Gladwell cites disparities in math skills as means to discuss the dual importance of hard work by the individual (the 10,000 hours theme) and cultural legacy. Building up to his arguments in the "Marita's Bargain" chapter, he provides two positive examples of cultural legacies that have led to outstanding successes. The first example is of Jewish immigrants to New York in the late nineteenth century who found work in the garment industry, particularly the story of Louis Borgenicht, an entrepreneur who published his life story in the early 1940s, at the end of his life. Borgenicht did not come to the U.S. specifically to work in this industry, but he and many other Eastern European Jews had experience working with clothing. Economic barriers to starting his own business were minimal -- the cost of raw materials and a couple of sewing machines. The author does not deny that working conditions were horrible and the hours extreme, but he writes:
"When Borgenicht came home at night to his children, he may have been tired and poor and overwhelmed, but he was alive. He was his own boss. He was responsible for his own decisions and direction. His work was complex: it engaged his mind and imagination. And in his work, there was a relationship between effort and reward: the longer he and Regina stayed up at night sewing aprons, the more money they made the next day on the streets. Those three things--autonomy, complexity, and a connection between effort and reward--are, most people agree, the three qualities work has to have if it is to be satisfying. It is not how much money we make that ultimately makes us happy between nine and five. It's whether our work fulfills us" (149).
Immigrant Jews then passed down this cultural legacy of hard but meaningful work to their offspring, who then outdid the previous generation. A leather tanner begat a generation of bag manufacturers, who in turn begat a generation of doctors and lawyers. A small grocer's children all became supermarket managers, and their children all became doctors and lawyers.
In the realm of math skills, Gladwell cites the example of high performance in math in East Asian countries. He dismisses evolutionary and race-based differences out of hand. While he mentions the cognitive efficiency with which Chinese languages represent numbers as one possible contributing factor, his central thesis is that the work ethic required by wet rice agriculture is the main difference that gives East Asians a cultural edge in mathematics. Growing rice on rice paddies is hard and meaningful work not unlike the kind that small business owners in the New York garment industry had a hundred years ago. A culture based on rice production and consumption develops proverbs like, "No one who can rise before dawn three hundred sixty days a year fails to make his family rich." This work ethic then translates to formal education, where the South Korean school year is 220 days and the Japanese 243 days, in contrast to the average American school year of 180 days. So the author would have us conclude that there is no mystery around East Asian superiority in math, rather it is simply their cultural legacy that gives them permission to work harder than we do at everything, including math where the additional effort produces especially noticeable results.
The book's bottom-line public policy recommendations for the U.S. are, simply put: (1) to extend the school year and otherwise mitigate the negative effect that long summer vacations have on economically disadvantaged youth; and (2) to group classrooms in early grades in three different age cohorts so that those born just after the birthday cutoff do not have significant developmental advantages over the youngest in the cohort. Mind you, the second recommendation is dropped early, on p. 33, and is not reinforced in the final full chapter, but it is there and complementary to the other recommendation, the point of the "Marita's Bargain" chapter, which concludes:
"The lesson here is very simple. But it is striking how often it is overlooked. We are so caught in the myths of the best and the brightest and the self-made that we think outliers spring naturally from the earth. We look at the young Bill Gates and marvel that our world allowed that thirteen-year-old to become a fabulously successful entrepreneur. But that's the wrong lesson. Our world only allowed one thirteen-year-old unlimited access to a time-sharing terminal in 1968. If a million teenagers had been given the same opportunity, how many more Microsofts would we have today? To build a better world we need to replace the patchwork of lucky breaks and arbitrary advantages that today determine success--the fortunate birth dates and the happy accidents of history--with a society that provides opportunities for all. If Canada had a second hockey league for those children born in the last half of the year, it would today have *twice* as many adult hockey stars. Now multiply that sudden flowering of talent by every field and profession" (268, original emphasis).
Gladwell chastises our culture for taking "the wrong lesson" from life stories of the likes of Bill Gates, but the lesson he offers in its place is no more convincing. How many Microsofts would there be today if a million teeanagers had had the same access to computers in the late 1960s that Bill Gates had? Zero. Microsoft is Microsoft due to its dominant market share; if it had even a few competitors on an even playing field then it would bear little resemblance to the personal computer software behemoth we have come to know (and not necessarily love). Likewise, I doubt that a second hockey league for youths born in the months July through December would lead to twice as many hockey stars. Rather I would expect an elevation in the general level of play and therefore the bar for stardom to be set even higher.
A stronger lesson to draw from the examples and arguments in this book might be that to grant access to opportunity to wider swaths of the population is to bolster national competitiveness in the international marketplace, and to further the common good. Would a second youth hockey league in Canada perhaps make its national team unbeatable ten years hence? Would technical employers in the U.S. still be complaining about the lack of domestic science and engineering talent if more working-class kids had access to a Knowledge Is Power Program like Marita's? And in a virtuous cycle of greater access to quality education and an invigorated economy, would we not see a decrease in social problems such as crime and drug abuse? By offering up the prospect of more hockey stars and more Microsofts, Outliers panders to the very obsession with individual success that it seeks to criticize.
Except that it is completely out of fashion in our current political culture, what is wrong with arguing for policies on the basis of collective benefit? As I write this (in May 2009), my home state of California is descending into economic and budgetary chaos as a result of entrenched parties who refuse to look beyond their own narrow interests and ideologies. Perhaps it is time to revive notions of a public good, before the airplane of our national economy crashes leaving a million useless pieces.