“Best” over “Better.” Gifted vs. Special Needs Children.

In his exchange with Bill Simmons at ESPN.com, Malcolm Gladwell writes:

I wonder if there isn't something particularly American in the preference for "best" over "better" strategies. I might be pushing things here. But both the U.S. health-care system and the U.S. educational system are exclusively "best" strategies: They excel at furthering the opportunities of those at the very top end. But they aren't nearly as interested in moving people from the middle of the pack to somewhere nearer the front.

The universities in the U.S. are the best in the world, but they are not very accessible to the lower class both financially and culturally. The universities in Europe, by contrast, are good not great, yet they are accessible to all. In some places, like Switzerland, you need only be a citizen to attend any university in the country. Universities throughout Europe are often free (entirely government subsidized).

Put crudely, America’s the place for the best grad students to become even better, while leaving behind swaths of its own people. Europe’s the place for the vast swaths of average grad students to become above average. (I know, I know, there are exceptions.)

Consider a related education question: Should we cut programs for gifted children before cutting programs for disabled children? Are special needs kids’ more important budget-wise than programs for gifted kids? The answer seems to be yes. Public funding supports the guy who’s in 6th grade and reading at a 3rd grade level more than the guy who’s in 3rd grade and doing math at an 8th grade level.

Governments assume some obligation to look after the guy who lost the ovarian lottery. Individuals don’t have a similar duty.

Myself, I’m more interested in helping 7’s become 8’s (on a 10 point scale) than helping 3’s become 6’s. I’d rather have a smaller impact on a very talented person than help an illiterate person learn how to read. The self-interested explanation for this is that it’s more stimulating to me to work with someone who’s talented. The altruistic explanation is that some gifted people will use their gifts to help all of mankind. Think science and innovation: imagine the good that would accrue to all people if we cultivate and support the next Einstein versus helping the D student do a bit better on his chemistry homework.

Most philanthropy favors helping poor people become less poor (I mean “poor” in the broadest terms). The MacArthur genius grants are a notable exception – they are given to individuals who are already at the top of their game and enables them to get even better. Unfortunately, the MacArthur model is rare.

Bottom Line: Which is more important: helping the best get better or helping the average get better? Should our educational and philanthropy priorities always favor the disadvantaged over the advantaged? Is there something particularly American about its preference for “best” (over “most”) in both education and healthcare?

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