First-year students offer strong opinions on summer reading

August 24, 2009

In Room G-7 at Academic Hall, the discussion about “Outliers,” Malcolm Gladwell's “story of success,” prompted cries of foul as the consensus was that the book, in offering examples that focused on professional accomplishments, too narrowly defined success as being tied to tangible achievements.

“For me, success is about whether I’m happy in what I’m doing,” one freshman said. “Success in this book was about your job, money and whether you make a name for yourself.”

One floor above, students in Computer Science Professor Sara Miner More’s group echoed their thoughts – success can’t be generalized or stereotyped. Success, they agreed, is happiness and job satisfaction and fulfilling personal goals.

“I know what I want. I know what my standards are – and that’s success for me,” one student said, many of her classmates nodding in agreement.

In 29 discussion groups of about 15 students each, McDaniel’s freshmen exercised their critical thinking skills by offering opinions of Gladwell’s messages in his bestselling book, “Outliers.” Many did not agree with the bestselling author’s measure of success. Some were outraged that too few women were included in Gladwell’s book. Some even thought Gladwell did not support his theories with either pertinent or complete data. A few did not like his writing style.

But, summer reading isn’t about boos or applause – it doesn’t even matter if these brand new McDaniel students agree or disagree with Gladwell’s theories. At a college where the emphasis is on learning how, not what, to think, the purpose of summer reading is to provide fertile ground for discussion, for debate, for what sometimes are first steps into thinking critically and creatively.

In the group led by Skip Fennell, professor of Education and past president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, who hosted Outliers author Malcolm Gladwell at its 2008 annual conference, several students agreed with classmates who felt Gladwell had narrowly defined success as the attainment of wealth.

One student said, “Success as monetary is not the whole part. Success is being happy with what you do.”

Regardless, students agreed with Gladwell that individuals with the highest intelligence are often unhappy and not successful by most definitions. “I remember taking an IQ test,” said one student. “The questions don’t deal with things in everyday life, “ she added.

Tom Zirpoli, professor in Special Education, added that “IQ is measuring what is on the test and different countries have different IQ tests.”

Students rated opportunity more than genius as a determinant in achievement. And the freshmen said their teachers were important in inspiring learning and instilling goals. The majority of hands shot up when asked if teachers have influenced their decisions to select a field of study.

”My phys. ed. teacher let me intern for a whole semester, and I learned how much fun it was and even got to teach a few classes with her,” said a student. “It’s why I want to major in the subject now.”

Fennell did manage to debunk the belief that some individuals possess a “math gene,” not even among Asians who are top-ranked in the international math and science tests.

“There’s no such thing,” he said.

A soon-to-be math major agreed. “I’ve always been good at math, but like it too. Friends who sought my help in high school just didn’t care about it.”

Many agreed that the people in Gladwell’s book had seized opportunities to achieve great things in the eyes of society, but in the end success isn’t something one can measure in dollars and cents. Gladwell’s book, they argued, offered no suggestion that any of the people in his book were actually happy.

And happiness, the students declared, counts for a lot more than their checkbook balances.

Many agreed that it’s about spending your days doing what you enjoy – personally and professionally – and being your personal best at whatever that is.

“It’s about reaching your personal goes and being personally fulfilled,” one student said.