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  • Gladwell and Minister Harney

    April 28, 2010 @ 11:55 pm | by Bryan

    I really like Malcolm Gladwell. I had the privilege of listening to him speak when UCD hosted the writer a little over a year ago. On that occasion, he even kindly answered a question I put before him as he signed my copy of Outliers. Days later, while reading the book, I remember disagreeing with something he had written (the first and only time that I’ve seriously disagreed with Gladwell). Mixed in with stories about Mozart, Steve Jobs, and Korean pilots, while defending his 10 000 hour thesis, Gladwell makes the case for charter schools.

    Charter schools seem to me to be a particularly American solution to poverty. A testimony to the mastery of the market, they demonstrate what can be accomplished given the right incentives. Typically, inner-city American children fall behind their better-off cohorts academically. The root problem is that social issues keep these children from devoting as much time to their studies as others. Charter schools therefore start early in the morning and end late in the day. They also offer shorter vacations since they aim to keep their pupils in active learning for as long as possible. The idea is that if these children are in school for a sufficient period of time, they will cover as much ground as children in better social circumstances and will therefore be more likely to succeed academically. And they do just that, making the schools very popular in poor areas, despite being almost cruelly taxing on their pupils.

    I don’t like the idea of charter schools. An old paediatrician once called me a bleeding heart liberal, but on this issue, I think we would agree. Charter schools, in my opinion, treat the symptom rather than the underlying pathology. If poverty is the issue, I don’t see how allowing a few to keep up academically can be thought of as anything but a temporary bandage. Reading Gladwell hold up this bandage as a potential solution makes me more than a little uncomfortable.

    That same feeling was evoked in me by the minister for health, who wrote:

    …The critical question is how we use all resources, particularly public resources, to help people stay healthy and to get best outcomes for patients from healthcare…

    …It’s a critical question for all developed countries because the hospitalisation model of healthcare is financially unsustainable…

    …I invite people to recognise that it’s more important how money is spent than how it is raised from the public…

    …Our policy is equity of access to publicly-funded health services. We are open to using all providers who meet quality and value for money standards to contribute to public services…

    A comparison between Gladwell and Minister Harney isn’t quite fair. I generally tend to agree with the former while I mostly disagree with the latter. I just don’t share her faith in the market. Gladwell believes in charter schools because he believes that if you spend long enough at something (10 000 hours), you’ll do well at it given some aptitude. Minister Harney on the other hand, from what I can gather, believes in the market.

    But even before we get to the question of service delivery, an important question must be answered. What does ‘equity of access to publicly-funded health services’ mean? We can even simplify that. What is equity? Does it mean that people get what they pay for, such that those who are willing to pay extra are entitled to more or better or faster services? Does it mean that absolutely no distinctions should be drawn between patients, so that regardless of one’s ability to pay, or how expensive one’s treatment may be, each will be treated ‘equally’? Or does it mean that each citizen will be allocated a fixed sum of money, health credits so to speak, and will be entitled only to their fair share such that when those credits run out, they are no longer eligible for state health services? Or that the state’s health services will be structured so as to serve the greatest number; meaning that those whose ailments are expensive to treat will have to access their healthcare elsewhere?

    And what about the suggestion that ‘the hospitalisation model of healthcare is financially unsustainable’? Isn’t it only unsustainable if one holds to a certain set of values? The Cubans (I know, this example is well worn now), seem to value healthcare above modern consumer goods. I imagine that the idea that the hospitalisation model is unsustainable, on a budget of €15 billion, when far greater sums can be found to prop up the financial services sector, would make no sense to them.

    Doesn’t the question of what is or isn’t financially sustainable then really rest on what we take as our foundational principles? Isn’t the same true of what we mean by the word ‘equitable’?

    I suppose what worries me most about the minister’s article isn’t so much the matter of our ideological differences, or my fear that, as Dr Christine O’Malley suggested on radio today, the subtext is a desire to privatise health. No, the real worry for me is that we make Gladwell’s mistake and fight over which bandage to apply rather than engaging in debate over the real underlying issue. What are our views on justice? What does equity look like? Who should get what and why?

    The only way €15 billion isn’t enough to sustain the health of less than 5 million people is when there is an attempt to throw money at the issue instead of directly addressing those difficult core issues.

  • Changing culture

    June 23, 2009 @ 11:15 am | by Bryan

    In an opinion piece titled Our calls for reform fail to blame our basic culture, Elaine Byrne writes:

    Prof Coakley spoke about the paradox of Irish political culture. Irish Independence signalled the overt rejection of British influence in Ireland, yet we accepted British models of government as our own.
    Are our institutions more appropriate to the egalitarian organisation typical of Protestantism, which gave them birth, and less suited to the hierarchical disposition of Catholicism, which inhabits them?

    I’ve often wondered about the same thing with respect to sub-Saharan African countries. For example, having rejected colonialism, nascent African states decided to reaffirm uti possidetis juris, the principle of international law stating that newly formed states should maintain their previous borders. The same artificial borders that were the result of a negotiated settlement in Europe at which some grumpy old men carved up the continent with a pencil and ruler. It didn’t end there. Former French colonies tend to have institutions that resemble those in France. British colonies likewise, down to strikingly similar ceremonies for the opening of parliament.

