Analysis of “Marita’s Bargain,” an Essay by Malcolm Gladwell

“Marita’s Bargain” is an excerpt from Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Outliers: The Story of Success.” The book, and by extension the excerpt, examines success and why some people achieve it and others do not. In this section, Gladwell focuses on the KIPP Academy, a school in the South Bronx that overcomes the adversity inherent in the location and socioeconomic factors that are expected of the schools in the area. Gladwell uses a succinct, to the point style, complete with expert quotes, graphs and a scientific approach, to attempt to dissuade the reader from stereotyping a certain class of student and school as incapable of success and argue for a change in the current education system.

Gladwell pulls the reader into the setting – a bleak, run-down building in a poor neighborhood – through his use of descriptive style. However, that is where the emotional pull ends and the statistics begin. Once he has the reader imagining a decrepit, depressing school that can’t possibly produce anything remotely successful, he starts throwing facts and details in to the story to argue his point. KIPP schools have utilized expert strategies to become a place that is highly sought after by parents and students, and now number over fifty across the country. Gladwell uses data accrued from Western and Eastern learning philosophies to support KIPP’s reasons for success, and instill the seed of a need for a revamping of the educational system into the reader’s mind.

“Education lays the foundation of a large portion of the causes of mental disorder,” wrote early education reformer Edward Jarvis in 1871 in his report “The Relation of Education to Insanity.” Additionally, Gladwell brings in Horace Mann’s claim that working students too hard would result in poor health due to the overstimulation of the mind. Because of these concerns, early education reformers sought to reduce studying time and increase rest time, with the belief that when the mind is rested, it absorbs more. This is how the current educational system in the Western hemisphere operates. Gladwell juxtaposes this belief with that of the Eastern/Asian philosophy, shown using the analogy of the rice paddy – the more the field is used and cultivated, the more fertile it gets. He is able to contrast these two philosophies of education using scientific studies from the Johns Hopkins University analyzing reading scores of students beginning elementary school and coming from different socioeconomic backgrounds. School year gains were totaled and compared to time spent in class versus time spent on summer vacation. To assist the reader in understanding this data, Gladwell inserts charts and tables as well as textual evidence explaining the data uncovered.

Using these studies and analyzing the data shows that students who live in economically poor families actually lose knowledge by lengthy times out of school. The scientific knowledge that Gladwell incorporates into his writing helps explain why the KIPP philosophies of working hard all day, from seven twenty-five a.m. until five p.m., is a strategy that will make their students successful. The emphasis on the results of the data that Gladwell uses assists his goal of helping the reader to understand why something that seems so different and harsh, compared to their background knowledge, is actually a key to success.

Another strategy Gladwell uses to reiterate his point is the application of a true, biographical day in the life of a KIPP student, Marita.

“The story of the miracle school that transforms losers into winners is, of course, all too familiar. It’s the stuff of inspirational books and sentimental Hollywood movies. But the reality of places like KIPP is a good deal less glamorous than that. To get a sense of what 50 to 60 percent more learning time means, listen to the typical day in the life of a KIPP student.”

From here, Gladwell continues his succinct style with Marita’s matter-of-fact version of how she ended up at KIPP and what she goes through each day. Her passage is as straight-forward as Gladwell’s himself. This is how it is, and that’s all there is to it.

“I wake up at five-forty-five a.m. to get a head start. I brush my teeth, shower. I get some breakfast at school, if I am running late. Usually get yelled at because I am taking too long. I meet my friends Diana and Steven at the bus stop, and we get the number one bus.”

Like Gladstone’s writing style, there is nothing emotional to Marita’s explanation of her day. She knows what she is doing is what is necessary to remove herself from her environment when she is able to be on her own. She further explains her intense study habits, lack of sleep, hard work, and loss of friends. None of this is interjected with any attempt at making the reader feel pity, but it occurs anyway because it’s unfathomable for most people to imagine the level of dedication needed to apply the consistency and will that Marita and other students at KIPP regularly exude. This paradigm mirrors the Eastern philosophy of tending and tilling the rice paddies. The more the mind is worked, the more fertile it becomes, and the students are more than okay with this.

Using the success rates of KIPP Academy graduates, as well as the statistics of students on grade level or improved, Gladwell capably exhibits the positive results of the learning strategies delivered by the school. “It will get 84 percent of them up to or above their grade level in mathematics. On the strength of that performance, 90 percent of KIPP students get scholarships to private or parochial high schools instead of having to attend their desultory high schools in the Bronx….more than 80 percent of KIPP graduates will go on to college…” Given these inarguable facts presented in the style Gladwell uses, he is able to comprehensively present the argument for his goal of a consideration for a new education system, and an argument against stereotyping based on environment, without ever stating specifically his intent.

About the author:  Malcolm Timothy Gladwell (born September 3, 1963) is an English-born Canadian journalist, author, and speaker. He has been a staff writer for The New Yorker since 1996. He has written five books, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference (2000), Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking (2005), Outliers: The Story of Success(2008), What the Dog Saw: And Other Adventures (2009), a collection of his journalism, and David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants (2013). All five books were on The New York Times Best Seller list. He is also the host of the podcast Revisionist History.

Gladwell’s books and articles often deal with the unexpected implications of research in the social sciences and make frequent and extended use of academic work, particularly in the areas of sociology, psychology, and social psychology. Gladwell was appointed to the Order of Canada on June 30, 2011.