Malcolm Gladwell Asks Hard Questions about Money & Meritocracy in American Higher Education: Stream 3 Episodes of His New Podcast

gladwell education

Image by Kris Krüg, via Flickr Com­mons

Mal­colm Gladwell’s Revi­sion­ist His­to­ry pod­cast kicked off this sum­mer and in his very first episode, he took on the ques­tion of how women have bro­ken into male-dom­i­nat­ed fields, and the many rea­sons that so often hasn’t hap­pened. Hav­ing set this tone, Glad­well asks in a more recent inquiry—a three-part series span­ning Episodes 4 through 7—a sim­i­lar ques­tion about what we might call mer­i­toc­ra­cy in edu­ca­tion, a val­ue fun­da­men­tal to lib­er­al democ­ra­cy, how­ev­er that’s inter­pret­ed. As Glad­well puts it in “Car­los Doesn’t Remem­ber,” “This is what civ­i­lized soci­eties are sup­posed to do: to pro­vide oppor­tu­ni­ties for peo­ple to make the most of their abil­i­ty. So that if you’re born poor, you can move up. If you work hard, you can improve your life.”

Over some sen­ti­men­tal, home­spun orches­tra­tion, Glad­well points out that Amer­i­cans have told our­selves that this is our birthright, “that every kid can become pres­i­dent.” We have seen our­selves this way despite the fact that at the country’s ori­gin, high­er offices were sole­ly the prop­er­ty of prop­er­tied men, a small minor­i­ty even then. Lest we for­get, for all their good inten­tions, Ben Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanack and lat­er col­lec­tion, “The Way to Wealth,” were writ­ten as satires, “relent­less­ly scathing social and polit­i­cal com­men­tary,” writes Jill Lep­ore, that mock wish­ful think­ing and exag­ger­at­ed ambi­tion even as they offer help­ful hints for orga­nized, dili­gent liv­ing. Amer­i­cans, the more cyn­i­cal of us might think, have always believed impos­si­ble things, and the myth of mer­i­toc­ra­cy is one of them.

But Glad­well, skim­ming past the cul­tur­al his­to­ry, wants to gen­uine­ly ask the ques­tion, “is it true? Is the sys­tem geared to serve the poor smart kid, or the rich smart kid?” Apart from our beliefs and polit­i­cal ide­olo­gies, what can we real­ly say about what he calls, in eco­nom­ics terms, “the rate of cap­i­tal­iza­tion” in the U.S.? This num­ber, Glad­well explains, mea­sures “the per­cent­age of peo­ple in any group who are able to reach their poten­tial.” Bet­ter than “its GDP, or its growth rate, or its per-capi­ta income,” a society’s cap­i­tal­iza­tion rate, he says, allows us to judge “how suc­cess­ful and just” a coun­try is—and in the case of the U.S. in par­tic­u­lar, how much it lives up to its ideals.

The first episode in the series (Episode 4 of the pod­cast, stream it above) intro­duces us to Gladwell’s first sub­ject, Car­los, a very bright high school stu­dent in Los Ange­les, and Eric Eis­ner, a retired enter­tain­ment lawyer who devotes his time to scout­ing out tal­ent­ed kids from low income fam­i­lies and help­ing them get into pri­vate schools. Eis­ner did exact­ly that for Car­los, find­ing him a place in an upscale pri­vate Brent­wood school in the fifth grade. Ear­ly in Gladwell’s inter­view with Car­los, the ques­tion of what James Heck­man at Boston Review iden­ti­fies as the “non-cog­ni­tive char­ac­ter­is­tics” that inhib­it social suc­cess comes up. These are as often “phys­i­cal and men­tal health” and the soft skills of social inter­ac­tion as they are access to some­thing as seem­ing­ly mun­dane as a pair of ten­nis shoes that fit.

