The Podcast Footnote is a blog where members of H-Podcast review podcasts of interest to the academic community.
Malcolm Gladwell’s newest project, the podcast Revisionist History, follows the author’s well-known formula of weaving narratives and anecdotes toward an easily digestible takeaway. The podcast’s first season is composed of ten episodes that were released weekly throughout the summer of 2016. Each of the approximately forty-minute episodes is available at http://revisionisthistory.com. The podcast meanders from topic to topic, touching subjects as far-ranging as the Vietnam War, women in politics, university funding, and basketball. For those acquainted with Gladwell’s writing, the author’s editorial voice and style will feel familiar.
Gladwell premise is simple: we are bad historians, we fail to properly understand the past. Perhaps we are, but even as the podcast touches on historical topics from time to time, Gladwell is far more interested in using that history as a set piece to explore wide-ranging topics set firmly in the present. His goal appears not to create exhaustive an reexamination of the evidence to make a new historical argument, but rather to propose alternative ways of thinking about contemporary issues. Of course, this is not a particularly historical endeavor, a fact laid bare by Gladwell’s consistent failure to historicize his subjects (a failure Allison Miller eloquently outlines in her recent review of the same podcast). History can, of course, inform the way we think about the world around us. The trouble here is that precisely the opposite is the case.
Image source: Wikimedia Commons
Nonetheless, it is clear from the outset that Gladwell is interested in topics familiar to historians – memory and perspective. Gladwell summarizes our mnemonic problem: “Something happens. We see it, watch it, remember it, file it away. But then if you look back at what you filed away, closely, you discover it’s all wrong.” Revisionist History is a meditation on memory in the present; memory that Gladwell contends has collectively failed us.
For example, the season’s eighth episode, “Blame Game,” implores us to reconsider the 2009 “unintended acceleration” phenomenon that resulted in Toyota recalling millions of vehicles. Gladwell argues the best evidence suggests there is no problem with malfunctioning vehicles, but rather that human error is almost universally to blame. Our collective failure to understand this, Gladwell contends, is not merely of academic interest, but actively endangers drivers. If you are wondering why a podcast that calls itself Revisionist History seems intent upon giving driving advice, even good driving advice, then you too have hit upon one of the podcast’s central attributes, its rather eclectic and often only nominally historical subject matter.
“Sometimes the past deserves a second chance”
The podcast’s first episode, “The Lady Vanishes,” draws a connection between Elizabeth Thompson’s nineteenth-century painting The Roll Call (below) and the difficulty women face in sustaining hard-won cultural and political gains. The painting was a stunning success, but it was a one-off. Gladwell’s premise is that such an unlikely success gives people the license to ignore the problem.
The Roll Call (1874). Image Source: Wikimedia Commons
As a more recent example, Gladwell cites Julia Gillard’s tenure as Australian Prime Minister - a success, but a one-off. Not only did Australia revert back to its habit of having male prime ministers, Gillard’s time in the position was fraught with misogynistic attacks. Fair enough, but Gladwell’s leap from nineteenth-century painter to twenty-first-century politician is made uncritically. He simply fails to historicize The Roll Call, taking nearly for granted that the aforementioned events are of an identifiably similar type and character despite the vast gulf in time and space that separates them. For Gladwell, both are evidence of the same problematic tendency to reinforce the status quo in the very moment it is being broken. Gladwell goes a step further by hitching his argument to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential candidacy, arguing that we had already by the summer begun to fall into this trap by failing to recognize her run’s significance. The point is well taken, and I appreciated his having pointed out what was at least a small blind spot of my own. However, while Gladwell’s desire to impart this particular wisdom in his audience is commendable, his treatment of the subject matter does not do that wisdom - let alone the subject matter itself - justice.
In the second episode Gladwell turns his attention to our memory of the Vietnam War. “Saigon, 1965” reexamines a 1960s Pentagon project designed to gauge the likelihood of a North Vietnamese surrender. The episode revolves around three conversations with people tasked with analyzing the project's data, among them Konrad Kellen, who insisted the data showed that the war could not be won. Gladwell seems most at home - and the podcast is at its strongest - during his interviews with such figures. It is not surprising. Gladwell thrives on interesting stories and interesting people, and Kellen fits the mold. Furthermore, Kellen’s testimony does in fact add interesting context to the historical record. Gladwell is hardly the first to unearth Kellen's story, but it nonetheless is a valuable record of intellectual dissent from within and is likely novel to his general listening audience.
