How Society Helps the Disadvantaged


The fourth episode of Malcolm Gladwell’s “Revisionist History” podcast series tells the compelling story of a Los Angeles student whom life keeps tripping up despite opportunities such as a scholarship to an “exclusive private school.”  Shockingly (but not surprisingly, from a progressive), Gladwell tilts the story just right to cast a negative reflection on our society.

But whatever you do, don’t call this story “inspirational,” because it’s not.  It’s depressing, because it says that if you live in Lenox and things go awry, you have to have [wealthy benefactors] in your corner and be as tough and single minded and one-in-a-million as Carlos is to make it out.  That’s why the capitalization of talent is such an issue, because these are really long odds.

Considering Carlos’s experience, what ought to be clear is that Gladwell’s focus is entirely misplaced.  Being a radical individualist, he misses the function of family and the importance of time completely.  Simply put, connected advocates are only absolutely necessary if the goal is to get children from nowhere to the top.  We used to understand that the American Dream is intergenerational. The idea that a society must be measured on whether it can rocket people up the ladder as a systemic matter is lunatic.

And that’s the frustrating thing.  I agree with many of Gladwell’s objections and many of his basic suggestions.  I objected, in the past, when President Obama presented “making it” as the government’s enabling you to take a “nothing fancy” vacation “once in a while.”  (Wonder if Gladwell did, too.)  I agree with Gladwell that students have to be enthused about learning and their own intelligence early on, especially in areas in which 80% of boys are gang-affiliated by the eighth grade.

The problem is progressivism. Progressives undermine the family and then insist that a good society would find the gems that still shine. They foment identity politics and proclaim that being studious is “acting white” and moving to the suburbs is “white supremacy” and then condemn a society that can’t bring smart students to the top of the ladder.

Actually, a good society allows families to reach their current potential, allowing the next generation to start from a higher position.

It struck me, in Gladwell’s podcast, that parents are mostly inferred. The hero mentions his mother, but there’s no mention of the father at all. Gladwell’s measure is whether our society can rescue this student from this circumstance, but it should be whether it keeps kids from entering this circumstance in the first place, and then rescuing those who slip through the cracks can truly be inspirational.

Contrast Gladwell’s story of Carlos with David French’s story of Tim.  The two young men face similar challenges, but French fills in the piece that Gladwell omits entirely.  One gets the sense that, for Gladwell, society’s helping means distant people funding generous welfare programs and the ever-growth budgets of public schools and their wishlists.  For French, society helps by building strong families and communities — yes, even church communities.

That’s how we get to the American Dream: We foster a healthy and moral society in which people are free to fall, but others are empowered to help, even if it means they get to promote a worldview with which progressives disagree.  Then, we let individuals and their families work out their own problems and move our entire country forward over time in the process.  Gladwell is right that we shouldn’t rely on rich patrons to save disadvantaged children, but he doesn’t seem to consider the possibility of relying on families, churches, and communities.