    At a talk he gave in Dublin towards the end of last year, Malcolm Gladwell suggested that there are times when culture needs to change to function in today’s systems. That evening he gave the example of South Korean pilots needing to learn to put behind their deferential culture at work in order to fly airplanes safely. In his book, Outliers, Gladwell also writes about the struggles poor inner-city children must go through to attend charter schools. His suggestion seems to be that rather than expecting reform of the education system, the culture of the poor must change if they are to have a hope of breaking the poverty cycle.

    On the surface, that seems reasonable, but is it? How reasonable or realistic is it to expect tectonic shifts in culture? Wouldn’t it be a lot simpler to change our institutions so that they conform to their cultural context? Or would that require more imagination and courage than we are comfortable with?

  • African dream

    December 2, 2008 @ 10:17 pm | by Bryan

    I’ve been toying with the idea of writing a book for a while. Spending time in a remote village in the middle of Connemara (that has no internet access) with a group of both successful and aspiring writers has really inspired me. That, and I think I’ve gone from just wanting to having hair like Malcolm Gladwell’s to wanting his career as well. So, even though its probably not the wisest thing in the world, I’m going to share a little about my book with you, despite the fact that it is still just an idea.

    I am going to write about the African dream. Normally, when people say ‘Africa’, a deep seated scepticism rises within me. Africa is such a big, diverse place that broad generalisations about the continent or its inhabitants are almost bound to be seriously flawed. So in one respect, there is no such thing as an African dream. Having said that, I think there is a set of aspirations that is common to most people the world over. If you live in most parts of Africa, some of those aspirations translate into a desire to migrate physically as well as socio-economically. That may mean moving from the country to the city, from a rough neighbourhood to a better one, or from one country to another.

    I think that desire to migrate forms the basis of an ‘African dream’ that has not been articulated nearly as well or as formally as the ‘American dream’ for example. There is an interesting way in which people all over the world are the same because they are people, but are different because of cultural and historical reasons. I wonder if anything demonstrates this dichotomy as well as our aspirations? An Irish friend recently remarked to me that he wondered how well native Irish people know or understand the people who now live in their midst.The desire to combat and prevent racism, as well as the drive for integration rightly emphasises our similarities. More and more these days, I also want to celebrate ore differences.

  • Outliers

    November 28, 2008 @ 9:00 am | by Bryan

    Malcolm Gladwell

    Malcolm Gladwell. Photo: Ed Schipul from Houston, TX, US

    Malcolm Gladwell, author of the best selling books Blink and The Tipping Point, gave a lecture at UCD last night. It was a fantastic event and was definitely worth the trip from Galway. He spoke about a topic in his new book, Outliers.

    I haven’t read his latest book yet, but based on the talk, it is a discussion on culture. For example, some cultures are more hierarchical than others and that can have serious implications for certain tasks, like flying an aeroplane, as was discussed last night. Gladwell’s main point was that each culture has its strengths and weaknesses, and if these are honestly discussed, there is scope for a lot of cross cultural learning.

    I’m looking forward to reading the book. Like Gladwell, I don’t think enough attention is given to cultural differences. It is as though there is an assumption that there is this overarching global culture and the ideal is for everyone to conform to that. In fact, the only point at which I was uncomfortable during the lecture was when I felt Gladwell wasn’t too far away from implying that there should be some degree of uniformity. In fairness, he stressed the beauty that’s there in cultural diversity. I wish he had spent some time on the importance of cultural differences in maintaining identity.

    When all is said and done, it was an incredible event. It was the best public speaking I have come across in person. And it was very nice to be able to speak to the author for a few moments and get my book signed. All in all, it was a wonderful event and UCD did an incredible job of putting it together.

  • Implicit association?

    September 15, 2008 @ 9:00 am | by Bryan

    Fr John Achebe Fr John Achebe

    I first came across the Implicit Association Test (IAT) in Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink. In very simple terms, it is an online test that is being run by a research department at Harvard that can measure things like how you view race, sex and other things. The test is based on the premise that people associate certain charecteristics with particular ideas. So on the race association test, for exmple, you are challenged on how strongly you associate words like ‘bad’ with black or white people.

    I was reminded of the IAT when I came across this story. A Nigerian priest who was trying to enter Ireland to visit a relative was denied entry because immigration officials became suspicious of his reason for entering the state. He was strip searched and put in prison, and was only released when the Nigerian Ambassador intervened.

    It’s impossible to know exactly how the officials who arrested this Catholic priests made their decision. I wonder though how much of it was down to a stereotype of Nigerians. I wonder if at some level, there was not a beleif that this Nigerian priest was less trustworthy than an American, Brazillian or South African one.

    What bothers me most is thinking about the outrage and protest there would be were an Irish Catholic priest arrested by Nigerian immigration officials, stripped in font of four prisoners in a jail cell, and left there overnight. It frustrates me that the rules are completely different depending on which part of the world you were born. Irish priests can go to Nigeria without the fear of being unduly suspected of criminality but the reverse is not true?

    The frightening thing is that this happened to a respected, well connected person. How many such incidents happen to people who are not a phone call away from an ambassador?


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