Car­los, a “real­ly, real­ly gift­ed kid,” Glad­well reit­er­ates, can­not make it into and through the com­pli­cat­ed social sys­tem of pri­vate school with­out Eis­ner, who bought him new ten­nis shoes, and who pro­vides oth­er mate­r­i­al and social forms of sup­port for the stu­dents he men­tors. Stu­dents like Car­los, Glad­well argues, need not only men­tors, but patrons in the mold of an ancient Roman patri­cian: “not just any advo­cate: a high-pow­ered guy with lots of con­nec­tions, who can get you in and watch over you.” The key to class mobil­i­ty, in oth­er words, lies with the arbi­trary noblesse oblige of those who have already made it, gen­er­al­ly with some con­sid­er­able advan­tages of their own. The remain­der of the episode explores the obvi­ous and non-obvi­ous prob­lems with this mod­ern-day patron­age sys­tem.

In “Food Fight,” the next part of the mini-series on “cap­i­tal­iza­tion,” Glad­well and his col­leagues open the door on the world of pres­ti­gious lib­er­al arts col­leges’ din­ing ser­vices, start­ing at Bow­doin Col­lege in Maine, a place where the food ser­vices are “in a whole dif­fer­ent class.” Bowdoin’s excel­lent food, Glad­well argues, rep­re­sents a “moral prob­lem.” To help us under­stand, he makes a direct com­par­i­son with Bowdoin’s elite com­peti­tor, Vas­sar Col­lege, whose stu­dent din­ing is more in line with what most of us expe­ri­enced at col­lege; in one student’s under­stat­ed phrase, there’s “room for improve­ment.” What the food com­par­i­son illus­trates is this: when many elite insti­tu­tions dou­bled their finan­cial aid bud­gets a decade or so ago to increase enroll­ment of low-income stu­dents, oth­er bud­get lines, so Vassar’s pres­i­dent claims, took such a hit that food, facil­i­ties, and oth­er ser­vices suf­fered.

Vassar’s cur­rent pres­i­dent trans­formed the stu­dent body from pri­mar­i­ly full-tuition-pay­ing stu­dents to pri­mar­i­ly stu­dents “who pay very lit­tle.” The egal­i­tar­i­an move means the col­lege must lean too heav­i­ly on its endow­ment and on the pay­ing stu­dents. Glad­well doesn’t delve into what we’ve also been hear­ing about for at least the last decade: as insti­tu­tions like Vas­sar accept and fund increas­ing num­bers of low-income stu­dents, oth­er schools charged legal­ly with pro­vid­ing for the pub­lic good, like the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia sys­tem, have raised tuition to lev­els unaf­ford­able to thou­sands of prospec­tive stu­dents.

Col­leges across the coun­try may have raised tuition rates to their cur­rent astro­nom­i­cal lev­els in part to bet­ter fund poor­er appli­cants, but they have also faced stiff crit­i­cism for spend­ing huge amounts on ath­let­ics, build­ing projects, and exor­bi­tant admin­is­tra­tive salaries. The food com­par­i­son presents us with an either/or sce­nario, but the moral prob­lem inhab­its a much gray­er real­i­ty than Glad­well acknowl­edges. Like­wise, in the sto­ry of Car­los, we come to under­stand why smart kids from poor neigh­bor­hoods face so many imped­i­ments once they arrive at elite insti­tu­tions. But we don’t hear about why so many poor kids fail to achieve at all due to what what Heck­man calls “the prin­ci­ple source of inequal­i­ty today”—children born into pover­ty begin life at a severe dis­ad­van­tage from the very start, lead­ing to social divi­sions of the “skilled and unskilled” even in ear­ly child­hood.

