March 5, 2009 | Education Notebook on Education
By Dan Lips
In his new book, Outliers, best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell examines why some people become extraordinarily successful and others do not.
Challenging the conventional notion of the self-made man, Gladwell argues that most great success stories spring from unique advantages and opportunities that enable remarkable achievement.
Consider Bill Gates. Most people know how, as a young computer whiz, he dropped out of Harvard to start Microsoft and revolutionize the software industry and the American economy in the process. But often overlooked in this simple tale are the events in Gates' life that put him on the path to greatness.
Gladwell explains that, as a teenager, Gates attended a private school that offered a computer club. At a time when few colleges were offering students hands-on computer experience, Gates was practicing real-time computer programming in the eighth grade. This early experience led Gates to capitalize on other unique opportunities, including working part-time testing code for a local tech company and sneaking into the University of Washington at night to steal time computer programming.
These unique opportunities made Bill Gates an outlier, as he admits: "I had a better exposure to software development at a young age than I think anyone did in that period, and all because of an incredibly lucky series of events."
Or consider perhaps the greatest outlier of our time: President Barack Obama. Part of what captures the public's imagination about our new president is that his is the quintessential tale of the self-made man.
You know the story. The son of an absent African father, the young Obama was raised by his mother and grandparents in middle-class America. He went on to earn degrees from Columbia and Harvard University, where he became the first black president of the law review. This historic achievement earned the young lawyer a book deal from a top publisher and a grip on a career ladder that he climbed to the top of Illinois politics and, finally, to the White House.
Perhaps the most important door to open in young Obama's life came in 1971, when, at age 10, he received a scholarship to enroll in the private Punahou school in Hawaii.
He spent the next eight years learning aside the children of the elite in the state's most prestigious school, where he came to thrive in academics, athletics and extracurricular activities.
After being elected to the Senate in 2004, Obama returned to the school and spoke about its importance in his life: "There was something about this school that embraced me, gave me support and encouragement, and allowed me to grow and prosper. I am extraordinarily grateful."
In the cases of both Gates and Obama, it takes a special person to take advantage of their opportunities. But it's fair to conclude that Gates likely wouldn't have founded Microsoft had he not joined a computer club in 1967, and that Obama wouldn't have become president had he not attended the Punahou school.
In the latter case, one wonders what might have become of Obama had he not received his scholarship. Would he have even graduated from college (let alone Columbia and Harvard) if he attended one of Hawaii's generally mediocre public schools instead of Punahou? The America's Promise Alliance reports that the high-school graduation rate in Honolulu's public schools is just 64 percent. In 2007, only 20 percent of Hawaii's eighth-grade students scored "proficient" in reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
The point of Gladwell's book isn't to explain away our greatest successes, but to challenge us to create a society where one doesn't have to be an outlier to be a success. "To build a better world," he writes, "we need to replace the patchwork of lucky breaks and arbitrary advantages that determine success with a society that provides opportunities to all."
One way to level the playing field would be to give all children access to educational opportunities similar to those enjoyed by Gates and Obama. The new president could help make that a reality in the US by supporting the principle that all families -- regardless of background -- should have the power to choose the best school for their children and by challenging lawmakers across the country to make that promise a reality.
President Obama knows the benefit of that opportunity -- he's passing it along to his daughters by enrolling them in an elite private school in Washington. As president, he could fight to give more children in the District and beyond the same opportunity.
Every child deserves a chance to become the next Bill Gates or Barack Obama, not just the outliers.
Dan Lips is a Senior Policy Analyst for education at the Heritage Foundation.