Like just about everyone else who has read Malcolm Gladwell, I’m a fan. But with David and Goliath, I wasn’t as easily swayed by his arguments because my experiences as an educator are in direct conflict with some of his assertions.
Gladwell begins with the Biblical quote (Goliath speaking to David) “Am I a dog that you should come to me with sticks?” He makes much of the word ‘sticks’—using it as proof that Goliath couldn’t see well. But I’ve read in other sources that earlier versions of the story use the singular word, ‘stick.’ So, Gladwell might be quite off the mark in relying so heavily on this. And even if he is right in his argument that the roles of David and Goliath are actually the reverse of what we believe–that Goliath has debilitating handicaps that will, if not ensure, then at least tip, the scales toward David’s victory, it just seems that he isn’t paying attention to the mythological/religious purpose of the story. While he’s right that in the ancient world a well-trainer slinger might beat a fuzzy-sighted giant, it doesn’t matter. It isn’t a new idea that the underdog has a trick up his sleeve. The important thing in this story is that the trick up David’s sleeve is God. And if this is a story made for the Bible, well, you can’t beat that.
Gladwell breaks his argument down to three parts: sometimes what seem to be advantages are disadvantages; some difficulties, which would seem to break a person, are actually desirable; and power has its limits.
In discussing the advantages that are actually disadvantages, Gladwell uses research on class size. God help us educators—I hope no politician hears about this and decides to believe it. Because the class sizes that Gladwell is talking about aren’t really very large. He’s right that classes can be too small—try having a good discussion with ten students. But calling a class of twenty-five or twenty-nine ‘large’ and then saying it isn’t worse than twenty-two or so? Here in California, we routinely have class sizes of thirty-eight in high schools. I once had a class of forty-two. And, yeah, it makes a difference. A hell of a difference. So politically-minded teacher-haters—please read the fine print on this.
Gladwell also goes to great lengths to show that dyslexia can be a huge advantage, a ‘desirable difficulty.’ “If you take away the gift of reading, you create the gift of listening.” Again, my experience as an educator makes me answer—actually, no, not very often. Gladwell gives some examples of stellar thinkers and creators who are dyslexic—a successful lawyer, the founder of IKEA, the president of Goldman Sachs. But his quote early in chapter four from Nadine Gaab, a dyslexia researcher at Harvard, holds true: “‘You get frustrated. Your peers may think you’re stupid. Your parents may think you’re lazy. You have very low self-esteem, which leads to an increased rate of depression. Kids with dyslexia are more likely to end up in the juvenile system, because they act up. It’s because they can’t figure things out. It’s so important in our society to read.’” So, it might be good to check the percentage of incarcerated folks who have learning disabilities. Such disabilities can be advantages in building character, in overcoming fear of failure, in creating a willingness to try anything. But usually—not.
As always, Gladwell has some great stories about individual successes. The story of Jay Freireich (under ‘desirable difficulties’) is worth of price of the book. Despite his father’s probable suicide, his mother’s unavoidable neglect (she worked eighteen hours a day) and his Depression-era upbringing in grinding poverty, Freireich, a doctor at the National Cancer Institute, along with a colleague, worked out a system to save the lives of children with leukemia. Before Freireich, those kids didn’t stand a chance of being treated because they bled out. Gladwell argues that Freireich was able to push for change because he was someone who could see painful, terrible treatments through. He was willing to experiment on children After all, he had seen worse. Using various poisonous drugs at once (a cocktail), he managed to kill the leukemia. Adding chemotherapy because he realized that some cancer cells lurked in the bone marrow, was an additional torment to patients. A more empathetic man wouldn’t have found this cure.
Equally intriguing is the story of Wyatt Walker, which is really the story of the Civil Rights Movement. It not only deals with desirable difficulty, but leads the reader to meditate on the questions of morality. In Birmingham, putting kids in front of fire hoses and police dogs wasn’t right, but it worked for the greater good. And what is right is generally defined by people in positions of power who want to close the door on those without it. And those without it, like David, have nothing to lose, and so don’t follow rules.
Gladwell continues to make his point in ‘The Limits of Power.’ This is that although we wouldn’t wish it on anyone, society needs people who have gone through terrible trauma. And while all the anecdotal stories he enlists don’t add up to research on the statistical probability that trauma will elicit courage and creativity, Gladwell asks some very intriguing, offbeat questions that make the reader thinks about things he wouldn’t have considered before. That’s what he always does well, and in this, David and Goliath is no exception.
High school housekeeping: Your teachers probably love Gladwell’s books and will be duly impressed if you read them. I’ve reviewed others by Gladwell on this blog—Outliers and Blink. I enjoyed those as well as What the Dog Saw. Gladwell is good stuff for meeting new Common Core standards. A good choice for teens looking for adult nonfiction. You’ll be engaged throughout.