Malcolm Gladwell’s Big Idea on Higher Ed Reform: Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

Canadian writer/thinker asks Penn students if they'd still go to Penn if they couldn't tell people they went to Penn.

Malcolm Gladwell.  Photo | <a href="" target="_blank">Kris Krug</a>

Photo | Kris Krug

In his 4:30 p.m. talk Wednesday at Penn, celebrity journalist and author Malcolm Gladwell steered clear of making controversial comments about the university — at least until the Q & A started. When asked what he would do if elected President of the United States, Gladwell, who is Canadian, said that he would split the country into pieces (“It’s four countries already!” he playfully insisted) and initiate some higher education reform.

“Are you ready to hear my idea, in one sentence?” he asked an eager audience, which was made up entirely of Penn students, faculty and staff. “Don’t ask, don’t tell — on the name of your undergrad institution.”

He went on to explain that, under his reform, anyone in the country can attend any university they want, but, after graduation, they aren’t allowed to say where they went to school. Then, gleefully fingering his Poland Springs water bottle, Gladwell dropped the jab: “Would you have gone to Penn?”

That moment aside, Gladwell’s presentation bore little resemblance to the one he gave at Penn last February, in which he took a massive dump on the school’s football team. This time, the New Yorker staff writer was more concerned with promoting his latest book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants and less about pissing off his audience.

After brushing off last year’s controversy with a few jokes, Gladwell set about recounting a story about underdogs — not one from David and Goliath (“The more I talk to you about my book, the more I diminish your motivation to read it,” he quipped) — but rather, one he hadn’t ever published.

The yarn he chose was the rags-to-riches redemption saga of one Alva Belmont, an American born in 1860s Alabama who clawed her way up to New York City, into the arms of one of the richest men in town, and, once married and named Mrs. Vanderbilt, proceeded to leave her mark on everything she could, including the British royal line and the women’s suffrage movement.

As anyone who has read Gladwell will tell you (even if they take issue with him for whatever reason, the most discussed being that he tends to oversimplify scientific concepts to the  detriment of his readers), the man is an outrageously good storyteller.

Tonight was no exception. Gladwell told listeners about Alva’s hairy back, about her multitude of mansions, about the way a single, salty tear rolled down her cheek when she saw her daughter get married. He made her as vivid as the celebrities who inhabit our tabloids: Of Alva’s decision to move to New York City, he said, “It would be as if one of the Kardashian sisters picked up, moved to the Middle East, and joined Hamas.”

What did all of this — and the conflict in 1970s Northern Ireland, which bookended Alva’s tale — have to do with underdogs? By Gladwell’s account, both show the conditions that turn a person into a radical: the denial of legitimacy.

To Gladwell, “legitimacy” means three things (he’s a big fan of threes): fairness, respect and trust. Alva was denied a legitimate place within her society (the big reveal in the story is that her greed and self-absorption can be traced back to the way society treated her as a woman), and the Catholics of Northern Ireland were denied political representation. So they all became enraged, and that rage drove them to radicalism. The weird thing is the way Gladwell presented this explanation: as if this statement were some uber-profound concept that he had stumbled upon and wanted the world to hear for the first time. It suddenly became easy to see why critics have found his conclusions flawed at best and misleading at worst.

Gladwell wrapped up what had been a kind of lavish bedtime story to loud applause. He turned, one assumes, to return to writing best-selling nonfiction, but not before informing his audience that his allegiance lies with Kanye West, who is an artist, and not Miley Cyrus, who is not.