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Outliers = Dangerous

I planned to pen some long articulate criticism of Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers, but I'll leave that to my good friend Jon Becker, since we seem to be pretty much on the same page here.

My bottom line, as I tweeted, is that this book is a mile wide and an inch deep and, as such, is really dangerous. This book should be treated more like fiction than nonfiction, in that it should not be the basis of any policy decisions.

Rather than examine his methods, as Jon has done, I'll just examine his conclusions.

First, keep in mind that Gladwell is out to sell books, and that's fine. He is good at it and that generates speaking fees, and I am sure he makes a good living. He is, in effect, Tom Friedman in a different form. A good storyteller telling a story that we are primed to hear.

But, that's the dangerous part ... that we are primed to hear this story. Fundamentally what Gladwell is saying is that cultural differences and opportunities are significant and it impacts people's ability to achieve success. If you stopped right there, that idea alone is extremely dangerous. One group, Chinese students with a heritage in rice fields, are culturally more prepared (careful to not say better) to achieve at higher levels on math. Let's just assume for a minute that this theory is correct. Stop and think of the implications of that. One group is programmatically better than others. What does that call to mind?

Well, rather than going there (nor will I talk about what he said about Kentucky), let's talk about KIPP, rice patties, and Native Americans. What Gladwell is saying is that there is fundamentally something nonacademic in poor, inner city, predominately black and brown lifestyles. KIPP "recultures" these students into an academic culture and basically pulls them out of the cultures they were from. These students go on to achieve well in high school, enroll in college and wind up in middle class, suburban lifestyles. What could possibly be wrong with that?

Well, were this a new idea, I'd give it more consideration, but it is not. We did this in the United States already, several times actually. In fact, we have been having this exact same battle for a very long time. I'll let Andrew tell you about the U.S. government education policy of reculturing. But it is not just the official reculturing of Native Americans, this was also the debate between Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. DuBois in African-American educational history. This "success is tied to cultural opportunities idea" is not new and in the past it has had some major impacts, both positive and negative.

Anyway, I am not going to get into that discussion other than to point out that Gladwell is not really saying anything new, he is just retelling a centuries old story in a very modern package with Bill Gates as a main character. For instance, Gladwell assumes that Bill Gates is successful and Christopher Langan is not. Why? They both seem happily married and have some acres. Both have libraries in their house -- does the fact that Gates' is organized in oak bookshelves really make the difference? And, what, exactly, makes Robert Oppenheimer a success? The fact he built the most dangerous weapon in human history? 

What I am saying is that just because the storyteller tells a good story, it does not mean the story is good or that the story's assumptions are accurate. There must be a MUCH more serious conversation about such things before we run off and start changing policies. Some of that conversation needs to happen in the scholarly world, as Jon concludes, and some of that needs to happen in other places. 

But, just like we don't need to change foreign relations with China because Tom Friedman says so, we don't need to be changing our schools because Malcolm Gladwell says so. Let's not rush to judgment here. Gladwell's positions are extremely dangerous and it has taken us decades to work those out of the education system. Let's not put them back in one fell swoop. 

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Reader Comments (2)

Depending on the lens you use, Outliers offers some helpful insights/reminders. Here's the review I wrote for our State Board blog readers: I started with the question, what does Gladwell's work tell us about effective leaders and teachers; rigorous, relevant curriculum and sufficient resources?

July 9, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterRich Haglund

Rich, what do you mean by "depending on the lens you use..." What lens justifies pseudo-science? Gladwell's work is faulty and sloppy in many ways. I've written about it extensively here ( and here (

Let me point out one example of where Gladwell is guilty of selection bias by citing one study and using it to make a point. Gladwell uses Bedard and Dhuey's work to assert that kids who enter school at an older age than their grade-level counterparts have an achievement advantage in 4th grade. OK, but what about the greater body of research on this issue. The following paragraph comes directly from an article by Lincove & Painter (CITATION: Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, Vol. 28, No. 2, 153-179 (2006))

"There are many studies that test the early effects of age at school entry on student
achievement in a single school or school district. The results, which are not generalizable to the
population as whole, are ambiguous. Generally, studies find that younger kindergarteners have
an academic disadvantage (Carter 1956; Miller 1957; Green & Simmons 1962; Dickinson &
Larson 1963; Hall 1963; Davis, Trimble & Vincent 1980; Langer, Kalk & Searls 1984; Shepard
& Smith 1987; Sweetland & De Simone 1987; Cameron & Wilson 1990; Jones & Mandeville
1990; Bickel, Zigmond & Strayhorn 1991; Crosser 1991; McClelland, Morrison & Holmes 2000;
Stipek & Byler 2001; Datar 2003). However, longer range studies show this gap shrinking in
upper elementary school years (Miller 1957; Davis, Trimble et al. 1980; Langer, Kalk et al.
1984; Jones & Mandeville 1990; Bickel, Zigmond et al. 1991; Crosser 1991). A recent review of
studies of age at school entry concludes that any achievement gap closes by the third grade
(Stipek 2002)."

Studies rarely, if ever, exist in isolation. One of the hallmarks of social science is that research builds upon prior research, sometimes through replication and sometimes as branches of previous work. In other words, one study is typically part of a larger body of research. Gladwell fails to mention the other studies, probably because they don't advance his point.

July 9, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJon Becker

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