Sand is Sand, Water is Water

As I grew up, I had a different interpretation to an analogy that I once had much faith in. The analogy was that education is like an attempt to shake a bottle half filled with sand and half with water so that the state of the water being on top and the sand being at the bottom is completely changed. As I matured, I began to see that it is just an illusion. As certain as the blended contents of the bottle will return to the pre-shaken state after some time, the social equality that education is supposed to bring about through giving people an equal chance to develop their knowledge and skills does not really materialise. The fact that success is much more assured for some people with advantages beyond their own merits suggests to me that education is not a level playing field I used to take it to be.

Malcolm Gladwell’s new book “Outliers” challenges the commonly held belief that success is a matter of meritocracy. His central argument is this: “We do owe something to parentage and patronage. The people who stand before kings may look like they did it all by themselves. But in fact they are invarably the beneficiaries of hidden advantages and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies that allow them to learn and work hard and make sense of the world in ways others cannot.”

“Outliers” gives a dazzling description of these advantages, opportunities and legacies. One of the most distressing revelations is that the only factor that accounts for the difference between how successful children of the same mental ability are in their adulthood is their family background. And what is it about family background that gives children from the middle or upper class such an edge? It is the parenting style that the sociologist Annette Lareau called “concerted cultivation”, which is an attempt to actively “foster and assess a child’s talents, opinions and skills”. Gladwell says that this parenting style has the following enormous advantages:

“The heavily scheduled middle-class child is exposed to a constantly shifting set of experiences. She learns teamwork and how to cope in highly structured settings. She is taught how to interact comfortably with adults, and to speak up when she needs to.”

Under this family environment, middle or upper class children learn what Lareau called a sense of “entitlement”. They learn to “customise” whatever environment they are in for their best purposes.

By contrast, poor parents tend to adopt a strategy of “accomplishment of natural growth”, letting their children grow and develop on their own. The outcome is that the children do not know how to get their way, and develop “an emerging sense of distance, distrust and constraint”. Such limitations are crippling as these poor children navigate their way into adulthood and result in their lack of success.

What do they lack? According to Gladwell, it is a community around them that prepare them properly for the world. Their talent is squandered, but that doesn’t need to be the case.

These days, on my way to work early in the morning, I can see some middle aged men crouching on the pavement near my office building. It is easy to tell from their style and gait that they are construction workers waiting for some odd jobs to earn them a bit of income for the day. Hearing their conversation that is often coloured by rude words, seeing some of them give the well-groomed passers-by a blank stare, I can’t help wondering how much the difference between the conditions of these low income earners and the more glamorous office workers can be attributed to the differences in family background that “Outliers” talks about.

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