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#9 Outliers

Outliers: The Story of Success

By Malcolm Gladwell
Little, Brown, 2008

It’s always an awkward thing, when the foremost ideological bullshitter of one generation is still alive when the next generation’s guru comes along. Thus it must be irritating to Malcolm Gladwell that Noam Chomsky is still alive, but it’s nothing like the irritation any intelligent reader will feel when confronting Gladwell’s latest book, Outliers, which, like all his other books, makes Chomsky’s inane prattlings seem like tomes by William James.

The main thesis of Outliers is that geniuses aren’t born, they’re made – and they’re most often made when the denizen of one culture somehow leaves that culture behind and becomes a satellite, an outlier, to another culture. Or, to put it more succinctly, when people from weird foreign countries leave their native gibberish behind and start thinking like Americans.

Luckily for him, Gladwell isn’t writing for intelligent readers – he’s writing for business people. This is an enormous class who’ve abandoned thought and individuality in order to amass money, and Gladwell is routinely paid astronomical amounts to give talks and one-day ‘seminars’ to huge crowds of such people, all of whom are identically biddable and xenophobic. Gladwell may be a bullshitter, but he’s no fool, and so Outliers plays both to that biddability (“outlier” will be in all 2011 dictionaries, just as “tipping point” is in all 2008 editions) and to that comfortable xenophobia.

In a world growing rapidly smaller through advances in technology, it’s the encouraging of that knee-jerk American bigotry that’s Outliers’s chief sin. On every page, business-class idiots are reassured that the disadvantages they experience on the global stage aren’t really their fault, or their country’s fault. Like the noted deficiency of average Americans in math and the sciences: Gladwell explains that it’s all about Asian culture. Asian languages, you see, denote numbers in a way that makes them quicker to see and say in the “two-second memory loop” Gladwell claims rules everybody’s memory; likewise the way Asian children are taught to think about fractions makes it easier for them to do calculations:

Asian children … can hold more numbers in their head and do calculations faster, and the way fractions are expressed in their languages corresponds exactly to the way a fraction actually is – and maybe that make them a little more likely to enjoy math, and maybe because they enjoy math a little more, they try a little hard and take more math classes and are more willing to do their homework, and on and on, in a kind of virtuous circle.

See? It’s not your fault that you’re trapped in that virtuous circle! No mention is made of the fact that Asian children are drilled in math, that they’re taught to be competitive, not only with their classmates but with everybody, that nothing even vaguely resembling such a work ethic currently prevails in most American schools, which don’t have money enough for textbooks and are under threat of lawsuit not to trample on little Dakota’s sense of self-validation … Gladwell’s moron paymasters don’t want questions, as they’re fond of saying, they want answers. They’re not interfacing with any other actualization, and Gladwell is only too happy to accommodate, especially since his own status as beggar king is already assured. Take another vaguely cultural thing he brings up, a long-standing blood-feud in rural Kentucky:

Suppose you were sent to Harlan in the late nineteenth century to investigate the causes of the Howard-Turner feud. You lined up every surviving participant and interviewed them as carefully as you could. You subpoenaed documents and took depositions and pored over court records until you had put together a detailed and precise accounting of each stage in the deadly quarrel.

How much would you know? The answer is, not much.

And why not, despite all that interviewing and deposition-taking? Because knowing things requires thinking, and you’ve outsourced your thinking – to Malcolm Gladwell (and his ilk). Notice the phrasing of the above quote: the reader is being asked to put themselves into the example – but only as a grunt, as a functionary (a paralegal functionary, naturally) who’s sent to gather information. Leave the analysis to the outliers, thanks.

Embrained readers won’t bother with this tripe, nor should they. And what of the actual, real-life equivalent of Gladwell’s Wendy’s franchise-aspiring interlopers, those few individuals who really are trying to reshape how they think about their world? I suggest you start with Aristotle, move on to Adam Smith, and finish up with Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Skip Chomsky, and, of course, skip Gladwell.

*This review first appeared in the Open Letters blog in 2008.

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Steve Donoghue is a writer and reader living in Boston with his dogs. He’s recently reviewed books for The Columbia Journal of American Studies, Historical Novel Review Online, and The Quarterly Conversation. He hosts the literary blog Stevereads and is the Managing Editor of Open Letters.

Read #10, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot