Monday, January 19, 2009

The Failure of Success

I’m reading Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success while at the same time applying to kindergartens for Liko. It’s an interesting juxtaposition.

The message of Gladwell’s book is simple: Success is the product of environment plus practice plus accidents of birth; intrinsic talent is a factor—mostly because it allows a person to take advantage of whatever opportunities arise—but not the most important one, not even close.

In one chapter, Gladwell explores a classic study by sociologist Annette Lareau of childrearing in working-class with middle- and upper-class homes (“less-educated” and “more-educated” might be a better characterization). By following twelve families closely for long periods of time, Lareau found that “there were two parenting ‘philosophies,' and they divided almost perfectly along class lines.”

The working-class parents followed a path of what Lareau calls “natural growth”—meaning that children are generally left to their own devices, and parents did not attempt to manage their education. This, writes Lareau, produced children who were more independent and better behaved, but also (paradoxically?) more passive, especially in the face of authority. (This is just a thumbnail; you'll need to read Gladwell's book or Lareau's study for details.)

By contrast, the educated parents adapted a policy of “concerted cultivation.” They actively identified weaknesses to correct and strengths to develop in their children; heavily scheduled their time with classes in music, art, etc.; and intensively managed their formal education.

Most importantly for Gladwell’s purposes, these parents taught their children how to ask questions, interact with authority figures in ways that asserted some degree of control, and express opinions. This produces a sense of entitlement, which Lareau neutrally defines as the ability to act as though they had a right to pursue their individual interests and speak up for themselves in institutional settings.

These observations feel true to my experience. I’ve heard teacher-friends describe similar patterns, I’ve seen it in my own family, and I’m seeing it play out in the murderous world of applying for kindergarten in San Francisco, which is like an arms race.

One example: Liko attends a preschool that is heavily slanted toward educated middle- and upper-class parents. (Education aside, we are not those parents, by the way; Liko wouldn’t go there if my wife hadn’t worked at the school and if we weren’t receiving financial aid. Those were opportunities of which we took advantage.)

Concerted cultivation is institutionalized: teachers report weekly on the kid’s activities (with photos!), there are regular parent-teacher meetings tracking the child’s development; school time is scheduled with art, gym, and so on; and it is normal for the kids (including Liko) to go from school to after-school enrichment classes.

This isn’t the case in all preschools. I have a friend who works as a teacher at a preschool that caters to low-income families. There, says my friend, there is no parent involvement, no reporting, very little structure, and no enrichment. The parents drop the kids off, they play for much of the day, and the parents pick them up. This is more akin to daycare, not preschool, which is the more common arrangement for working parents.

Put aside, for the moment, moral and political judgments, and look at the situation coldly. Guess which group is going to be better prepared to enter kindergarten? (I'm not saying that your kid will never get into Harvard if she doesn't attend a good preschool; I'm saying that every educational opportunity increases the likelihood of advancement.)

In addition, the kids at Liko’s preschool are sorted into classes by birth date, so that in Liko’s class most are born in the summer. And here, we’ve discovered something interesting: It appears that most of the kids, especially the boys, are not going to kindergarten next year. They’ll attend pre-K and enter kindergarten when they are six.

Why? Because it will give them a developmental advantage in both academics and athletics. Holding your child back once entailed a stigma; no more. Now, it’s a status symbol.

Are we, Liko’s parents, above all this? Of course not. We feel intense pressure to follow the norms that we see around us, and we are also considering sending Liko to kindergarten when he is six—mostly because I shudder to think of Liko, down the road, sharing a school locker room with boys who are up to a year older than he is. Our decision will be based on a) whether or not he gets into a good school next year; and b) where his teachers say he stands developmentally.

You might think this educational arms race would actually come to nothing, just a lot of overeducated “helicopter parents” wasting their time and turning their kids into neurotic whiners. You can probably point to lots of people, perhaps even yourself, whose parents followed the “natural growth” path and “turned out just fine.”

