Thursday, September 10, 2009

Outliers: We Stand On Guard For Thee

I did something embarrassing this past summer. I bought and read the (then) #1 non-fiction best seller: Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers. I expected the usual Gladwell, smart, off-beat, the distiller of academic psychological data for people responsible for judging (and perhaps marketing to) the rest of us. What I found was a profoundly humane grasp of ordinary fate. Consider reading Outliers in the silence induced by President Obama's closing words to Congress last night.

Gladwell purports to write about what makes unusual people successful. But it's the negative space that stays with you: the things we all need to catch a break. I mean the luck to be born at the right time and place. The luck to have local ways to develop ones' talents. The luck to be born to a family that assumes you will indeed have talents to develop and then demands the rigor to master difficult tasks. The luck to be born to a culture that allows you to fail and continue learning, or (what is often the same thing) to speak your mind without undue discouragement from hierarchy.

The luck, in short, to be born, if not a Kennedy, then (as Gladwell and I were ) a Canadian. For you add up the lucks and what you have is really something quite predictable: the benefits of a welfare state--or what I like to call (since this is a knowledge economy) a mentor state.

Everybody born in today's America was born at the right time and place. But how to develop talents without good schools, universities and clinics that don't bankrupt you--or a community that correspondingly assumes discipline as well as the obvious freedoms?

I suspect that readers of this post do not need much convincing. But, for the record, Canada allowed me to go all the way for a PhD without debt. My child, when I was studying in the 1970s, went to nearly free day-care. I never worried about health insurance. Our public television and radio hosts never had to become wood-peckers three times a year. Libel and hate-speech laws required you to actually have some evidence for your claims against someone. I have since put three children through the University of Toronto, also without debt.

Call it luck, if you want. But Gladwell, like Obama last night, might just as well have called it commonwealth. The healthcare debate is just the beginning.