Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Genes, environment and success

“The Help,” a novel by Kathryn Stockett, and “Outliers,” a nonfiction book by Malcolm Gladwell that he subtitled “the Story of Success,” strikes me as being based on the same premise. That is, genes and environment determine success.
“The Help” chronicles the plight of blacks in the South, specifically Jackson, Mississippi, during the 1960s. The only obstacle to a black’s success was skin color, which, of course, includes genetics and environment. Slavery had been abolished, but the majority of southern whites treated blacks as slaves. Blacks in the North didn’t have such severe restrictions as their southern counterparts although they experienced discrimination as well. Blacks were never given credit for their intelligence and never rated on the same scale. The courage of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., James Meredith, the first black student to enter University of Mississippi, Rosa Parks in Montgomery, Alabama, and the four men who sat at the Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C. helped change blacks’ status in America. However, many whites believed blacks couldn’t achieve the success of whites—simply because their skin color was dark.
In “Outliers” Gladwell tells how children born into an environment with multiple opportunities have a better chance at success. If a child is associated with an accomplished musician, for example, that child has a greater chance of developing an interest in music and becoming a musician. If someone is surrounded by diplomats, that person learns the skills diplomats possess.
Gladwell also gives examples of how those born “at the right time” have a greater chance of success. Consider the cut-off dates for children’s sports’ teams and entrance into school. A child born Sept. 1 when the cut-off date is Aug. 30 has a full year ahead of anyone born Aug. 30. He or she will be bigger, stronger and probably more mature.
What bothers me about Gladwell’s theory is that he doesn’t give credit to people who achieve high goals when they are faced with several disadvantages. Anyone born in the projects, surrounded by poverty, gangs and illiteracy, must work harder to achieve commendable goals, but with dreams and goals in his or her heart, that person can achieve success. Those without supportive parents, teachers or friends, can ignore the negative and set their sights on high goals.
What is unfortunate about Stockett’s story is that it happened and discrimination still exists in America. What is unfortunate about Gladwell’s book is that people may believe him.

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