadvantages, such as dyslexia, can be advantageous, while some so-called advantages are actually disadvantageous.

Gladwell sets the stage for showing why and how underdogs and misfits so often win, even against giants, with a fresh look at the David and Goliath story. “All these years, we’ve been telling these kinds of stories wrong. ‘David and Goliath’ is about getting them right,” he promises grandiosely.

What did we miss about the showdown in the Elah Valley 3,000 years ago? Fascinating stuff. For starters, Goliath’s enormous size is now attributed to acromegaly, a benign pituitary tumor that can also cause double vision. This is why Goliath needed to fight David close-up, in hand-to-hand combat. David was perceived as a puny, unarmed shepherd, but in fact he was a projectile warrior, unencumbered by heavy armor and able to substitute speed and surprise for strength — and catch Goliath off-guard with his skillfully deployed slingshot. The moral of the story: “The powerful and the strong are not always what they seem.”

Similarly, with the story behind a famous photograph of the civil rights movement — a black teenager being attacked by a police dog in Birmingham, Ala., in 1963 — Gladwell demonstrates that the weak are not always what they seem, either. In fact, as he learned, largely from Diane McWhorter’s “magnificent history” Carry Me Home, the 15-year-old in the picture was a spectator, not a demonstrator, and knew his way around dogs. Closer scrutiny of the photograph, which stirred such outrage when it made front pages across the country, reveals that the boy, far from being helplessly resigned, had just kicked the dog and broken its jaw. But that’s only the tail of the story: Civil rights organizer Wyatt Walker was looking for publicity-worthy confrontations, and Gladwell explains how he tricked the local authorities into confusing bystanders with demonstrators to heighten the sense of alarm.

Cutting giants down to size is a recurrent, deliberately heartening theme in David and Goliath. Gladwell examines why the Nazi blitz of London failed to demoralize Londoners as expected, why the over-harsh English army failed to prevail against Catholics in Northern Ireland and why the Three Strikes law in California turned out to be counterproductive.

He is less convincing when he chips away at elite schools and especially when he shifts from the descriptive to the prescriptive in educational matters with recommendations on class sizes, college choices and affirmative action. He laments the billions spent on what he describes as a teacher-hiring binge misguidedly aimed at reducing class sizes, and he derides an elite boarding school’s Last Supper-size classes. Citing statistics and inverted-U-curve relationships, he argues that, below the optimal 18 students, smaller classes produce negative returns and shrink “diversity in thought and experience.” He ignores or dismisses numerous issues, including teacher workloads, behavior problems and smaller groups fomenting greater student participation.

“It is a strange thing, isn’t it, to have an educational philosophy that thinks of the other students in the classroom with your child as competitors for the attention of the teacher and not allies in the adventure of learning?” Gladwell writes in advocating larger classes.

Yet he views other students as just that — competitors, as opposed to stimulating “allies in learning” — in his argument against students choosing top colleges over good-enough schools. Arguing in favor of what he calls big fish in little ponds, he plunges into especially murky waters. Too many American college students drop out of STEM classes — science, technology, engineering and math — he writes, unless they’re at the top of their classes, because of a psychological phenomenon called “relative deprivation”: In comparing themselves with their gifted classmates instead of the national pool, they become discouraged. His solution? Go to a less-exclusive school, where you have a greater chance of feeling better about yourself, because you’ll be measuring yourself against a less daunting yardstick.

He comments, “The Big Pond takes really bright students and demoralizes them.” Leaving prestige and potentially advantageous future contacts out of the equation, should all students admitted to their “reach” schools drop down a notch? Who’s to say they will do better at a so-called lesser institution?

Gladwell’s application of these ideas to the affirmative action debate is especially troubling. Since learning about “relative deprivation theory,” he is “now a good deal more skeptical of affirmative-action programs” than he was when he wrote Outliers, he confesses in his endnotes. In other words, underdogs are better off not entering into hand-to-hand combat with giants on the giants’ turf. Limiting? Insulting? Or realistic?

David and Goliath again showcases Gladwell’s facility as an engaging if transparently manipulative storyteller. He loves end-of-chapter revelations: The dyslexic who talked his way into a job as an options trader? “Today he is the president of Goldman Sachs.”

Like Paul Krugman’s, his tone is at once conversational and didactic: “Did you follow that?” he asks to underscore many a debatable point. Follow, yes. Agree, no.

Heller McAlpin reviewed this book for The Washington Post.

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