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Gladwell on Rankings: 'Flimsy'

For those of you who don't subscribe to the New Yorker (mock exasperation here, as if that was an even on option among us well educated Cornell alumni...) be sure to pick up the most recent issue, which features an excellent take-down on the college rankings racket by Malcolm Gladwell.

Because Gladwell is beloved by the intelligentsia and prestige whores the world over, there's the possibility that this might knock some sense into those who find themselves beholden to rankings -- especially those who find their value as a human being tied up in those numbers -- but in truth the article will probably do nothing else but help to cement Gladwell's reputation for being able to sell himself for very lucrative corporate speaking events.

Nevertheless, the basic thesis of Gladwell's article -- that the rankings are largely meaningless and tell you little to nothing about the value of the educational experience that any given school provides -- should be of no surprise to longtime readers of MetaEzra. While I haven't covered the topic of rankings in recent years, a trip back down memory lane shows that we find the rankings to be arbitrary and only worth as much as the value other people put in them.

The money quote from Gladwell:

There's no direct way to measure the quality of an institution - how well a college manages to inform, inspire, and challenge its students. So the U.S. News algorithm relies instead on proxies for quality - and the proxies for educational quality turn out to be flimsy at best.

I'm an on-again, off-again Gladwell fan. I was thrilled when I first read his The Tipping Point and Blink, but soon came around to the view that the world does not work nearly as cleanly as his quaint little models suggested, no matter how good of a writer he is. At the same time, I felt Outliers was a fantastic expose on just how much randomness and events far beyond our control impact life outcomes that we like to pretend we control.

But in the end, people listen to Gladwell for the same reason that people follow the college rankings -- because other people are doing the same thing. Just look at myself -- I have happened to read every Gladwell book and nearly every article of his, while Moby Dick collects dust on my shelf.

At least we can breathe a sigh of relief that Gladwell got this topic right. Now we just need a few more mavens and connectors...

Matthew Nagowski | Posted on February 15, 2011 (#)

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