But one of the interesting things about Gladwell’s book is how decisive concerted cultivation seems to be when it comes to later success in life; through many examples, Gladwell shows how the difference between the successful and not-successful is early cultivation and opportunity. This is confirmed by quite a bit of research, and it’s how social class plays out in America.

My own upbringing was a transitional one from working to middle class, with elements of both natural growth and concerted cultivation. I never went to preschool and time in my childhood was never all that structured. As I approached adolescence and we moved to progressively larger school systems, opportunities began to appear.

At one point I was tested as part of a program called the Midwest Talent Search, which ultimately led to me being able to attend a special summer writing program at Northwestern University. I remember that period as revelatory; for the first time, I was among kids my age who were interested in books and ideas, and I had sympathetic teachers. I’m grateful for that little sliver of freedom and exploration, which decisively shaped my life, but I also think that I would have benefited from having had more opportunities like it.

Of course, one can reject the very concept of “success,” and, indeed, there is a parental counterculture that simply opts out of the arms race, sometimes through homeschooling; we know some folks who are following this path. It’s one I’m reluctant to embrace.

It’s plausible to me that a parent could replicate the advantages that children get through educational institutions—for example, exposing kids to cultural diversity through participation in church activities. But my real problem with homeschooling as a movement is that it’s not a solution to inequality of opportunity in our society. In fact, I’d wager that homeschooling, if implemented on a wider scale, would dramatically exacerbate inequalities. (It’s worth noting that the superrich have always homeschooled; an acquaintance of mine makes her living as a private tutor for one such family, a name you’ve heard.)

And so I am disinclined, as a parent, to apologize for participating in the system and taking advantage of whatever opportunities come my son’s way. As I see it, the problem is not that parents are pursuing what is best for their kids on the terms our society offers. Instead, the problem is with a system that so unevenly distributes opportunity.

It doesn’t have to be this way: There are countries all over the world where kids all receive the same early childhood education, and parents’ education and income levels are much less important in shaping the life chances of their children. Believe it or not, the U.S. actually ranks quite low in social mobility, when compared to Canada and Western Europe.

Gladwell’s book is not a story about the triumph of middle-class values, nor is about how wonderfully accomplished wealthy people are. Instead, his story of success is a story of luck. We in America have fooled ourselves into believing the rich deserve everything they have. And if you are not Bill Gates, says a certain strain of American thinking, you are a failure.

No: As Outliers makes clear, Bill Gates (one of Gladwell’s case studies) is just a lucky bastard. Talented, sure—but no more talented than many of the people who work for him. My grandfather had somewhat less in the way of luck; his success consisted of holding the same stable job for 40 years and putting food on the table every day. His children never starved: That’s success. We have to measure our lives against the opportunities we have been given. And the only moral response to the absence of luck is compassion, toward oneself and others.

On the other hand, feeling guilty about one’s privilege is not helpful; your guilty feelings don’t make one damn bit of difference for low-income families. To really make a difference, middle- and upper-income parents need to pay their fair share of taxes and vote for politicians who are going to allocate funds to early childhood education, health care, and programs that help all kids fulfill their potential. I am writing this on the eve of inauguration day: Let’s hope President Obama leads the way.


Backpacking Dad said...

This is really interesting to me, because I immediately thought to myself "Well, I didn't come from a middle class family with an active acculturation philosophy of parenting and that has had nothing to do with my successes or failures." And then I thought "I bet a lot of children from lower-class families can tell a similar story, enough of them that they'd be unwilling to consider this point from Gladwell to be a valid one." And then I thought "I wonder how many of those successes-despite-class-philosophy stories also involve alcoholism or substance abuse?"

Because there is a trope, a role, in addict families commonly called the "hero". This is the kid (or sometimes a spouse) who overperforms, overachieves, over-everythings, to try to matter more than the addiction. They become independently successful, independently entitled (they are good enough to overcome their circumstances, and with that comes a lot of pride and feeling of entitlement, though not quite the same), and rebelliously invested in the culture and accomplishments of the mainstream.