Rather than pause and reflect on this point, Gladwell throws lines of meaningless praise at Kellen like “if you took the absolute best of nineteenth-century Central Europe and put it in a time machine that opened its doors in 1960s Southern California, that would be Kellen.” What might have been an opportunity to historicize both Kellen and his topic instead gives way to a throwaway line meant to give Kellen a vague mystique intended to draw in the audience. Unfortunately, historians are likely to be unimpressed and everyone else left without a substantially better understanding of the history. Gladwell is preoccupied with leading his audience towards his conclusion – that our tendency to listen to positions that affirm our own prevent us from hearing those that contradict us, sometimes with disastrous consequences. As before, fair enough, but he again fails to meaningfully engage with the history he claims as evidence.
Gladwell abandons his historical premise entirely in a three-episode vignette on the accessibility of higher education. Over the course of the three episodes he stakes out a position for which many of those reading this review will likely feel affinity – university educations are often too expensive and the universities themselves are not doing enough to make education accessible to everyone. The topic has animated Gladwell recently:
Even with $23 billion in the bank, Princeton has not lost sight of its educational mission. So good to see. pic.twitter.com/xiYxOEYJeC— Malcolm Gladwell (@Gladwell) August 24, 2016
“Food Fight” may be the season’s most controversial episode. In this second of three episodes on education, Gladwell takes aim at Bowdoin College for its extravagant food and dining options. Gladwell takes this as evidence that Bowdoin places higher importance on offering amenities that attract the most well-off students rather than devoting itself to maximizing the institution’s contribution to the public good. Gladwell directly contrasts Bowdoin to Vassar College and concludes that Vassar’s devotion to aid rather than amenity is not just an academically, but a morally superior approach to running an institution of higher learning. Gladwell even states in no uncertain terms: “don’t go to Bowdoin. Don’t let your kids go to Bowdoin.” The episode prompted a heated response from Bowdoin, in which the college’s administration defended its record of need-based financial aid.
Bowdoin's rebuttal was not merely aimed at the episode’s content, but the way Gladwell engaged the college:
Rather than seeking to learn about Bowdoin’s financial aid practices, our record of supporting first-generation college students, and providing financial aid to both low-income and middle-income families, Gladwell and his producer focused only on Bowdoin’s food in a manner that was disingenuous, dishonest, and manipulative. Their only questions were about food and were directed at dining service staff and students, not the president, not the chief financial officer, not the dean of admissions, and not anyone else. Where were the questions for Bowdoin about student aid, institutional values, Bowdoin’s commitment to low-income AND middle-income families, etc., etc.
Gladwell justifies his argument based on the the New York Times' 2015 College Access Index, which ranks Bowdoin the fifty-first and Vassar the eighth most accessible institutions. Regardless of one’s feeling about Gladwell’s conclusion that elite colleges like Bowdoin choose amenity over accessibility, it is in this episode that his methodology mostly clearly fails him. His use of narrative, historical or otherwise, is first and foremost a vehicle for the lesson he wants his listener to take away. “Food Fight’s” message of education as a public good is of such desperate importance to him that he delivers his lines with righteous indignation and frames his narrative in a way seemingly designed to elicit outrage in his listeners. Such conviction would not be a problem had his methodology been treated with equal vigor.
Image Source: Wikimedia Commons
Had Gladwell wanted to devote an episode to the financial aid offered by elite liberal arts institutions like Bowdoin, he certainly could have done so while engaging in a more direct conversation. (To Gladwell’s credit, he does more directly engage with his targets in his episode on educational philanthropy “My Little Hundred Million”) Instead, the college’s food services are used to weave a just-so story about the exclusionary tendencies of elite institutions. By insisting on using an attention-grabbing topic like lavish food service, Gladwell risks sensationalizing his topic rather than critically reexamining it – the stated goal of the podcast – and in the process mischaracterizes the very real problems that do exist for low-income students trying to attend college. The episode is evidence that even when Gladwell is willing to outright abandon his ostensibly historical framing in favor of a contemporary one, his lack of a clear, rigorous, and self-critical methodology for examining his narratives tragically weakens the important arguments that he wants to make. In this case, Gladwell fails to make a credible, casual connection between Bowdoin's food service and its accessibility and makes little attempt to understand Bowdoin's perspective. The narratives are compelling and the conclusions are thought-provoking, but they fall short of being revelatory due to Gladwell’s haphazard approach.
Gladwell ends the short introduction to the new series with a whimsical assertion: “We’re fine with the future. The future is in our imagination and we can be as upbeat or excited or delusional as we want about it. The past is where the truth lies.” Yet, Revisionist History is grounded most firmly in the present. It is in the podcast’s failure to truly historicize and contextualize its narratives that its weakness is most clearly apparent. Had Gladwell been more rigorous he would have engaged his listeners with both more compelling history and more convincing arguments. Nonetheless, it is in his focus on the present that Gladwell makes his most worthwhile points. Gladwell does present interesting arguments for his listeners to consider throughout the first season of Revisionist History, but they are firmly rooted in the present and ultimately obscured, rather than clarified, by his slapdash treatment of the past.