Sunday, January 12, 2014

Review of Malcolm Gladwell's David and Goliath

Once again, Malcolm Gladwell challenges our assumptions. In his David and Goliath book, he shows how underdogs and misfits can succeed in battling giants.

Gladwell gives examples of inverted U-curves that should guide our expectations, but often don’t. Nations have spent millions of dollars to hire more teachers to make class sizes smaller in the expectation that smaller classes will necessarily yield better academic results. Scientific studies show kids learn better in classes of a certain size, but learn worse when the classes get too small.

In another education-related example, Gladwell talks of big fish in small ponds being more successful than small fish in big ponds. He applies this to society’s assumption that the most prestigious college one can graduate from is obviously the best choice. Not so. Sociological studies show that sometimes perceived advantages are in fact disadvantages.

Also, some of life’s handicaps and hard roads produce inner strength and compensating skills that define brilliant careers and overcoming life strategies. Again, Gladwell relies on stories and studies to illustrate. Examples include cancer research and civil rights victories.

Challenging an established study on rebellion and authority that urged authorities to quell civil unrest with toughness, Gladwell highlights how British toughness in Northern Ireland backfired; how a New York City police officer’s sensitivity in Brooklyn caused robbery statistics there to plummet; and how forgiveness trumped fighting for harsher punishment for murderers. Gladwell includes a short account of the French village of Le Chambon and their peaceful resistance to Nazi influence in World War II. [I recommend reading the full story in Philip Hallie’s book Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed: The Story of the Village of Le Chambon and How Goodness Happened There.]

As with Gladwell’s other books, David and Goliath encourages thoughtful open-mindedness. Issues are multifaceted. Often certain results require revised strategies. And as usual, Gladwell’s illustrations are stories whose characters we get to know and often, like. My favorite stories in this book were the Impressionists challenging the Paris Salon in the 1860s; the Northern Ireland curfew debacle; and the courage and cleverness of Martin Luther King’s men.

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