So I wonder how many of those who might dismiss Gladwell's point because they see themselves as successful despite their origins are also these sociological heroes, outliers themselves who confound the statistical analysis.

Anonymous said...

Interesting, as always, Jeremy. I might just have to read Outliers after all - I'd come to dismiss Mr. Gladwell as a bit of a reductionist hack, even though I found The Tipping Point fascinating.

The dynamic you described is a drama being played out at my son's school. He's in kindergarten at a public school in the large city in which we live. The school system in general, as you can imagine, is reflective of white flight - it's about 13% white, 39% black, 37% hispanic, 9% asian, and 3% multiracial or "other."

Yet my son's school has become of the new "hot" ones for white upper-middle class parents in the City, meaning that the percentage of white students is going up dramatically. There is a widely-recognized phenomenon in our city, in which once a school gets "hot" with such parents, they tend to "take over" the parental involvement. The conscious cultivation/helicopter parenting probably results in them being pushier, liable to jump at leadership roles/volunteer opporunities, and no doubt leads to a cultural shift in the tone of things like parent council meetings. The involvement of middle/working class parents and parents of color tends to go down fairly noticeably. Most schools recognize this and try to deal with it, but not very successfully so far.

It's deeply ironic and of course a huge problem -- one with no immediate apparent quick fixes. It's sort of a form of education-gentrification. The parallel is apt because schools often get "hot" after years of middle and working class parents, teachers and principals, working to improve them.

So I'm curious how the phenomenon Gladwell identifies affects not just individual achievement, which is what he appears to focus on, from Jeremy's description -- but how does it affect interactions between parents and kids from different economic and social classes, not to mention different cultures?

We have the resources to send our kids to swim classes, art classes, etc on the weekends, to take them to concerts and plays and museums. I wonder how this will affect our son's interactions, to say nothing of friendships, with kids whose parents can't do any of that?

Nat West said...

Hi Jeremy -

I don't want to turn this into a public v home school debate, but one point struck me while reading this otherwise excellent piece.

First you say:

"But my real problem with homeschooling as a movement is that it's not a solution to inequality of opportunity in our society."

But then you say:

"To really make a difference, middle- and upper-income parents need to pay their fair share of taxes and vote for politicians..."

As I've mentioned before, we do the unschooling thing with our daughter (I'm the primary caregiver). I'm a strong supporter of public schools and public school teachers. Every time our county (Multnomah, Oregon) floats a levy to help fund public schools, I vote for it. I consider a strong public school system to be valuable to the country, and support politicians who agree with me.

But what I can't abide is using my child as a political statement. (Admittedly, you do say the homeschooling "movement", not homeschooling in individual practice.) Thinking like an elitist, I could say that if my child were in public schools, I would participate and push more, advocating for the betterment of public schools. But I consider that irresponsible and disrespectful to my child to use her like that. Thinking about her purely selfish needs, she won't be any better off in public schools than if she was home/unschooled. In fact, she may be worse off. Her personal needs are always more important than any activism.

I like this piece overall very much. But you might consider cleaning up that juxtaposition. What do you think?

Anonymous said...

great post, as always, and right on target for today, inauguration day.

Anonymous said...

I can't help but wonder, reading about Gladwell's model-based on Lareau's research-as presented on Daddy Dialectic, if this is as much a sign of the times as an insight into the laws of social dynamics.

I say that because I'm always bumping into peers who were raised in the 70s and 80s and who are astounded at how much busier and more programmed kids are today. Will they be more successful as a result, or do they simply have to work harder to preserve their advantages? I was raised by two professional parents, one of whom was an academic, and yet I spent loads of time playing in the drainage ditch and doing unsupervised things with firecrackers. Now, I'm not famous or rich, but moderately happy, and so consider myself to be, therefore, loosely, "successful."

