In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell seems to be making an argument for nurture in the nature v. nurture debate. In particular, he is interested in how culture, parenting, special opportunities, and timing factor into the stories of the wildly successful. The book is largely a compilation of results from various studies as well as the stories of some well-known individuals. For instance, he opens with the peculiar fact that a disproportionate amount of Canadian hockey players are born in January. The explanation being that they are the oldest players who can join the youth league. This, he argues, gives them a relative advantage, which over time, as they are selected for special opportunities, translates into real superiority.

He later goes on to analyze key breaks that allowed for the success of individuals like Bill Gates, e.g., more hours of access to a computer than virtually anyone else in the world at the time. He examines the importance of IQ, parenting, and the economic background of one's parents. He points to the strong correlation between the economic class of one's parents and one's ultimate success, and he argues that we are probably failing to cultivate a lot of human capital by not properly distributing opportunity.

This is an argument that I tend to agree with, as I have seen first-hand the difference that class makes in the distribution of opportunity. I came to grad school from Ohio State, and my roommate came from Princeton. I had better grades and a paper under my belt, but I was given a full-time teaching load whereas he had no teaching (presumably because I didn't have Andrew Wiles write my letter of recommendation). In theory, this gives him more time to work, which puts him further ahead in his research, and all things being equal, he gets the better job. (In fact, he didn't properly use his time and he was a third-round hire, and I was a first-round hire.) His parents both had graduate degrees and lived in a wealthy suburb of Boston, whereas neither of my parents went to college and lived in Appalachia. He went to Princeton, and as far as my family was concerned, that wasn't an option. I think most of us can relate to this sort of thing.

That said, despite my sympathy for Gladwell's argument, he fails to examine these studies for flaws. He's a little too quick to make sweeping generalizations, and he spends a little too much time explaining the obvious. He should have anticipated and responded to some potential criticisms. I'm glad I read the book, because I learned of the existence of KIPP("Knowledge Is Power Program") schools, which are spreading across the country. Their goal is to provide the kind of college-prep to low income students that is available to the affluent. If you go to their website, you can find information about teaching, starting new schools, and donating. I suspect I'm preaching to the wrong audience, but I think it is a really exciting idea.

Jason Thompson writes:

It would seem your experience highlights how class is not the main variable in success, rather it is your hard work and your intellect. Instead of focusing on the details of your roommate's experience vs. yours, examine the big picture. You have accomplished a greater goal than your roommate without all of his inherent advantages as proscribed by material advantage, in-other words meritocracy works! AFA Gladwell/Side-show Bob's assertion that class matters most, significant empirical work by James Heckman or Charles Murray have thrown water on that flame. Rather its clear that IQ leads to greater wealth, that such wealth persists highlights the important of nature (aka genetics). Overtime one should expect the smart folks and their progeny to obtain greater proportions of the spoils of the economy…unless of course the state intervenes.


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