Malcolm Gladwell Likes Bad Food and Is Wrong About Bowdoin

Education

The longtime New Yorker writer butchered his takedown of the Polar Bears’ cafeteria. Here’s how.

Every fall, a week before Thanksgiving, Bowdoin College throws a holiday feast. When I was a student there, my friends and I always arrived early, before the line backed up past the door, so we could load up on all the turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, peas, squash, and mashed potatoes a cafeteria tray could hold. Then we’d sit, eat, argue, joke, grab seconds, visit other tables, and eventually slip into food comas. Now I’m six years an alum, and that tradition remains a fond memory, try as Malcolm Gladwell has to tarnish it.

Gladwell, a New Yorker writer and bestselling pop-sci author, recently took on Bowdoin in an episode of his Revisionist History podcast about college costs and campus food. “Don’t go to Bowdoin,” he entreated. “Don’t let your kids go to Bowdoin. Don’t let your friends go to Bowdoin.” Why? In typical Gladwellian bombast: “Every choice we make, even if it’s the right choice at that moment, has larger consequences, some of them unexpected and paradoxical.” In plainspeak: Bowdoin spends too much on dining and too little on financial aid — and by enrolling, students endorse amenities over affordability.

Bowdoin’s food, therefore, is a “moral problem” — fightin’ words on a liberal arts campus, but Gladwell doesn’t back them up. Higher ed costs too much, yes, but Gladwell’s attack relies on sketchy assumptions about the relationship between tuition assistance and campus chow. Bowdoin has the country’s second-best college dining service, says the Princeton Review, and it comes in 51st of 179 schools on a New York Times ranking of accessibility for low-income students. New York’s Vassar College, Gladwell’s arbitrary point of comparison, has a reputation for inedible gruel but places eighth on the same accessibility list. And so, Gladwell infers, good food and good financial aid must be mutually exclusive.

He is, however, wrong. Consider that Princeton Review rates Bowdoin’s aid program among the best in the country, along with its food services — and the same goes for schools like Bates and Vanderbilt. Moreover, Bowdoin is a strange target for public shaming. In the Times accessibility ranking, the college still lands in the top third, ahead of Dartmouth, Swarthmore, Colby, Bates, Cornell, and many other top private schools.

An eggplant parmesan pancake especially offended Gladwell, never mind that he wasn’t there to try one.

What’s more, Gladwell didn’t even swing by the Bowdoin caf; he dispatched a producer to grab sound bites from the campus chef and a few students. From that investigative effort, we learn about things like the contents of a salad bar (complete with toppings, fresh fruit, and — gasp! —soup). Meanwhile, the Vassar president got ample airtime to frame her school’s lousy food (stir-fry with a stray industrial staple in it, anyone?) as a moral imperative. Balance is sometimes catch-as-catch-can, but geez.

An eggplant parmesan pancake at Bowdoin especially offended Gladwell, never mind that he wasn’t there to try one. “This is completely absurd,” he intoned, hackles up. “This is everything that’s wrong with American colleges.” Really, though? Is an eggplant parmesan pancake even expensive? Gladwell doesn’t say and probably doesn’t know. Sure, it sounds like it came from the Whole Foods freezer aisle, but we’re talking about a vegetable, cheese, and tomato sauce — not exactly an entrée at the Four Seasons. Plus, Gladwell punts on seemingly key metrics — say, the cost per meal per student at Bowdoin versus Vassar. Maybe he couldn’t get those numbers. Maybe he ignored them.

Gladwell — who went to the University of Toronto and probably eats poutine with Kraft singles — capped his fetishizing of bad food by talking to a Vassar student, Amanda, who called her college fare “pasty” and “atrocious.” “You get the minimum meal plan and you can eat out,” she said. “It’s not a big deal.” Maybe not a big deal for Amanda, but eating out requires dough. Should low-income kids settle for subpar cafeteria junk while their better-off peers escape to Hudson Valley farm-to-table joints? That, I’d say, is a moral problem.

Gladwell concedes (blithely, right in the middle of the podcast) that he “grossly oversimplified matters.” In fact, he got matters wrong. Egregiously wrong. So, don’t listen to Malcolm Gladwell. Don’t let your kids listen to Malcolm Gladwell. Don’t let you friends listen to Malcolm Gladwell. And if you happen to be in Brunswick the Thursday before Thanksgiving, check out the killer meal that Bowdoin puts on. I’ll be there, tray piled extra high this year.

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Will Grunewald

Will Grunewald is Down East's associate editor.