My dissatisfaction with the current overbearing schedule for students in high school, has led me to do quite a bit of reading. (To see my reading list for books about success and education, click here.) One of the first books I read was Outliers: The Story of Success, by Malcom Gladwell.
In my last post, I looked at the first part of the book, Opportunity as it relates to Outliers.
The second half of the book is titled Legacy.
Legacy – it’s role in Outliers, by Gladwell
While I found this part entertaining, I don’t think it really related to the success of the Outliers in part 1. Maybe it was just that the reason I was reading this book, to try to figure out how to guide success, colored how I approached it. Legacy, like luck, is something that you can’t control.
The importance of culture to success
On reviewing this, you might start to get the idea that the aristocrats in Europe were right. It’s about where you come from. It’s about who your family was. Although, no one can deny that by the luck of birth you can have huge advantages. But it’s about more than that.
There are some interesting points, but some of this second half also feels like a bit of a stretch.
Basically, Gladwell tries to show that everything from the family feuds in the Appalachian Mountains, to a rash of plane crashes by Korean Airline pilots, to the success of Chinese students in math, can be explained by culture that goes back hundreds of years.
In fact, as best I could tell this entire second half of the book had the sole purpose of trying to prove why Chinese students excel at math because their ancestors were rice patty farmers. That’s a lot of book for that point. In particular, the long and detailed chapter about the Korean airline crashes could have been greatly condensed.
Gladwell then goes on to explain that Americans, and in particular poor Americans, aren’t good at math because their legacy didn’t teach them persistence and the right attitude to excel in math.
And this can be traced all the way back to how peasants farmed in France.
Now bear with me here. And to give Gladwell a break, it seems a lot more believable when you follow the story in Outliers.
Until you realize that now he’s going to tie this to the math difficulties of primarily African American and Hispanic Students.
Okay, I’m being a little hard on him here. But when you simplify it, I think the stretch become more obvious.
Outliers, on “learning” culture for success
Anyway, he does make some interesting points when he illustrates how the KIPP Academy teaches math. KIPP Academy is an experimental public school of primarily African American and Hispanic students from low-income, single-family homes in New York City. Gladwell does make a good case for the way KIPP teaches math. In addition, KIPP requires orchestra, long school hours, more hours of study, 6-day school weeks, and year-long school. All this is done in an attempt to catch the students up academically and teach them perseverance, things they’re lacking because of their heritage. (In reading back over this post, I can see that will sound harsh. But Gladwell is trying to make a point here about trying to figure out how to help kids succeed, not pass any judgements.)
By the time students graduate from KIPP, the increases in their math and reading skills are phenomenal. But if you’ve been following this blog, you might recognize KIPP from the post about How Children Succeed, Good Grades Don’t Predict Success. Unfortunately, the college completion rates for KIPP students have been very low, something they’re trying to change with an intensive mentoring program through college. If successful, it may mean that the success rate has more to do with the mentoring than the rigourous schoolwork.
But back to Outliers and “outlying” success. That was what this book was about, right? Well, the first half was anyway.
In the end, Gladwell tries to tie Part 1, Opportunity, to Part 2, Legacy, by saying that “outliers” owe their success, in large part, to the legacy of history and community and the luck of good timing with opportunity.
“[Outliers] are products of history and community, of opportunity and legacy. Their success is not exceptional or mysterious. It is grounded in a web of advantages and inheritances, some deserved, some not, some earned, some just plain lucky — …”
In other words, Outliers owe their success to luck. Luck that can be explained, but luck none-the-less.
I’ll talk about that in my next post, the message I took away from Outliers about what you need for success.