Sunday, December 21, 2008

Figuring things out

I've been skimming through Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers. In the midst of the chapter "The Trouble with Geniuses, Part 2" suddenly so much seems plain, particularly when I look at the way people behave in academia. Despite all my years spent in that realm, I retain an uneasy feeling of having one foot in and one foot out of it. It's an obvious thing, but one I didn't connect to behavior. Gladwell argues, for example, that the difference between two geniuses, Oppenheimer (you've heard of him) and Chris Langan (you probably haven't heard of him), really comes down to class and culture:

That was the lesson Langan learned from his childhood: distrust authority and be independent... He didn't learn entitlement. He learned constraint. It may seem like a small thing, but it was a crippling handicap in navigating the world beyond Bozeman [his hometown]. (110)

8 comments:

Jeff said...

I haven't wanted to read the Gladwell book, but now you've got me curious. I've long thought that the biggest cultural gulf in academia separates those who were raised in an academic milieu versus those who independently stumbled into it. As one of the latter group, I still have a difficult time articulating the differences, as I perceive them, to the former group. Are those the sorts of class-and-culture distinctions Gladwell's taking about?

K. A. Laity said...

I got the book through ILL and you can read some of it at his site; it is skimmable.

You're quite right about that key difference: children of academics tend to learn early how to negotiate the system and *expect* it to accommodate their desires. They develop a sense of entitlement, not in the pejorative sense we often use it now (although that does happen, too), but in the sense that they know how the system works and expect it to do so.

In contrast, people raised without that milieu find it more difficult to work the system, expect to have to do everything themselves and mistrust those in power.

I'm kind of hoping for the long term effects as I figure these things out and adjust my behavior to achieve better results.

One of the overall points Gladwell makes is that outliers are not outliers, that they are inevitably part of a network, a community. It may be the culture of privilege that the children of academics grow up a part of, but it can also be less privileged but supportive networks. It's a corrective to our persistent American notion of the lone hero.

The Queen said...

Isn't the book fascinating? I read the first couple of chapters while cataloging it, but I have to wait for its return to finish the whole thing...

K. A. Laity said...

I'm finding several bits of useful information in its pages. Always a plus! I need to be more assertive (always, but in the right situations). That's difficult for me.

Chuckie58 said...

Wooooowwwwww! You mean, I actually COULD be a genius but my dad taught me to be independent and that screwed my chances of "succeeding". What an AWSOME concept!

K. A. Laity said...

LOL -- it's not quite as simple as that, Chuckie. I've taken it out of context here. He's contrasting cultural attitudes, not knocking independence per se.

Jeff said...

KAL - Thanks for the summary! I'm curious to read more of what Gladwell has to say about this, because I think he's touching on something that extends beyond so-called geniuses to cover a wide range of late-blooming personality types. I teach adult undergraduates who come into their own as early as their twenties and as late as their sixties, and while few of them are Gladwellian geniuses, they're no less remarkable. As their fellow non-genius, I'd hate for them to assume that class and culture are the same as destiny.

K. A. Laity said...

I really found the Late Bloomers essay very apt to my own situation. I'm no genius, but I saw a lot of my own life pattern in his assessment. And yes, comforting to think my best work still lies ahead (hope so!).