We do get a broad­er pic­ture in the final episode in the series, “My Lit­tle Hun­dred Mil­lions,” in which Glad­well looks into anoth­er moral prob­lem: In the sto­ry of Hen­ry Rowan, who in the ear­ly ‘90s donat­ed $100 mil­lion to a tiny uni­ver­si­ty in New Jer­sey, we see a stark con­trast to the way most phil­an­thropists oper­ate, almost as a rule mak­ing their gen­er­ous gifts to elite, already wealthy schools like Har­vard, Stan­ford, and Yale. This sys­tem of phil­an­thropy per­pet­u­ates inequal­i­ty in high­er edu­ca­tion and keeps elite insti­tu­tions elite, even as—in places like Vassar—it gives them the reserve cap­i­tal they need to fund low­er-income stu­dents. Like any com­plex insti­tu­tion­al sys­tem with a long, tan­gled his­to­ry of exclu­sion and priv­i­lege, high­er edu­ca­tion in the U.S. offers us a very good mod­el for study­ing inequal­i­ty.

To hear Glad­well’s full assess­ment of mer­i­toc­ra­cy or “cap­i­tal­iza­tion,” you’ll need to lis­ten to the full series as it builds on each exam­ple to make its larg­er point. Each episode’s web­page also includes links to ref­er­ence doc­u­ments and fea­tured books so that you can con­tin­ue the inves­ti­ga­tion on your own, cor­rect­ing for the podcast’s blind spots and bias­es. What Gladwell’s series does well, as do many of his pop soci­o­log­i­cal best­sellers, is give us con­crete exam­ples that run up against many of our abstract pre­con­cep­tions. It’s an inter­est­ing approach—structuring an extend­ed look at excep­tion­al­ism and its prob­lems around three excep­tion­al cas­es. But it is these cas­es, with all their com­pli­ca­tions and com­plex­i­ty, that often get lost in over-gen­er­al­ized dis­cus­sions about high­er edu­ca­tion and the myths and real­i­ties of social mobil­i­ty.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Mal­colm Glad­well Has Launched a New Pod­cast, Revi­sion­ist His­to­ry: Hear the First Episode

Mal­colm Glad­well: Tax­es Were High and Life Was Just Fine

Mal­colm Glad­well: What We Can Learn from Spaghet­ti Sauce

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (3)
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  • Dan Donaldson says:

    how won­der­ful that Glad­well is now say­ing what Robert Frank and Chris Hedges have writ­ten bril­liant books about, as much as a decade ago. And all the more so since Glad­well him­self is such a notable exam­ple of the same assump­tion of mer­i­to­crat­ic priv­i­lege — a man who does lit­tle or no orig­i­nal think­ing, let alone research but some­how is accept­ed as a pub­lic intel­lec­tu­al. I think he’s actu­al­ly cit­ed by Hedges as an exam­ple of the hege­mo­ny of mer­i­toc­ra­cy’s intel­lec­tu­al sup­port sys­tem.

    You only need to read some of the source mate­r­i­al — a good place to start would be Blink or Tip­ping Point vs Think­ing Fast and Slow — to see what a third-rate and glib mind he real­ly is.

  • zaph mann says:

    Third rate is harsh. I dis­like Glad­well, because he sim­pli­fies issues that can be expli­aned clear­ly and more use­ful­ly, instead into pop­u­lar­ist black/white catch phras­es. That’s also the rea­son to like him, so ‘tip­ping point’ replaces the com­mon knowl­edge of times when things change, events that change things, etc… into all events being turn­ing… sor­ry ‘tip­ping’ points.

    This Amer­i­can Life and The New York­er will no doubt eat this up, but it is — despite the val­ue of the mes­sage — all obscured by Glad­well’s com­men­tary… mon­ey behind it, and it comes off as posh, com­pla­cent, for­mu­la stuff.

    No impact — 2nd rate.

  • Anders Knutsson says:

    In the sto­ry about Hen­ry Rowan, Glad­well points out the inequal­i­ty in the sys­tem of phil­an­thropy to the elite uni­ver­si­ty vs the less pres­ti­gious. Maybe not orig­i­nal think­ing, yet as impor­tant to inform us of, as the inequal­i­ties in so many areas of our soci­ety that have been dis­cussed recent­ly. Why give $100 mil­lions to a uni­ver­si­ty that already has $46 Bil­lions? It is a free coun­try. Fine, and I like the idea of Glad­well’s line of ques­tion­ing what’s going on here. And I get it.

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