Gladwell for Dummies | The Nation


Gladwell for Dummies

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

A kindred spirit of Gladwell's hero, Professor Nassim Nicholas Taleb, makes an appearance in Outliers in the form of Chris Langan, another misanthropic genius who seems more amused by the foibles of humanity than eager to assist his inferiors in correcting them. Langan, whose IQ is so high it cannot be quantified, dropped out of Reed College after his first year because his dirt-poor Montana upbringing failed to instill in him the "practical intelligence" to navigate the byzantine bureaucracy of the school's financial aid office. Langan now lives with his wife, a clinical neuropsychologist he met through the ultrahigh-IQ community, on a horse ranch he bought in rural Missouri, where he spends his days working out a unified model of reality. He also occasionally makes media appearances as a sort of intellectual curiosity; these culminated in a win on the NBC game show 1 vs. 100, where his triumph over the collective intelligence of 100 average Americans earned him $250,000.

About the Author

Maureen Tkacik
Maureen Tkacik, formerly of the Wall Street Journal and Jezebel, is a financial journalist in New York City.

Gladwell writes that when he went to visit Langan on his farm, the genius "seemed content" with his lot in life but revealed himself to be otherwise through his conflicted answer to the hypothetical question of whether he would take a professorship at Harvard were one offered to him. "Obviously, as a full professor at Harvard I would count," Langan said. But he added that, then again,

Harvard is basically a glorified corporation, operating with a profit incentive. That's what makes it tick. It has an endowment in the billions of dollars. The people running it are not necessarily searching for truth and knowledge. They want to be big shots, and when you accept a paycheck from these people, it is going to come down to what you want to do and what you feel is right versus what the man says you can do to receive another paycheck.

It is this attitude, this commitment to his own outlier status, that makes Langan's such a "heartbreaking story" in Gladwell's mind, this despite the fact that to all appearances Langan is a happy man, a success on his own terms, who has said that he has chosen a life of meaning over one of conventional achievement. To this, Gladwell replies:

Even in his discussion of Harvard, it's as if Langan has no conception of the culture and particulars he's talking about.... What? One of the main reasons college professors accept a lower paycheck than they could get in private industry is that university life gives them the freedom to do what they want to do and what they feel is right. Langan has Harvard backwards.

Maybe Langan has Harvard backwards, or maybe he is a subscriber to The New Yorker:

The admissions directors at Harvard have always...been diligent about rewarding the children of graduates, or, as they are quaintly called, "legacies." In the 1985-92 period, for instance, Harvard admitted children of alumni at a rate more than twice that of non-athlete, non-legacy applicants, despite the fact that, on virtually every one of the school's magical ratings scales, legacies significantly lagged behind their peers. Karabel [Jerome Karabel, a sociologist who wrote The Chosen, a book about university admissions] calls the practice "unmeritocratic at best and profoundly corrupt at worst," but rewarding customer loyalty is what luxury brands do.... The endless battle over admissions in the United States proceeds on the assumption that some great moral principle is at stake in the matter of whom schools like Harvard choose to let in--that those who are denied admission by the whims of the admissions office have somehow been harmed. If you are sick and a hospital shuts its doors to you, you are harmed. But a selective school is not a hospital, and those it turns away are not sick. Élite schools, like any luxury brand, are an aesthetic experience--an exquisitely constructed fantasy of what it means to belong to an élite--and they have always been mindful of what must be done to maintain that experience.

That is also Gladwell, explaining the Ivy League admissions process in 2005. But Harvard, he seems to have since recognized, is a fantasy seductive enough to unite Christians and Confucians. The pilgrims come to Gladwell seeking salvation in success, and for what it is worth, he gives them the old college try.

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

Before commenting, please read our Community Guidelines.