Nov 9, 2009

Have you read "Outliers"?

Outliers is another wildly popular book by Malcolm Gladwell.  The gist of his book is:

“Superstar lawyers and math whizzes and software entrepreneurs appear at first blush to lie outside ordinary experience. But they don’t. They 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 – but all critical to making them who they are. The outlier, in the end, is not an outlier at all.”

There is something about this book that I find disturbing but I can't quite pinpoint it.  It's an interesting read with some fascinating examples but is he telling us something we didn't know before? Is he trying to downplay specialness? Isn't it obvious that extraordinary achievement doesn't happen in a vacuum? At the same time though, haven't there been people who had the same or similar opportunities but did not necessarily rise to the top? How does he explain why some do and some don't?

As for something specific that I found annoying - on p. 153 in the footnote he says "the conventional explanation for Jewish success, of course, is that Jews come from a literate, intellectual culture. They are famously “the people of the book.’ There is surely something to that. But it wasn’t just the children of rabbis who went to law school. It was the children of garment workers. And their critical advantage in climbing the professional ladder wasn’t the intellectual rigor you get from studying the Talmud. It was the practical intelligence and savvy you get from watching your father sell aprons on Hester St."

He doesn't get it.  He doesn't understand that even the children of garment workers, shoemakers and watercarriers were sent to the cheder because education is a Torah value.

He says, "The Jews were not like the other immigrants who came to America in the 19th and 20th centuries. The Irish and Italians were peasants, tenant farmers from the impoverished countryside of Europe. Not so the Jews. For centuries in Europe, they had been forbidden to own land ..."

Basically, he's saying that thanks to the "opportunity" of anti-Semitism, Jews made it good.  As though all the Irish and Italian peasants who were not persecuted somehow did not have an opportunity to excel like the Jews did!

There is something krum (crooked) running through his thesis.  If you look at the Amazon ratings he gets many 5 and 4 stars but also lots of 1 and 2 stars.  How many stars do you give the book and why?

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