Can the weak outmaneuver the strong? If it doesn’t kill you, does it make you stronger? If a tree falls in the woods, should you get out of the kitchen? Are these profound questions or tired clichés? Who the hell knows? Malcolm Gladwell’s books may have taken on a life of their own these days, given the hype that surrounds each new release. Like Gladwell’s earlier works, the new book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants,revolves around a strong, concise argument: adversity can be an advantage. It seems like the kind of intriguing statement that propelled his earlier books like “The Tipping Point” into the collective consciousness, until you really think about it: Kelly Clarkson has a song about this.
So, the argument isn’t as profound as it first appears, but do we care? Resoundingly, the answer is a collective “no.” The book is rocketing up the “New York Times” Best Sellers list and has been highly rated by users on Amazon and Goodreads. Why? Because Malcolm Gladwell is a great writer who skillfully weaves argument, anecdote and some semblance of science into a book people actually enjoy reading. But, fuck it, we have a deadline here and it’s a lot easier to point out the cherry-picked facts and expose the flaws in anecdotal evidence than to try to explain how Gladwell’s subtle word play and seemingly unrelated stories elevates a tired trope and makes us think critically about human nature.
With so many anecdotes, there really is something for everyone to get all worked up about: The Wall Street Journal’s ire focused on Gladwell’s use of dyslexic entrepreneurs as anecdotal evidence for the importance of overcoming adversity as a path for success. Business Insider is scandalized by the argument that attending an elite university can be actually be a disadvantage, because students at great schools still get all sad panda about getting a crap grade, leading them to drop out of their chosen STEM field and become humanities majors who can only work as baristas upon graduation, or worse – go to law school. The Guardian finds fault with Gladwell’s final anecdote about a small village in France, Le Chambon, whose citizens were able to resist the Vichy regime simply because it was more trouble to defeat them than it was to ignore them. And HuffPo, of all institutions, gets religious, explaining that Gladwell missed the point of David’s biblical struggle against Goliath, because it was David’s strong faith in God that made it possible for him to defeat the giant. Here at HappyNiceTimePeople, our personal bugaboo is Gladwell’s argument about small class sizes.
What does a small class size in public education look like to you? 17 students in a classroom? 22 students in a classroom? Sure, why not! While we may not agree on what the exact number is, we can be sure that when the public overwhelming says they favor small class sizes, they probably don’t mean 11 students in a fifth grade class. And it is with this figure – 11 students in a class in Connecticut – that Gladwell makes the fairly obvious argument that when decreasing the size of a class, there is a law of diminishing returns: without enough students, lively debate is limited and students miss out on cooperative peer learning opportunities.
But, Malcolm, dude, we have to point out that in this country, when we talk about large class sizes, the debate is whether we should cram 40 kids into a middle school classroom, while teachers desperately try to figure out how to engage the high achievers, the least common denominator, and everything in between? We aren’t really worried about the 11 child classroom because that pretty much NEVER HAPPENS. Another gem we found truly inspiring: teachers with smaller class sizes won’t actually adapt their teaching style to fit the size of the class they have and will just “do less work.” As will doctors, by the way: apparently, given fewer patients, doctors will just go home early. Is it possible that approaching the topic of human achievement via the assumption that human nature generally is to just slack off if possible might be a bit depressing and problematic? C’mon Malcolm, did you really think you weren’t going to take a hit for that one?
Anyway, back to our original point, which is that this particular anecdote about class size just gets under the skin because it is such a specious argument. Gladwell ignores the very real problems faced by students in crowded school districts, with overwhelmed teachers and poor resources and substitutes the obvious law of diminishing returns when you compare a class of 20-something students with the unusual situation of a class size trending towards single digits. Way to skip the tough stuff and go right to a rare occurrence that pretty much no one worries about.
That problem of generalization might actually be the root of the disappointment the reader walks away with when finishing “David and Goliath” and it is probably what inspires these rather petty pot-shots at the individual pieces of evidence, rather than thoughtful consideration of the work as a whole. By taking individual tales of human triumph and turning them into a broader allegory about human nature, Gladwell strips his actors of action. Stories centered on overcoming a terrible childhood, or London’s stoicism in the face of the Blitz, or the success of the Civil Rights Movement, are stories of character, principles and, above all, action. Under Gladwell here, however, they’re just not. Like Gladwell’s other work, the central point is strong, the evidence is interesting, and for the use of language alone, it’s well worth reading. However, by arguing that triumph is rooted in the psychological effects of adversity, and not in the individual merits of those that were willing to stand up and take bold action, Gladwell’s book leaves just leaves us deflated.