Gladwell sets the stage for showing why and how underdogs and misfits so often win, even against giants, with a fresh look at the David and Goliath story. “All these years, we’ve been telling these kinds of stories wrong. ‘David and Goliath’ is about getting them right,” he promises grandiosely.
What did we miss about the showdown in the Elah Valley 3,000 years ago? Fascinating stuff, it turns out. For starters, Goliath’s enormous size is now attributed to acromegaly, a benign pituitary tumor that can also cause double vision. This is why Goliath needed to fight David close-up, in hand-to-hand combat. David was perceived as a puny, unarmed shepherd, but in fact he was a projectile warrior, unencumbered by heavy armor and able to substitute speed and surprise for strength — and catch Goliath off-guard with his skillfully deployed slingshot. The moral of the story: “The powerful and the strong are not always what they seem.”
Similarly, with the story behind a famous photograph of the civil rights movement — a black teenager being attacked by a police dog in Birmingham, Ala., in 1963 — Gladwell demonstrates that the weak are not always what they seem, either. In fact, as he learned — largely from Diane McWhorter’s “magnificent history” “Carry Me Home” — the 15-year-old in the picture was a spectator, not a demonstrator, and knew his way around dogs. Closer scrutiny of the photograph, which stirred such outrage when it made front pages across the country, reveals that the boy, far from being helplessly resigned, had just kicked the dog and broken its jaw. But that’s only the tail of the story: Civil rights organizer Wyatt Walker was looking for publicity-worthy confrontations, and Gladwell explains how he tricked the local authorities into confusing bystanders with demonstrators to heighten the sense of alarm.
Cutting giants down to size is a recurrent, deliberately heartening theme in “David and Goliath.” Gladwell examines why the Nazi blitz of London failed to demoralize Londoners as expected, why the over-harsh English army failed to prevail against Catholics in Northern Ireland and why the Three Strikes law in California turned out to be counterproductive.
He is less convincing when he chips away at elite schools and especially when he shifts from the descriptive to the prescriptive in educational matters — with recommendations on class sizes, college choices and affirmative action. He laments the billions spent on what he describes as a teacher-hiring binge misguidedly aimed at reducing class sizes, and he derides an elite boarding school’s Last Supper-size classes. Citing statistics and inverted-U-curve relationships, he argues that, below the optimal 18 students, smaller classes produce negative returns and shrink “diversity in thought and experience.” He ignores or dismisses numerous issues, including teacher workloads, behavior problems and smaller groups fomenting greater student participation.