Outliers and Alzheimers

Last weekend, I suddenly craved reading some good old-fashioned print books. As the weekend got started, I felt like I really should be doing something besides reading electronic sources, so when we went to the library, I picked up two books– Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell and Still Alice by Lisa Genova. Now, one thought I had was that I would be demonstrating a better habit for my daughter since I would clearly be reading a book instead of staring a computer, but at one point, she grabbed the book I had set down and hid it in the other room, so as far as she is concerned, ipad or book– it’s all media and it distracts from what is truly interesting, ie, her– so I’m not sure this change was well-received.

That aside, both of these books were fast reading and seemingly about very different issues and yet I’m going to stitch together a synopsis that interconnects them. Outliers posits that there is no “self-made” man (and I do think man is appropriate, since the only example of a female success in the book is the author’s mother). The thesis of outliers is that where success occurs, there is someone who is smart, hardworking, and tenacious, but who also just happened to be born at the right place and time for his/her particular brand of success. A slightly more subtle message of the text is that in a lot of cases, if society created rules, systems, and structures that helped level the playing field, there would be even more opportunity for people. In a sense, Gladwell’s thesis about outliers is, in itself, born in the western narrative of meritocracy. If we didn’t have that narrative, there’s no need to refute the idea of being “self-made.”

In contrast, Still Alice is a fiction work written from the perspective of a very accomplished and successful professor who finds herself diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s. One could say that the underlying message of the book is that it doesn’t matter who you are, if Alzheimer’s is in the cards, there will be no escaping its unraveling (at least now, but stay-tuned for medical developments).

If societal zeitgeist is the fodder for the economic success outliers, at the same time, the limits of our health and well-being are connected intricately to our place in space, time, and history. Glance at this infographic of the 10 most amazing inventions of the past 50 years, and there is reason to hope that diseases like cancer or Alzheimers will have cures. But that doesn’t help the one person right now– who doesn’t have access to educational experiences that will tap into their innate skills or who isn’t coached how to advocate for their needs in order to navigate the world or who has a deadly genetic combination that will unravel itself at some biologically predetermined point in time.

What both of these books hold at the center, though, is a real sense of privilege. Outliers is all about privilege– all sorts of privilege– intellectual, social, cultural and historical. How can a book about someone with Alzheimers be about privilege? The main character, a professor, a very intelligent woman, has a supportive family, can speak to medical professionals assertively, can advocate to the medical community for her human dignity. Now, in many ways, the book is also about a loss of privilege and a shift to moving from being independent to NEEDING to depend on others to make one’s way in the world.

I think this is a helpful place to approach learning broadly. When learning, everyone is both privileged and in need of a helping hand, with that balance shifting from moment to moment.

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