This long weekend, as I indulged on grilled cheeseburgers, corn on the cob and a plethora of other holiday delicacies, I finished one book and started another, both by Malcolm Gladwell.
The book I finished, "Blink" (Back Bay Books, 2011, $16.99), explores how and why humans make split-second decisions--snap judgments--and how our subconscious is both extremely good at making these decisions, and extremely fallible when factors such as stress or racism and sexism get involved. It was fascinating.
Although I'm only in the beginning chapters of the second book, "Outliers" (Back Bay Books, 2011, $16.99), it is proving to be even more interesting. "Outliers" explores success. What makes one person successful--in professional sports, business, whatever--when a person of similar intelligence, experience and means is not? Essentially, the outliers become so because they got some minor boost at one point early on--usually something they didn't even have a choice in.
In the beginning chapter, Gladwell connects his thesis to its importance in society: "Because we so profoundly personalize success, we miss opportunities to lift others onto the top rung. We make rules that frustrate achievement. We prematurely write off people as failures. We are too much in awe of those who succeed and far too dismissive of those who fail. And, most of all, we become much too passive. We overlook just how large a role we all play--and by 'we' I mean society--in determining who makes it and who doesn't."
Gladwell's point isn't that successful people don't have inherent talent or work hard. They do--in fact, he points to the magic number of 10,000 hours. Of people who become brilliant at something, neuroscience shows that the vast majority has practiced, rehearsed or worked 10,000 hours at their craft. That amounts to about 10 years of intense work, several hours every day.
But it's not even just the magic 10,000-hour mark of hard work that makes the top succeeders. They have talent, they work hard, and they were given a thousand tiny advantages along the way, advantages that over time shifted them from being a fraction more talented to much, much more talented than their peers. These advantages might be in their family lineage, in some small way they were raised, or even simply because of the month in which they were born.
Education is a good example, and the one that hits hardest, to me. Two equally smart people might end up in completely different careers because one had some tiny advantage--say they were born in September instead of July, or their mother talked a lot so they learned to speak basic words more quickly--which got them labeled "smart" as a 4-year-old, essentially fast-tracking them to be in gifted classes (thereby receiving a better education) throughout school.
Of course, it's entirely more complicated, and I encourage people to read "Outliers" for themselves, but I can see the truth in even a condensed, simplified version of the idea, because I've experienced it myself.
When my family moved from Salt Lake City, where I attended a school with high academic standards, to Corinth, Miss., I essentially re-did my eighth-grade English class during my freshman year of high school.
My peers were nearly a year behind me in the subject. Something like six of the 10 books we studied in ninth grade in Mississippi, I had learned the year before in eighth grade in Utah--and, to be frank, learned them better. (I'll never forget the slack-jawed way I looked at my ninth-grade English teacher when I said something about the allegory in "Animal Farm," and she informed me that sure, many people find ties in the novel to the Russian revolution, but we were going to read it strictly as a fable.)
I'm not completely knocking the education I got in Mississippi. Freshman English aside, I found some compelling teachers and classes at CHS--in particular, my calculus teacher and my science teacher (who also ran the academic team) both stand out as some of the best educators in my time in the state. And of course, when I discovered Millsaps College, I found a veritable wellspring of education that I couldn't get enough of.
I'm also not saying that Mississippians are any less intelligent than folks I've found elsewhere. My husband is a perfect example of this. He is Mississippi born and bred, and despite coming up through a dismal school system, is the smartest person I know. He has a master's degree from an Ivy League institution and a bright future. But because he never received an education that met or pushed his intelligence until he entered college, he often wonders how things might have been different if he had simply been born in a place with more educational opportunity.
In the South, I think, we can't afford to ignore concepts like this. No easy fix exists for education, especially when we're so far behind affluent cities like New York City and Chicago to begin with. And our educational system must be fixed, no question about it. But as we figure out how to do that, we also need to think about a better way to find and cultivate success in people.
I'm not talking about a new No Child Left Behind. That hasn't worked and won't work. I fully believe in providing opportunities for the gifted to flourish just as I understand we need to give others a boost.
What I'm saying is we need to find an honest way to evaluate talents without prejudice or bias. We can't, as Gladwell says, "write off people as failures." We need to look more holistically at the way our systems and our society interact, and recognize that they affect each other, possibly far more than we have ever realized. We need to research what truly gives students an edge, and figure out how to share that edge with others.
In his books, Gladwell offers a challenge to the readers, to take the new ways of seeing and thinking he offers, and use them to better society. I'm extending a challenge to you as well.
We have to think more radically about the opportunities we grant--or don't grant--our students.
We must consider what affects our chances to succeed--not just the big things, but the little things as well.
We can't let one person's snap judgment of a 4-year-old set that student on a course that will keep him or her just shy of reaching his or her potential. We have to find a way to give a student the same chance to succeed as a classmate with the same IQ but an additional $50,000 in his or her family income. Or one who was born in a different month. Or one who has a heritage other than the rest of the class. Or one whose quiet--or brash, or hyperactive--personality masks the intelligence within.
Only once we redefine success will we see more people succeed.