The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

March 20, 2019

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The Reality of the American Dream
James Pontuso - 04/27/09
young male graduate with diploma

Real Education: Four Simple Truths for Bringing America's Schools Back to Reality by Charles Murray. New York: Crown Forum, 2008. Hardcover $24.95

I. Murray’s Case Against the Current Educational System

Charles Murray, W. H. Brady Scholar at The American Enterprise Institute, is one of the most controversial public intellectuals in the United States. Murray’s Losing Ground: American Social Policy 1950–1980 (1984) punctured conventional wisdom by arguing that many welfare-state programs were hurting the very people they were intended to help. The fall-out over Losing Ground paled in comparison to the response to The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life (with Richard J. Herrnstein, 1994), which attacked the ruling liberal assumptions about poverty, race, gender, and achievement. Murray and Herrnstein pointed to the quite common-sense fact that abilities vary, and that if those differences were charted on a graph, they would resemble a bell curve. The authors were accused of racism, chauvinism, xenophobia, elitism, misrepresentation, and outright fraud for avoiding studies that contradicted or questioned their conclusions.

Real Education may not be as controversial as Murray’s previous works, but only because he has been so vilified by liberal intellectuals that his views are no longer taken seriously. Because he was roundly criticized for using I. Q. as the determinant of potential achievement, Real Education employs other methods of measuring different sorts of ability: 1) bodily kinesthetic intelligence—physical skills; 2) musical intelligence—just what it implies; 3) interpersonal intelligence—interacting with others; 4) intrapersonal intelligence—knowing one’s strengths and weaknesses; 5) spatial intelligence—visualizing and manipulating objects; 6) logical mathematical intelligence—understanding mathematics; 7) linguistic intelligence—comprehending and using language.

Again, common sense and experience indicate that people’s capacities along these vectors will vary widely. Little in Murray’s analysis is particularly contentious, but his conclusions and resulting policy recommendations are. Murray argues that most of the differences between people derive from innate abilities dictated by their genes, while his critics argue that biology is not determinative. People’s social environment (class, ethnicity, race, region and particular school), they believe, counts more than their DNA, and inequalities can be overcome by creating appropriate educational programs. For example, some studies have shown that smaller class size and strong peer expectations raise math and verbal skills in elementary and junior high students.

The four simple truths of this book fly in the face of much contemporary belief about education and equal opportunity. Murray argues that ability varies, half the children are below average, too many people are going to college, and America’s future depends on how we educate the academically gifted.

Since Murray’s truths are based on accepting genetic and thus unchangeable differences between people, his recommendations are both populist and elitist at the same time. For young people with good dexterity and spatial acuity but low math and language skills he recommends avoiding the diploma trap and learning one of the trades, such as electrician, carpenter, or plumber. He advises making vocational training a real option, not an educational track shunned by guidance counselors and belittled by American society. After all, he argues, when students do what they are good at, they are more likely to succeed. Succeed they will, for careers in the trades often pay better than professions that require a college degree.

On the other hand, Murray believes children gifted with the talents usually associated with scholastic and professional success should be given all the educational support needed to advance as far as they can. They should not be held back by qualms about social equality or fears of elitism. They should be nurtured in a sense like the guardians in Plato’s Republic—as future leaders of the nation. In college they should be required to study mathematics, science, literature, religion, composition, history, political science, and economics—the core that has traditionally constituted higher education. They must be expected to become culturally literate and forced to ponder the most difficult questions of existence.

Too often in today’s job market, Murray points out, businesses use the BA to screen employees for entry-level positions. But are all students capable of benefitting from a college education? Murray insists that far too many unprepared students enter college. Almost half are incapable of doing college-level work and drop out. They must then undertake the task of training in a technical skill—perhaps at a junior college—or they will be shunted into low paying and low prestige jobs. For these people, a certificate—such as is required of auditors—would be more useful for society. If certificates instead of a bachelor’s degree became the entry-level requirement for employment, high schools, junior colleges, and on-line universities would begin to train students for competence in the various trades. The educational system would more accurately reflect the diversity and variety of students’ abilities.

Murray complains that most people who attend college learn little or nothing. Students use the time to socialize and have fun. Although they are required to major in a discipline, they really have no particular course of study and instead shop around for easy classes with easy professors. While science faculty are still quite challenging—which is why most students avoid taking science courses—Murray claims professors in the humanities and social sciences too often merely amuse students by attacking or ridiculing authority; with passionate but implausible calls for social reform; or by ironic deconstruction of the great texts of civilization. Since most such academics are anti-foundationalists who insist that all standards of judgment are arbitrary, grade inflation is inevitable.

Murray argues that the educational establishment is wasting time and resources by designing the system to accommodate the unsuited, thereby making real education too easy and uninspiring for the most talented.

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