After giving a short lecture in a packed auditorium at New Roads School, Malcolm Gladwell was asked to share advice for navigating the education system.

“Stop worrying about grades,” he said, drawing raucous cheers before altering his statement slightly. “Well, stop worrying so much about grades.”

The bestselling author wasn’t pandering for applause, although his recommendation certainly seemed to resonate with the scores of students in attendance. Rather, his guidance was a small part of his broad examination of educational goals, metrics and philosophies in the U.S. and abroad.

Gladwell, who was recently in town for the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, stopped at the local private school Monday as part of a recently established speaker series that aims to provoke thought, discussion and action among students.

His talk focused on what he sees as a flawed approach in how high school students decide where to go to college, arguing that a university’s perceived prestige weighs too heavily.

Gladwell likened the process to the one facing Impressionist artists in mid-19th-century France, where a sanctioned jury determined which paintings were displayed in public.

“(The Impressionists) keep getting turned down — everyone thought their work as weird and ugly,” he said. “They’re getting more and more frustrated, and they begin to raise the question, ‘Maybe we should give up on the Salon — why don’t we have our own show?’ They were very aware of the compromise. They were going to turn their back on the most prestigious and exclusive and famous institution in the art world. But, in exchange, it would allow them to do what they love … to follow their own heart.

“That choice they faced between doing their own thing … or trying to make it in the big pond — it’s a similar choice that all of you face when you think about where to go to college.”

Gladwell, who attended a college in the University of Toronto system, brings a unique background to the discussion. He said his high school in Canada was not academically rigorous and that he “applied for college in five minutes” by simply ranking campuses in order of preference.

Drawing on the sociological theory of relative deprivation, which he discusses in his latest book, “David and Goliath,” Gladwell argued that superficial judgments of certain schools prevent healthy learning. He said he believes it’s more beneficial to be in an environment that inspires confidence than to be surrounded by highly gifted students.

“You shouldn’t go to the most exclusive, best, most prestigious school,” he said. “You should go to the school where you think you can succeed. It’s a very different way of answering the question of, ‘Where should I go to college?’ We get seduced by prestige. That’s the wrong way to think about it.”

Gladwell underscored his point with a thought experiment.

“Imagine a world where you could never tell anyone the name of the college you attended, nor could anyone ever ask you,” he said. “You’d be free to go to whatever school you want to go to, but the whole idea of someone asking you ‘Where did you go?’ and making a judgment on the basis of that was off the table. When you thought about which college you wanted to attend, would that change your decision? I think it would make a big difference.”

Contact Jeff Goodman at 310-573-8351, or on Twitter.

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