Tag Archives: genius

“Outliers” – My Response 2

Aside from his epilogue about his mother and grandmother, Gladwell ends his book with the story of Marita and this statement: “To build a better world we need to replace the patchwork of lucky breaks and arbitrary advantages that today determine success… with a society that provides opportunities for all… The world could be so much richer than the world we have settled for. Marita doesn’t need a higher IQ or a mind as quick as [Bill Gates]. All those things would be nice of course. But they miss the point. Marita just needed a chance.”

I agree wholeheartedly that Marita just needed a chance. I’ve spent many years encouraging students to participate in Talent Search, whereby they take out-of-level tests as a means of showing their need for an accelerated curriculum. All of the Talent Search-based programs – nationwide – give children the kind of chance Marita received at her special high school. Just as Kipp promises it will give kids stuck in poverty a chance to get out, WCATY promises the same. We call it cumulative advantage. Going to one program is an advantage that opens doors to another and then another, and so on. And students who have attended WCATY programs on full scholarship have written the exact same message as Gladwell’s in their letters to their sponsors: “thank you for helping me to break the cycle of poverty that has imprisoned my family by giving me a chance.”

I also like Gladwell’s use of the term “academically minded” in his final chapter. I encourage our schools to say a resounding “yes, that’s cool,” to the academically minded, rather than causing children to hide their talents, dumb down, and lower their aspirations.

Outliers

Malcolm Gladwell’s book about outliers is thought provoking and disturbing to me. Maybe successful smart people are “outliers,” but they shouldn’t be. The first flaw of the book, in my opinion, is narrowing the concept of smart and successful to the level of genius. My whole career has been about finding talent, recognizing it, and developing it. If we did that broadly rather than labeling a few children gifted, we would find many smart children who need help in order to achieve their dreams and potential. I am not anti-gifted; I just don’t think smart and outlier should be used synonymously. And, I am anti-labeling.

In talking about the children studied by Lewis Terman in the early 20th century and called Termites, Gladwell says: “If you had met them at five or six years of age, you would have been overwhelmed by their curiosity and mental agility and sparkle. They were true outliers. The plain truth of the Terman study, however, is that in the end, almost none of the genius children from the lowest social and economic class ended up making a name for themselves. What did [they] lack? Not something expensive or impossible to find; not something encoded in the DNA or hardwired into the circuits of their brains. They lacked something that could have been given to them if we’d only known they needed it: a community around them that prepared them properly for the world. [They] were squandered talent. But they didn’t need to be.” Gladwell, Outliers, p. 112.

Of course I agree with his conclusion to that paragraph: unrealized talent is squandered talent. Maybe I both need to finish the book (I will) and read it more carefully (I plan to do that too). But right now I am disturbed in two ways. First, I don’t think smart kids are outliers and I think we need to stop labeling them as such. Second, I have not given up on society ever helping the poor children who are curious, smart and motivated to make it. It may almost seem like picking up sand one grain at a time to save a what could have been a pristine beach – nearly impossible. But let’s do it. And with each grain, let’s add a few more and then more and more. And then, let’s change the rules for saving the shoreline. Let’s enthusiastically put into practice – in our schools as well as our homes – an optimal match curriculum or experiences that will allow each child to learn at his or her own pace and grow into who he and she wants to be. If the pace is fast and the end result is different from the expectation, that’s wonderful – let the kid fly!  That is success, not necessarily making a name for oneself.