Malcolm Gladwell is the best-selling author of Blink, Outliers, and The Tipping Point. I mention him in one of my other posts because he was a proponent of the idea that highly successful individuals have typically put in “10,000 hours of practice.” This summer he inaugurated a new podcast entitled Revisionist History, and that’s exactly what it is.
In one episode (I won’t link it here–it’ll just distract you, and you can google it) entitled “Food Fight,” he said,
“If you’re looking at liberal arts colleges, don’t go to Bowdoin, don’t let your kids go to Bowdoin, don’t let your friends go to Bowdoin, don’t give money to Bowdoin, or to any other school that serves amazing food in its dining hall,” he says. “Atrocious fresh fruit is a small price to pay for social justice.”
“Vassar has terrible food. Bowdoin practically has a Michelin star,” he says. “Why? Because Bowdoin doesn’t spend nearly as much on financial aid as Vassar does.”
As my son likes to say, causation is not correlation. What a bummer when you discover that someone you thought was smart is just an idiot.
My daughter goes to Bowdoin. We are not rich. But we are not poor. And yes, we receive aid. In fact, Bowdoin was more affordable for us than our state flagship university, even after subtracting the big academic scholarship they offered. Bowdoin has only need-based grants. They have needs-blind admission, in fact–very few colleges do. If you are accepted to Bowdoin, they will absolutely find a way for you to attend.
When my daughter was researching colleges, she went on overnight visits at a number of colleges around the northeastern U.S. She’s not a fussy person–most of them had perfectly decent food and accommodations. One of them in particular had pretty terrible food, and she did (reluctantly) cross that one off the list. The problem wasn’t her high standards for food so much as that was probably the only time she has ever been forced to throw away half her meal because it was oversalted and just not edible. In addition, the students at the college admitted to her that they went into town for gourmet pizza on a regular basis. That, she told me, sounded expensive. Yes, I’m sure it is! So in point of fact, the wealthier students at that school eat better than the financial aid recipients who probably have no choice but to use the dining hall because it’s in their aid package. That’s actually kind of disturbing. Did Gladwell look into the possibility that the wealthier Vassar students never eat at the dining hall, ever? If so, is that real “diversity?” Is that “morally” acceptable? That there are different classes of student at Vassar, depending on where you eat? If that doesn’t happen, then that’s great. But I’m dubious.
Yes, it’s wonderful that Bowdoin Dining hall has such magnificent food. It reflects the priorities of the staff that run it. I don’t know if Gladwell knows anything about Maine, but local, sustainable agriculture is a “thing” up there. Great food is not something that only rich people have. The dining hall is self-sustaining; it isn’t funded by the college. Most of the students (over 90 per cent) use the meal plan. They don’t need to resort to expensive off-campus dining. The professors and administration all eat on campus, and they eat with the students. Everyone has access to great meals while at Bowdoin, whether you are paying full freight, whether you are staff, whether you are on full financial aid.
Here is Bowdoin College’s rebuttal:
Just get a load of those snarky “trigger” comments by Gladwell. Really, he sounds like a teenager. So glad he’s having fun with this. Unfortunately, it’s hard for me to take any of his work seriously after this. I agree with Bowdoin that he seems to think the Bowdoin dining program is some kind of glossy marketing plan. It’s not. It’s the way that people live at Bowdoin College. It’s a small school. The school wants to make you physically comfortable because you are going to visit some intellectually uncomfortable places in your four years there. That is their philosophy, and if you don’t like it there are certainly many colleges out there with different approaches to educating young people.
For an in-depth look at whether Gladwell’s argument can possibly make any sense (from a more neutral source than myself, admittedly), Inside Higher Ed did a solid investigation, interviewing a few outside experts and trying to comb through the facts. And still, it’s just hard to connect bad food with superior moral standards! And yes, I thought this even before I gave Gladwell the benefit of the doubt and did some research.
This kind of bad logic is the reason why I send my kids to college at all. I hope Gladwell’s college professors are happy with him. I’d be pretty annoyed if any of my kids had done that podcast, and now I have to look askance at his best-selling books.