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Review: Malcolm Gladwell’s new podcast raises serious questions about higher education

On June 16, Malcolm Gladwell, bestselling author of “The Tipping Point,” released the first episode of his weekly podcast “Revisionist History.” The series, which tops iTunes charts, explores a person, event, or idea from the past and reinterprets each topic in a new light. Since its debut, Gladwell has covered Wilt Chamberlain’s brick free throws, a secret research project conducted by the Pentagon in Vietnam, and a forgotten female painter who was once renowned in 19th century England.

As with anything Gladwell touches, the podcast changes the listener’s perspective and inspires him to adapt to a new way of thinking. The most recent episodes, however, go beyond adaptive thinking and operate as a comprehensive thesis for America’s corrupt education system.

Carlos Doesn’t Remember
Food Fight
My Little Hundred Million

Throughout episodes four, five, and six — labeled, in order, “Carlos Doesn’t Remember,” “Food Fight,” and “My Little Hundred Million”— Gladwell examines everything from Ivy League philanthropy to poor high schoolers in Lenox, and asks listeners whether upward mobility is possible via American higher education. Behind each story lies fascinating interviews with college administrators and alarming statistics that may cause listeners to shout an audible “What!?” in the middle of their podcast session. While the catchy music certainly lightens the mood, Gladwell investigates serious issues within our education system that require utmost attention.

One of the topics that resonated with me personally was brought forth during episode five, “Food Fight.” In the middle of the episode, Gladwell points out that schools like Bowdoin College in Maine, who spend money on fresh lobster bakes and homemade peanut butter in the dining hall, rank significantly lower on the New York Times College Access Index—a measure of 180 colleges based on their economic diversity—compared to schools like New York’s Vassar College, who allocate a large portion of their budget toward student grants. Why does this matter? Because a school like Vassar, which ranks a stellar No. 8 on the College Access Index, enables more students from lower-income backgrounds to attend college and receive an education.

Vassar College, which ranks No. 8 on the NYT College Access Index

As a soon-to-be college freshman, I cannot stress the importance of the College Access Index enough. In the fall, I will be attending the University of California, Irvine—the school that ranks No. 1 on this index—and am very grateful for the financial aid the school has provided me.

Just last week, I visited UC Irvine’s campus for its new student orientation and met tens of students who were as reliant on financial aid as I am. In between socializing at the dorms, for example, one of the resident advisors asked, “Who would NOT be here if it weren’t for financial aid?” Over two-thirds of the room raised their hands. Schools like UC Irvine and Vassar go out of their way to ensure that college remains a right, not a privilege. And it is thanks to these schools that we can move closer towards equal-access education for all.

Which brings us back to Gladwell’s question: As the current education system stands, is upward mobility achievable in America? Achievable, yes—as seen by the large numbers of students who take advantage of the affordable educations offered by the UC Irvines and Vassars of the world. But widely achievable? No, at least not as widely as it should be. The truth is, not enough of these aid-driven institutions exist. And as Gladwell explains, they could exist if colleges like Bowdoin shifted their focus from providing luxury dining to helping a more diverse set of students earn a Bachelor’s degree.

UC Irvine, which ranks No. 1 on the NYT College Access Index

Supporting institutions that provide sufficient financial aid is only one of the many ideas Gladwell brings up throughout his three-part miniseries, and I encourage everyone to listen to “Revisionist History” in its entirety—especially those who are embarking on their college application journey. Whether it’s through Stanford President John Hennessey’s claim that, if he had a large sum of money to either add to Stanford’s $22.2 billion endowment or donate to the financially troubled UC schools, the UC system would not “use my money well” (Episode 6), or the Ivy League’s inability to recruit the 35,000 lower-middle class students who score in the 90th percentile on the SAT each year (Episode 4), the podcast brings up insightful information I wish I would have known while touring college campuses two years ago.

Give Gladwell’s podcast a listen because, as he will come to show you, the newly built on-campus Starbucks and renovated gym facilities represent something much deeper than the artificial excitement portrayed by backward-walking college tour guides.

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