The working class natural model seems fairly static to me, and sort of goes against the (perhaps equally stereotypical) notion of immigrant striving and elbow sharpening in crowded tenements that led to so many stories from the 30s and 40s of people meeting someone who knew someone who landed them a job at the city newspaper desk, the bank, driving a truck for a furniture company, and next thing you know they are editors of the Tribune or a major import-export company or CEO of Lehman Bros (RIP).

It seems like half the story is a function of reduced opportunities across the board, which allow less play for chance, in which case the meticulous grooming that is so striking among educated middle class families becomes both more conspicuous and more decisive.

Random thoughts from someone who was formerly known on this blog as chicago pop.

Jeremy Adam Smith said...

These are all wonderfully thoughtful responses. Not even sure where to begin in my own reply.

To Backpacking and Bookish Dads, and Alex: I zeroed in on the Lareau section because it resonated with my own experience, but Gladwell's case is much more complex than this one example suggests (he is, by the way, guilty of reductionism, but I think his argument still works). Outliers emerge in all sorts of circumstances, there's no formula; Gladwell devotes an entire chapter to how so many disadvantaged, working-class Jewish immigrants in NYC emerged as cultural, legal, and financial powerhouses by the middle of the 20th century. Talent, sure; hard work, of course; but that talent and hard work might have gone to waste without various accidents of economy and demography.

Fruits of our neighbors: Sure, I agree one shouldn't use one's kids as a political statement. If Liko doesn't get into a suitable public school, we'll seek another arrangement.

But promoting homeschooling as a solution to failing schools is a social and political activity, and I've seen homeschooling hitched up to quite a few political agendas. The one with which I'm most familiar is the conservative argument that the Christian family should be the cornerstone of society and the economy; this view promotes homeschooling as an alternative to secular, cosmopolitan, scientific education.

I'm not saying that you are in that camp; I know that parents bring many agendas and motivations to homeschooling, and that for many families, it's the perfect solution. You just won't see me promoting it as an alternative for our society; my personal activism (such as it is, these days) is dedicated to fixing public schools.

Anonymous said...

I haven't read Gladwell's book, so I don't know what he says about "how so many disadvantaged, working-class Jewish immigrants in NYC emerged as cultural, legal, and financial powerhouses by the middle of the 20th century." But I can say that my grandparents were precisely such disadvantaged working-class Jewish immigrants in NYC, and I think there was a critical public investment that was the key to my family's moving from working class to upper-middle class - my grandfather was able to attend City College for free. That propelled him to a career as a lawyer and an accountant, quite a journey from where he otherwise would have stayed, working in his parents' bakery on the Lower East Side.

So while there certainly was some bootstrap-pulling, without that decision to invest public dollars in free higher education, a good chunk of a generation of immigrants would not have had that social and economic mobility.

The GI Bill did much the same thing for returning soldiers (at least white soldiers) after WWII.

A useful object lesson for our times and for the new administration. Not to make this crudely about politics or anything. :-)

Jeremy Adam Smith said...

Oh, yes, those factors are critical to Gladwell's argument; the story you tell is one he tells in the book. And I think that's one of the reasons why I like this book much better than his others--it really contains a very progressive message about why and how to create opportunity for all, but he delivers it using the most mainstream, business-book language imaginable.

Daisy Deadhead said...

Your post makes me want to sing a few verses of L'Internationale... some of us consider this "entitlement" the problem, not the solution. Certainly, it is nothing to ENCOURAGE, as you seem so happy to do.

Sending these spoiled kids to the countryside, as Chairman Mao would have done, doesn't seem like a half-bad idea. Let them ask some questions of the commune director, and see what happens.

This, writes Lareau, produced children who were more independent and better behaved, but also (paradoxically?) more passive, especially in the face of authority.

If they are working class, their parents have wordlessly communicated to them the necessity of being passive in the face of authority... this likely had little to do with the style of their upbringing. This is a matter of self-preservation if one is working class or minority and an important lesson that MUST be learned for survival.

murderous world of applying for kindergarten in San Francisco

APPLYING for KINDERGARTEN? That's just gross.

