Malcolm Gladwell is a writer of many contrarian opinions. His readers love the way he illustrates his ideas with rhetorical ease, in story after interesting story. Maybe he has too many opinions, say his critics, “who’d prefer it if Gladwell made smaller, more cautious, less dazzling claims,” Oliver Burkeman writes at The Guardian.
But we should take some of his arguments, like his defense of Lance Armstrong and doping in sports, less seriously than others, he says himself. “When you write about sports,” Gladwell tells Burkeman, “you’re allowed to engage in mischief! Nothing is at stake. It’s a bicycle race!” This in itself is a highly contrarian claim for fans, athletes, and their vested sponsors.
But the mischief in hyper-competitive, high dollar pressure of professional cycling is far removed from the cheating, bribing, and fraud scandals in U.S. college admissions, it may seem. The stakes are so much higher, after all. Gladwell offers his take on the situation in the audio interview above on the Tim Ferriss show. (He starts this discussion around the 57:25 mark.)
It’s true, he says, there is a gamesmanship that drives the college admissions process. But here is a case where winning isn’t worth the cost. He doesn't say this is because the game is rigged, but because it’s oriented in the wrong direction. Students should be taught to find “interestingness” by interacting with “flawed" and "interesting people.”
Instead "we terrify high school students about their college choices," making achievement and prestige the highest aims.
To my mind, you could not have conceived of a worse system. So any advice that has to do with you need to work hard and get into I’m sorry, it’s just bullshit. It’s just terrible. You should not try to go to the best college you can, particularly if best is defined by US News and World Report. The sole test of what a good college is is it a place where I find myself late at night having deeply interesting conversations with people that I like and find interesting? You go where you can do that. That’s all that matters.
With his tendency to speak in an oracular “we,” Gladwell defines another problem: an elitist disdain for the "interesting" people.
There are interesting kids everywhere. And it’s only in our snobbery that we have decided that interestingness is defined by your test scores. This is just such an outrageous lie.
Test scores, sure they matter in some way, but I’m talking about college now. What makes for a powerful college experience is can I find someone interesting to have an interesting discussion with? And you can do that if you’re curious and you’re interesting. That’s it. Not that you’re interesting, you’re interested. That’s all that matters.
There are, of course, still those who seek out places and people of interest over the highest-ranked schools, which are inaccessible to a majority of students in any case. Gladwell may tend to generalize from his own experience, although college, he has said, "was not a particularly fruitful time for me." (Maybe ask your doctor before you take his advice about breakfast at the very beginning of the show.)
Different students have different experiences and expectations of college, but overall pressures are high, tuitions are rising, politics are inflamed, and student debt becomes more burdensome by the year.... Gladwell might have used another metaphor, but he'll likely find wide agreement that in some sense or another, at least figuratively, “the American college system needs to be blown up and they need to start over.” Now that is a subject on which nearly everyone might have an opinion.
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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness