Saturday, November 8, 2008

Enriched Environments

In this week's New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell muses on whether tough breaks are a useful prerequisite for success. He refers several times to Andrew Carnegie, who believed that growing up poor helped him succeed in business. There was an advantage, Carnegie insisted, to being "cradled, nursed and reared in the stimulating school of poverty." People facing disadvantages learn to compensate for them, and this compensation is more useful than any advantage of birth or education. Gladwell devotes a lot of attention to Sidney Weinberg, the son of poor Jewish immigrants who became Wall Street's most successful banker. Weinberg constantly played up his outsider status, interrupting boring technical presentations to say, "I'm just a poor guy from the Bronx, explain this in terms I can understand."

Gladwell writes, "This idea" -- that those who have to compensate for disadvantages go further in the long run than those given every advantage --
is both familiar and perplexing. Consider the curious fact that many successful entrepreneurs suffer from serious learning disabilities. Paul Orfalea, the founder of the Kinko’s chain, was a D student who failed two grades, was expelled from four schools, and graduated at the bottom of his high-school class. “In third grade, the only word I could read was ‘the,’ ” he says. “I used to keep track of where the group was reading by following from one ‘the’ to the next.” Richard Branson, the British billionaire who started the Virgin empire, dropped out of school at fifteen after struggling with reading and writing. “I was always bottom of the class,” he has said. John Chambers, who built the Silicon Valley firm Cisco into a hundred-billion-dollar corporation, has trouble reading e-mail. One of the pioneers of the cellular-phone industry, Craig McCaw, is dyslexic, as is Charles Schwab, the founder of the discount brokerage house that bears his name. When the business-school professor Julie Logan surveyed a group of American small-business owners recently, she found that thirty-five per cent of them self-identified as dyslexic.
Gladwell doesn't mention it, but this obviously applies to the President-elect. Obama was the son of a teenage Kansan mother with psychological problems and an African father who immediately abandoned him. His elementary schooling, much of it in Indonesia, was spotty. He rebelled against the white grandparents who raised him by insisting on his blackness, accepting an identity that created serious problems for his political ambitions. True, his high school was an elite institution, and he went from there to the Ivy League, but his early experiences are hardly what any ambitious parent would choose for his or her children.

I like to tell a story I heard on NPR many years ago, about a son of migrant Mexican farmworkers who went to Harvard. According to him, when he told his white high school guidance counselor that he had been admitted to Harvard, the man replied, "that's great, and if you fail out, we'll be here for you." He was enraged by what he took as a dismissal, and when he had trouble at Harvard, he always thought that he couldn't fail because he couldn't go back home and face the jerks who expected him to. Which raises the question, was his guidance counselor just a jerk, or was he maybe a motivational genius? I can imagine him thinking, "what this punk needs is a kick in the ass from a mean white guy."

So what do young people need to equip them for success? Is the sort of perfectly safe, well-coddled upbringing my children are getting really the best thing for them? Is the everyone's a winner, medals for participation, nothing but praise culture of American suburban childhood actually good for anyone?

This is not a new question. In many ancient and medieval European societies, parents often sent their children away to be fostered by friends or relatives, and one of the reasons they gave was that parents would be too kind and loving to impart the toughness essential for success in those violent times. The British elite long sent their sons to boarding schools where a regimen of bad food, cold showers and freqent beatings gave them "character." American law schools used to practice a sort of ritual humiliation of first year students.

But, as Gladwell writes, there are obvious problems with the imposition of disadvantages:
There’s no question that we are less than comfortable with the claims that people like Schwab and Orfalea make on behalf of their disabilities. As impressive as their success has been, none of us would go so far as to wish dyslexia on our own children. If a disproportionately high number of entrepreneurs are dyslexic, so are a disproportionately high number of prisoners. Systems in which people compensate for disadvantage seem to us unacceptably Darwinian. The stronger get stronger, and the weaker get even weaker.
What if this is true? If a school of hard knocks approach to raising children leads to a flattening of the bell curve, with more spectacular successes and more total failures, would that be a good thing or a bad thing? This sounds, at first, like a liberal vs. conservative distinction, but some of my most liberal friends worry that our educational system is designed to produce happy mediocrity. I think it is simply an inevitable problem for a rich and peaceful society. We are stuck with our wealth and committed to non-violence and non-discrimination, and we will just have to deal with the consequences.

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