(((Takes out Lenin, starts reading)))

I guess it's beyond the pale to ask why public (or cheap parochial) school is out of the question? Just wondered: why do you call yourself "egalitarian" in your self-description, when you are proudly raising your child to be an elitist snob?

One type of education is GETTING ALONG WITH PEOPLE NOT LIKE YOURSELF, and I notice the privileged white kids from the highfalutin private schools don't usually know how to do that when you take them out of their overprotected element. Isn't that an education you'd like your child to get, too? (Or have you already planned on your child living an overprotected, gated-community life?)

There, says my friend, there is no parent involvement, no reporting, very little structure, and no enrichment. The parents drop the kids off, they play for much of the day, and the parents pick them up. This is more akin to daycare, not preschool, which is the more common arrangement for working parents.

Aside from the Mickey Mouse tattling every time the kid took a fart, I would say this is a mostly matter of nomenclature... my kid came home from her non-enrichment day care knowing all about the latest country, gospel and hip-hop music. Just because something isn't helpfully tagged "enrichment" by the elitist-powers-that-be, doesn't mean it isn't. My gringo grandchild in Texas is learning to speak Spanish in daycare, from the workers there... is that "enrichment"--or does it need to have photos of her holding up Spanish words for it to officially count?

There is nothing worse than a super-precious rich kid that has been hovered-over their whole life, and has therefore developed NO boundaries ... thus believing their inner life and every wayward thought is as interesting to everyone else as it is to them.

On the other hand, feeling guilty about one’s privilege is not helpful; your guilty feelings don’t make one damn bit of difference for low-income families.

Well, that conveniently leaves you off the hook for your snobbery, doesn't it?

FTR, I do agree with you that 1) homeschooling en masse is a bad idea, and 2) let's hope our new president does a good job dealing with these inequalities... although I don't think he'll break up the snob-education racket and send the kids to the countryside to farm, as Mao did. Too bad!

When kids grow up with the sense of entitlement that you are describing, the only thing that will wake them up is when they become adults and are roundly hated by most working class people (still the majority in the USA)...then they MIGHT get a clue.

Then again, you write this classist stuff with nary a hint of embarrassment, so I dunno...

(((sings second and third verses)))

Anonymous said...

Daisy, you totally misread that post.

Anonymous said...

Is it time to play "More Left Than Thou"? Because I forgot my copy of Das Kapital. It's around here somewhere....oh, right, here it is, right under "Goodnight Moon" and "The Very Hungry Caterpillar." Hmmm. Boy, this looks hard to read. I think I'll just hum L'Internationale instead.

chicago pop said...

let's hope our new president does a good job dealing with these inequalities... although I don't think he'll break up the snob-education racket and send the kids to the countryside to farm, as Mao did.

I suspect that the number of people in China who would not approve of this neo-Maoist approach might slightly outnumber the number of American "working class people" who "roundly hate" the snob-education racket.

Anyone can opt-out of the education arms race if they so chose, but the facts are that educational attainment links to earning power, and also drives the innovation that generates the national wealth that then gives a society the option to redistribute it in ways that might improve education systems for all.

Concentration camps don't have that benefit, as the Chinese have figured out.

Unknown said...

N.B. It's actually concerted cultivation, not concerned. As in it's about the effort this form of cultivation entails.

Anonymous said...

There are also those of us who would like to be the kind of parents who send their kid to enrichment classes but live in places where there aren't any.

Jeremy Adam Smith said...

MissLaura: You're right! It seems I mistyped once and the error replicated itself throughout. I fixed it.

lee665 said...

Although I, too, have often succumbed to the pressure placed on middle class parents, I tend to agree with Daisy. Concerted cultivation ultimately produces selfish, self-absorbed adults who are out of touch with most of humanity. Perhaps they are or will be materially successful. But in the long run it is hard to believe that they can create anything of value. Too much parental coddling, and control and manipulation of the environment cannot be conducive to raising children who develop imagination, character, and empathy for others. I shudder to think what the world will be like if these "concertedly cultivated" kids grow up to be the leaders of tomorrow!