Saturday, February 19, 2011

Gladwell's Comparisons

Malcolm Gladwell has taken an unfortunate turn in his recent writing toward long-winded and only superficially appropriate analogies: there was the juxtaposition of figuring out what makes a good teacher and the difficulties in drafting a QB; there was the ludicrous comparison of football to dog-fighting, which served only to obscure the important health issue he was addressing; and now, in his latest piece for The New Yorker, we have the comparison between rankings in the suicide rate in different nations (which can be altered by different cultural views toward suicide and different practices by the coroner's office) and rankings of different universities.

This latest comparison went on and on, yet Gladwell totally ignored the basic difference between the two: suicide, while sometimes hard to pin down, is, or at least can be, an objective act. Some people do mean to kill themselves. Quality in education, however, is inherently subjective. That is a significant difference, though it wouldn't have mattered so much if Gladwell hadn't spent hundreds of words on the analogy, and used it as the leaping-off point for everything that follows.

Indeed, all of these comparisons might merit a line in passing, along the lines of, "Much as scouts struggle to pinpoint the source of a QB's greatness, school boards have a hard time identifying great teachers ahead of time." However, he spends hundreds upon hundreds of words lost on the far side of the analogy, which is ostensibly not the focus of the article and is only included to better illustrate the topic at hand: challenges in teacher selection, brain injuries in football, and the arbitrariness of college rankings, respecitively. He dwells on the comparisons, all of which are very easy to understand without any deep explanation, with such insistence that you begin to question his common sense and basic judgment, which, needless to say, is not something an author shoots for from a reader.

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