January 18th, 2009 by k8gu Leave a reply »


The astute follower of my blog (Does such a person exist?) has no doubt discovered that I recently finished reading Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Outliers.” I was quite keen to read it after having read “The Tipping Point” and “Blink” previously. Although it was released in November, Sarah and I finally got our hands on a copy during a recent trip to the library.

Gladwell is a good storyteller and, like the two before, this book is quite compelling. But, for the first time, I was left wondering, “Has anyone written a critical rebuttal to any of his books?” Maybe I’m resisting some of the stereotypes he makes. Perhaps the greatest one is the young man brushed aside by his professors. I was indignant that a university, or in this case, two universities, would casually let someone apparently so bright, fall between the cracks for such trivialities as re-arranging a course schedule. I suppose this has to do with building prior rapport with the faculty, which is related to Gladwell’s point that middle- and upper-class children are frequently brought up to engage authorities to shape their relationships. But, I digress.

The other point that I hope is not lost in the talk of lucky breaks and heritage is the idea that success comes from hard work. Opportunities seized produce success.

When I worked in the cleanroom at Minnesota, I remember one of the other members of my research group telling about the dogged determination of some of the other students. They would produce failure after failure until they got something working. This sort of Edisonian tenacity is highly-prized in Asian cultures. In fact, when I was interviewing with some potential faculty advisors at Illinois, Milton Feng told me, “Ah, you are a country boy. I like farm kids. They work hard.”

How do we structure our learning environments to make hard work a joy? Math, science, and engineering are learned, much like everything else as Gladwell argues, by putting your time in. Certainly, there are some things like birthday cut-offs and population trends, that we have less control over. But, we can make ourselves and our students more successful by making the journey more rewarding and interactive while retaining the rigor that invites exploration and hard work. Can we reach out to talented students whose background differs from the “successful norm”?

The verdict: it’s a thought-provoking book interwoven with enough subtly obvious ideas to help you feel good about your understanding and what he’s saying. I would love to see an equally well-written rebuttal, though.