This book was a lot of fun to read. It reminded me of Freakonomics and Predictably Irrational - a fun, light romp through the social sciences. He's not a researcher himself; he just cherry-picks a variety of fascinating anecdotes to illustrate his points, but it makes for great reading and fodder for discussion.
The author's basic premise is that our American conception of our fair, meritocratic society, in which anyone with inborn talent who's willing to work hard can succeed, is inaccurate. In fact, success is a result of all kinds of environmental factors, such as your ethnic background, your birthdate, your family's socioeconomic status, your language, being in the right place at the right time, etc. That shouldn't come as much of a surprise, but his story-telling skills are superb, and I really enjoyed it.
One of the examples that especially interested me was about language and math. The author states that part of the reason that Chinese students do better at math than their English speaking counterparts is that their math-related language is more logical. I remember, back when I was learning some Cantonese, how easy it was to count. First, you said the #s 1 through 10, then you said essentially: ten-one, ten-two, ten-three, etc. Then the twenties were two-ten, two-ten-one, two-ten-two, and so on. The way they speak about fractions is clearer, too, according to the author. This helps kids get a basic foundation early on; math seems more transparent and understandable. In English, we have words like twelve and twenty, which sound a little like the number two, but the relationship between the numbers is not obvious from the names of the numbers. At least it's easier than French, where the number 75 is pronounced like sixty-fifteen, and 92 is four-twenty-twelve. What a crazy language! (Though I love it!)
As someone who loves math, and kids, and teaching, and especially teaching kids math, this was a really interesting idea. How can we talk about math in a way that makes it clearer? The concepts are so beautifully logical themselves, but our ways of speaking about it are not. John Holt talks about how frustrating it is for kids to listen to us (adults) speak in illogical and contradictory ways, and then we treat the kids like they're the dumb ones for not understanding us. :-) I really, really love John Holt. And yes, now I'm on quite a tangent.
So back on topic - I recommend this book, for some fun and thought-provoking reading.