Tipping Points and Higher Education

Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point is now fifteen years old. It has weathered financial crises, dramatic innovation in technology and science, and the inevitable backlash that accompanies success. For a while, it was what everyone talked about. You found it in airport bookstores and on magazine covers. The book was, in many ways, a tipping point for Gladwell’s career. He is now a perennial best-selling author. Reading Tipping Point today is still worthwhile. Gladwell’s ideas, prose and arguments hold up surprisingly well.

What Gladwell does effortlessly in the book is spell out a positive description of change. He may discuss the spread of diseases, but his heart is with innovation and progress. The thrust of the book is the spread of change. Reading it recently had me thinking about academia and change.

A brief refresher – Gladwell is interested in the moment when an idea, action or thought hits critical mass and becomes widely adopted and popular. He mines social science and popular culture for examples, like the sudden resurgent stylishness of Hush Puppy shoes. Gladwell explains how explosive popularity takes place through a rule of all epidemics. These, he argues, rest on three concepts: the law of the few, stickiness, and context.Tipping Point

The law of the few means that big things happen because of relatively few people. However, they are special people and they have to interact in the right combination. Connectors are people with extraordinarily high degrees of sociability. They know everyone. Mavens are essential. They are people who know a great about a particular topic and are keen on sharing. Salesmen are people with extraordinary persuasive skills. Collectively, connectors, mavens and salesmen are the forces behind most popular quickly emerging trends.

Complimenting their presence is the concept of “stickiness.” We may think of it as a website that keeps viewers engaged. In Gladwell’s book, it is mostly about the concept that remains with viewers. He cites Sesame Street and Blues Clues as very sticky television shows for children. What holds a viewer and what does a viewer remember?

Context is the last critical factor identified by Gladwell. Everything, of course, exists in context. What Gladwell has in mind is the power of a particular context to contribute to the stickiness of an idea (and the power of the message). He offers Bernard Goetz’s shooting of four African American males in the New York City subway as an example. The violent act was understood and repeated through a context of “subway as unsafe” – and it rendered the event with a particular meaning. Another contextual observation is that groups of about 150 are the maximum size to build and sustain effective teams.

Sound familiar? You have probably encountered it in one format or another relatively recently. You may have been asked to participate in a survey or given a gift: companies are always on the lookout for connectors or mavens. The front office personnel at the next hotel you visit may have been trained using Gladwell’s book. Ironically enough, even though the concepts behind the book emerged from academic social science, there is little evidence that higher education has embraced the Tipping Point. In fact, a quick Google of “tipping point” and “higher education” and you are more likely to read about the higher education having passed a “tipping point” and is now in crisis.

Is higher education all that conservative? Despite the difficulty of change, innovation is constantly taking place in academia. Look closely enough and you can find plentiful signs of change. We follow trends and once an education concept reaches a tipping point, nearly everyone does it. Our patterns tend to be isomorphic. In other words, we move in the same direction and gravitate towards looking alike. For example, take a common reading for first year students. Twenty years ago they were rare. Today most colleges promote them in one form or another.

What higher education lacks is a robust and persuasive positive narrative and message about change. Change is more consistently framed as struggle and imposition. The verbs associated with higher education and change tend to be about resistance: weathering budget cuts, fighting back, protecting, trimming, and holding on. We rarely champion ongoing change, and as a consequence, we have convinced the public or legislatures that we are all that interested in innovation. We may have Change Magazine (a publication of higher learning), but we do not have our own Malcolm Gladwell.

David Potash

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