Thursday, June 24, 2010

Hockey and the Myth of Meritocracy

I have just finished reading one of the latest additions to our WCSU library, Outliers: The Story of Success. I highly recommend it, especially to anyone who is interested in thinking critically about the process of social order and deeply imbedded cultural legacies and how they are related to social class.

Author and reporter Malcolm Gladwell details the intricacies of several well-known success stories – Bill Gates, The Beatles, John D. Rockefeller, and ultimately, his own – to illustrate how a fortunate series of unlikely opportunities are key to each example’s success.

He is not dismissive of hard work, genius, or talent; he simply makes the case that there is more to success than those elements. To start, he points out that 40 percent of Canadian hockey players were born in January, February and March.

There is nothing about being born in those months that innately makes one a superior hockey player. But when pre-adolescent players begin to be divided up by their ability, the arbitrary, bureaucratically imposed cut-off date of January 1 for age-class hockey gives the oldest players a built-in advantage over those born in October, November or December.

Six or eight months is not much time in the course of an adult’s life. But when we’re considering developing youths, that six-to-eight months is crucial. Gladwell argues that if the cut-off date were May 1, 40 percent of Canadian hockey players would be born in May, June and July and opportunities would be opened to a completely different – yet equally qualified – group of hockey players.

This arbitrary date assignment that has no reflection on ability squanders the talent of countless athletes, Gladwell writes, and gives the older players opportunities that will later have financial rewards – such as college scholarships or the money and celebrity that comes with being a pro hockey player in Canada – partly on account of their birth date.

Later, he argues that simply being born in the right time and place were key parts of the successes of Microsoft founder Bill Gates and oil baron John Rockefeller.

This book is an important addition to the WCSU library because of its insight into social organization and Gladwell’s assertions that there are unseen obstacles and advantages deeply embedded in our systems that affect individuals’ success.

One of our most treasured national narratives as Americans is that of individuals “pulling themselves up by their bootstraps.” This frame allows us to ignore the nuanced experiences of the individual and not acknowledge the benefit and pure luck of being in the right place at the right time. Gladwell uses well-known cases of success stories to convincingly deconstruct the myth of meritocracy.

1 comment:

Ralf said...

I have just finished reading one of the latest additions to our WCSU library, Outliers: The Story of Success. I highly recommend it, especially to ...