Monday, January 20, 2014

"David and Goliath" by Malcolm Gladwell

I have mixed feelings about Gladwell, and I only picked up David and Goliath for my book club. I ended up being unable to attend the meeting that discussed the book, which I'm disappointed in. Gladwell may, at times, be problematic, but at least he can provoke interesting discussion.

On the other hand, though, maybe it's not such a shame I missed the meeting, since David and Goliath has far more prosaic things to say than some of Gladwell's earlier books. Whereas The Outliers at least contained some surprising or thought-provoking assertions, most of Gladwell's arguments in D&G are utterly familiar: "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger"; "you can have too much of a good thing."

In fact, the primary argument of David and Goliath is that what appear to be disadvantages aren't always so. Gladwell's version of the story which gives its name to the book is somewhat interesting. Gladwell argues that, at the time, sling-throwers were quite deadly and accurate, so it would not have been difficult for David to fell Goliath before Goliath got anywhere near in range to touch David. In that case, David and Goliath is not really the underdog story we make it out to be.

However, I found little of what followed the introductory story to be groundbreaking, and, in making his points, Gladwell treads some dangerous ground. For example, he begins his discussion about dyslexia by detailing all its problems but ending with the (shocking!) question: "You wouldn't wish dyslexia on your child. Or would you?" (102). He then goes on to highlight some stories in which individuals' dyslexia caused them to overcompensate and develop extraordinary skills in another area, helping them become very successful people today. But this is hardly a pro-dyslexia argument! Gladwell (to his credit) even notes that these stories are not true for most dyslexics--in fact there's a very high incidence of dyslexia in the prison population. So, among children with dyslexia, some number are excessively encumbered by their disability and end up far worse; some number survive and manage to do okay; and some very, very small number do even better. That makes Gladwell's question utterly disingenuous and helps to obscure the fact that such success stories are not the norm. He repeats the same argument with children who lose a parent.

Other arguments are utterly obvious. For example, reducing class sizes in schools only helps up until a point. Any teacher can tell you this (though maybe this chapter highlights the enormous disconnect between teachers and educational researchers/policy makers more than anything else--maybe once in awhile ask teachers what they think?). Yes, a class of 30 is too big. Students get lost. A class of 8 is too small. There's not enough students to share the participation and generate discussion. Around 20-ish, give or take, is ideal.

There was some interesting information to be gleaned from the section on choosing colleges, in which Gladwell argues that it's not always to a student's advantage to attend the most difficult/challenging college he or she is accepted into. The section could make good reading for highschool juniors and seniors and their parents.

As always, Gladwell remains very readable, even if his tone can sometimes come off as arrogant or patronizing. A few points seemed absurd, such as postulating, via other scholars, the the Biblical Goliath had hyperparathyroidism. Really? Do scholars not have any idea how the Bible was written? And they think a few verses from it confirms a medical diagnosis? The rest of the book is fine, but, as I've said before, hardly groundbreaking.

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