Malcolm Gladwell Rebuts the Terrible Advice Given to Students: Don’t Go to “the Best College You Can,” Go to Where You Can Have “Deeply Interesting Conversations with People” at Night

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Mal­colm Glad­well Explains Where His Ideas Come From

The Cod­dling of the Amer­i­can Mind: Mal­colm Glad­well Leads a Con­ver­sa­tion with Jonathan Haidt, Greg Lukianoff & Lenore Ske­nazy

Mal­colm Glad­well Admits His Insa­tiable Love for Thriller Nov­els and Rec­om­mends His Favorites

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

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  • Scott Hart says:

    I agree, inter­est­ing peo­ple over best-ranked col­leges. But just how does one know where they will find those most inter­est­ing peo­ple? It’s sort of a rhetor­i­cal ques­tions, because I’m sure they reside at every col­lege in the coun­try.

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