Big Fishes, Small Fishes, and Ponds of Various Sizes: Thinking About Academic Rigor

Malcolm Gladwell’s new book, “David and Goliath,” is about the hidden disadvantages in things traditionally regarded as advantages and the hidden advantages in things traditionally regarded as disadvantages. It’s a down-is-up, up-is-down approach to the goals society props up as desirable. You know, it’s the hidden second part of the phrase that comes after “an ivy league education is not for everyone.” 

We’ve all heard some variation of this before. It’s supposed to be inclusive and understanding of the fact that not everyone was born with an ivy league mind. Sometimes it’s followed with an affirmation that, yes, learning a trade like plumbing or carpentry is just fine. But that’s not the truth. Because the hidden second part to “an ivy league education is not for everyone” is that “everyone should want an ivy league education.” It’s the idea that you may not have been first in line when God passed out the brainy DNA, but that’s OK – you can still lead a perfectly adequate and, in your own way, meaningful life. Don’t despair that you won’t cure cancer or be the next Steve Jobs. You’re a unique snowflake in your own way – just not as smart of a unique snowflake as those snowflakes that get into Harvard.

The funny thing is that I don’t think everyone should aspire to attend an ivy league college. And yet … were the president of Harvard to walk up to me tomorrow and say, “hey, I watched the way you ordered that Starbucks grande Pike Place with room for cream – I think you’re Harvard material. You can have a full-ride and study any graduate program you want.” – would I not seriously consider this? Yes, I know, it’s ridiculous. But put that aside and interject whatever scenario that makes sense. The president of Harvard offers you a full-ride to study whatever you want. What would you do? I know what I would do. I would quit my job and go. 

And the question is why. Why on Earth would I even consider doing that? I love my job. Absolutely love it. I teach at an innovative school with some of the most talented staff and most creative, thoughtful students I’ve ever been around. So why would I throw all of that away? The (depressing) reality: because it’s Harvard. 

But I don’t think I’m alone. As a teacher in the classroom I have watched students and parents obsess to the point of compulsion over getting into the “best” college. Parents express this idea when they say, in effect, “my child doesn’t have an A in your class – what are you going to do to fix this?” Students express this idea every time they take an AP course in a subject they’re not interested. Of course, you don’t have to be a classroom teacher to know that things have gotten a little out of control. Just go on a college campus tour sometime with prospective students and parents and watch the looks of anticipation and anxiety wash over some of the faces, like a child on Christmas morning excited to open his present and get what he wants, yet nervous if he opens the box only to find it’s something different. 

The funny thing is that none of it should matter. Each school offers a unique experience and the yearly school rankings just don’t capture the full extent of each school’s advantages and disadvantages. In his latest book, Gladwell has made a compelling argument that a little fish in a big pond experience is not necessarily in the best interest of the student. “The Big Pond,” says Gladwell, “takes really bright students and demoralizes them… It’s the Little Pond that maximizes your chances to do whatever you want.” 

The advantage of an ivy league education is that it’s so competitive. That’s great for the small percentage of students who rise to the top in that environment, but not so great for everyone else. And it turns out that the disadvantage of an ivy league education is the exact same thing – that it’s so competitive. For the majority of students who fail to rise to the top, argues Gladwell, there is little statistical advantage for attending an ivy league school over attending a quality state school, even though that state school doesn’t have the same prestige as an ivy league school. 

Intuitively, this makes sense. In ultra-competitive environments the difference between the winners and the losers is very small. It must be this way because it ultra-competitive environments all the participants are immensely talented. As a society we have spent too much time thinking about the talent of individuals and not enough time thinking about the effect of an environment on those individuals. We forget that environments with more competition will create risk averse students because the difference between winning and losing is so small. 

How much innovation can happen in a risk averse environment? I don’t think it’s insignificant that some of our most innovative minds – people like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates – chose to drop out of college in order to pursue their own path. They chose a risk-taking path rather than the safe, risk averse path. It turns out that one of the things those top schools couldn’t offer them was teaching how to take a chance. That lesson had to come from someplace else. 

The main idea from Gladwell’s new book is that better isn’t better – it’s just different. Each experience offers its own unique opportunities and challenges. Thinking about things in this way can expand our mental horizons and help us make better choices. Something in mind the next time you’re waiting in line at Starbucks and the president of Harvard walks up and offers you a free-ride if you quit your job.


One thought on “Big Fishes, Small Fishes, and Ponds of Various Sizes: Thinking About Academic Rigor

  1. I enjoy what you guys tend to be up too. This sort of clever work and reporting!

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    personal blogroll.

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