Sunday, September 29, 2019

Review: Revisionist History, the Podcast

I do a lot of driving. Most of it is in small chunks, so I’ve never really gotten into podcasts, because really, how much can I do with an episode in 10 minutes? On a few longer drives over the summer, I did become acquainted with Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History, a look at “things overlooked and misunderstood.” I took another infrequent long drive last weekend and queued up some more episodes. I’ve now thrown my short-time-period refusal out the car window and have been listening every chance I get, even if it’s just during a quick trip to the corner store. I probably need to stop—I’ve found myself narrating my life with Malcolmite phrasing and Gladwellian pauses. 
My copy of Gladwell's latest, with the bookplate. Only mere mortals sign the actual books.
Just as with his books, Gladwell’s genius lies with drawing conclusions no one else would think of, linking topics that no one else would ever even consider together. Take Season Four, Episode 8, “In a Metal Mood,” where he explains how crooner Pat Boone is like Taco Bell. Yes, you read that correctly. It also addresses Elvis Presley and the heavy metal genius of the band Dio. How do they all link together? I won’t spoil it, but trust me, it’s worth 42 minutes of your time. 
Then there’s season two, episode five, “The Prime Minister and the Prof,” where he argues that Winston Churchill’s policies during World War II helped cause the famine that killed millions in the Bengal region of British India during the war. I’m embarrassed to say I’d never heard of the famine. I’m glad to now have the opportunity to learn about it.
 Sometimes Gladwell does stretch a bit too much. His take on the Boston Tea Party (season 4, episode 3) overshot the mark, and I didn’t buy his conclusion on the Toyota braking scandal (season 1, episode 8) where the brake systems of Toyota models were supposedly failing.
But back to the good stuff. The first season has a staggering three-parter on higher education that’s an absolute must-listen. The middle episode starts off with the cafeteria food at Bowdoin College. It connects the gourmet fare to the exclusive school’s need for full-paying students and contrasts that with Vassar College, which has decided to do the exact opposite—serve standard less-than-stellar dorm food and use the savings to provide academic scholarships. It’s a Catch-22 and Gladwell hammers home the brutal choices that schools are having to do to keep their doors open.
But not all schools. In the last of the three episodes, he talks to the president of Stanford University. Yeah, that Stanford. With its gazillion dollar endowment. Gladwell presses the guy about why his university is taking so much gift money when it doesn’t need it, and when it could be used more effectively (i.e. make much more of a difference) at smaller schools. Here’s the link—a guy named Hank Rowen donated $100 million to Glassboro State University in New Jersey. Which then built an entire engineering school that’s affordable for kids from blue-collar families. Which will get them good-paying jobs in fields that desperately need them. Listen to it if for no other reason than to hear a snooty Stanford guy get taken to task.
My long drive last weekend took me near there—to San Mateo, a city just south of San Francisco—to hear Gladwell speak. He’s on tour for his latest book, Talking to Strangers. The even was sold out at 1,500 people, and this was one of his smaller venues. It was also definitely the closest to the gazillion dollar-endowed Stanford. He said he’d walked around the campus earlier that day and noticed the university’s Center on Poverty and Inequality. He couldn’t resist a crack, saying he was glad to see that Stanford had a sense of humor.
His books are much the same as his podcast, drawing connections and conclusions that others haven’t. He is, as always, not afraid to pass moral judgement. Even if you don’t agree with him, he gives you enough information to form your own opinions. I haven’t had a chance to dig into Talking to Strangers yet, but I’m sure parts of it will fascinate me, parts of it will probably piss me off, and all of it will be worth reading.


scott adlerberg said...

I loved Gladwell's book Outliers. Thanks for this. I'm going to listen to the podcast.

Claire Booth said...

Scott, let me know what you think!

Claire Booth said...

milad, I hope it is useful!