Discussing 3 Books

Stanford’s Three Books Authors’ Panel last night was a terrific experience. The authors were engaging and surprisingly honest and humble in responding to students. The students asked thoughtful questions, and were clearly excited that one of their initial Stanford experiences involved a panel of world-class authors speaking just to them, and answering their questions. I was worried that media darling Malcolm Gladwell would get the lion’s share of attention, but the conversation was pretty evenly split among Gladwell, Abraham Verghese, and Lan Samantha Chan. Verghese and Gladwell did get more direct questions, but Chang often chimed in anyway with her experiences and insight.

I had the privilege of co-facilitating one of the dorm discussions that followed the panel, and had a great time continuing the discussion of the books with the students of Soto, and my wonderful colleague and co-facilitator Kelly Myers from the Program in Writing and Rhetoric.

The students were especially eager to continue discussing the Gladwell book. They were nearly unanimous in their dislike of the book and their frustration with what they saw as Gladwell’s refusal to recognize the role of individual effort and merit in success. I have my own criticisms of Gladwell’s book and of including it in Stanford’s Three Books, but the students convinced me that the Gladwell book may not have been a great choice for an entirely different reason. Basically, the kids noted that they had spent the last 24 hours being told by everyone from the University President on down that they were special and should be very proud of their achievements and their selection for Stanford. Then they hear from Gladwell, whose main thesis is that successful people “are invariably 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.”

These kids felt like Gladwell was raining on their parade, and telling them that they didn’t really do much to earn their spot at Stanford– they were just lucky. Even I am willing to admit that Gladwell’s book is more nuanced than that, but I can certainly see why kids would be especially resistant to the ideas in Outliers during their first week at Stanford.

Another interesting observation was that the kids had the least to say about Lan Samantha Chang’s novella & short story collection Hunger, and that many of the kids who did comment on it said it was the hardest to relate to. I was surprised that it was harder for them to relate to than Verghese’s story of treating AIDs patients in Tennessee in the 1980s. Usually, Stanford picks three works of fiction for it’s Three Books program, but this year it was the two non-fiction books that drew the most comments and questions from students.

I was so impressed with the kids in Soto dorm. They were eager to discuss the books, thoughtful and diverse in their comments, and incredibly considerate and respectful of each other throughout the discussion.

Participating in this event has been the highlight of orientation week for me for the last 3 years. It is a great opportunity to not only meet some of the new students, but also to get a sense of how they think about what they read.

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