“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.