Friday, July 17, 2009

Charles Murray and "Real Education"

Charles Murray's "Real Education" came from the library just when I was writing out that last post. That was timely! If you google "cognitively elite" his name is the one that comes up near the top. I had read several of his articles, rather viscerally disliked them but didn't think I was understanding his points in context. So I had requested Real Education to get a better sense of what he was saying.

I'm sorry that I am publishing two very endless posts in a row. My only excuse is that summer is my "retreat" time to think about education in the big picture. In late summer and fall I get too busy to do this for the most part. And "late summer" is coming soon since next week we are going to visit friends and very soon after that the school year starts for the three of my children who are going to college or high school.

Here are the articles by Charles Murray I had read before, in case you are interested:

I think they are all excerpts from Real Education; reading the whole book did give me a better sense of the argument as a whole.

First, I liked the book much better than I thought I would when I was going through the first chapter or so, when I was strongly tempted to throw it across the room. I have to evaluate the book in 3 sections. I generally disliked the first third, which comprised "Ability Varies" and "Half the Children are Below Average"; qualifiedly agreed with the second section "Too Many People Are Going to College" and rather disagreed again with "America's Future Depends on How We Educate the Academically Gifted." The very last part called "Letting Change Happen" was a brief for vouchers and I absolutely am fine with that but only skimmed it.

Second, I do think that after reading it I have a better idea of what he was saying, and it's not quite as bad as I feared it would be. It seems more confused, as if there were two books in there, like Smeagol and Gollum, perhaps : ). Now for the details.

Murray seems to think that the public school has been co-opted by romantics and that this is the reason that we have programs like "outcome based education" and "No Child Left Behind". So he provides a reality check with the first two chapters in making the case that:

  • Innate intellectual ability varies from person to person.
  • Education doesn't really have much effect on native ability.
  • So educational programs that purport to give children intellectual advantages that are inherently not theirs are romantic and unrealistic.
  • He proposes realism, not romanticism.

The image he uses for this part is the bell curve. Half the children by definition are "below average", and only about 10 percent are "cognitively gifted." You can read more about the bell curve here if you want.

This is where I think he goes off track. In a way it's understandable because apparently, from some things he says later in the book, he is a statistician or at least makes heavy use of statistical research in his studies. In another way it seems astonishingly naive. A bell curve distribution is totally without value reference except comparatively. I am no statistician myself but this simply leaps out. Statistics are limited by their nature and how they are employed.

To illustrate my point, let's suppose another bell curve -- the bottom percentile is 120, just about where he places the cognitive elite line. Now everyone would be capable of the sort of thinking that he says only the top 10 percent can manage at present. Those people would be the new idiots. The curve says nothing about inherent capacity, only depicts comparative capacity.

My point? Unless you think our general school policy of "norming", cutting loose (or expensively catering to) the "below average" and dumbing down (or expensively catering to) the "above average" is already basically OK, then this bell curve thing is only clouding the waters. It presumes by definition what it is supposed to prove.

Once Murray has made the (tautological) case that half of the population is below average, he proceeds to make the point that the "below average" cannot ever learn to do things like read a complex sentence or draw inferences from presented evidence. This is probably true in our present educational system but I am not so convinced it is true by necessity.

As things go now, he points out, the average high school textbook has a sentence length of 13 words. The average "real" book at college level has a sentence length of 26 or more words. When schools only teach secondary-level students how to read 13-word sentences, it stands to reason that the children that have the best chance of reading 26 word sentences with understanding are those who have done this on their own, either because it's part of their family environment or because they have an intense individual interest for some reason, or both. It's certainly possible to argue that bright kids are more likely to have the intellectual drive to read complex literary books or pursue hard math and science outside the school environment. However, as education stands presently it's really impossible to conclude as Murray seems to that the secondary schools are basically running into the outer limits of the average student's ability.

In line with that, he mentions later that SAT math scores went up after bottoming in the 70's, AFTER a concerted federal effort to reform math teaching. The verbal scores stayed down, which he blames on mushy teaching. And here, I agree with him. However, this doesn't contribute to his point that not only is IQ fixed but that it presents certain concrete boundaries in educational sophistication. Why couldn't verbal scores go up if language teaching was better?

In a way, that's a side point, though. I originally thought Murray might be intending to make a case that education should be "tracked" so that the "elite" kids got the educational royal jelly equivalent while the less able ones started worker-bee education from Day One. In fact, he does NOT make this case, and this brings me to the part of the book I largely agreed with. He thinks that all kids deserve a fundamental liberal education. He recommends ED Hirsch Core Knowledge curriculum now well implemented by the K12 program as a national solution to our educational crisis. He puts the Hirsch educational objectives alongside generic state standards in a chart and the comparison does not look good for the state ones.

(A side point: I don't think the Core Knowledge curriculum is a liberal education in itself especially when it's conceived in terms of making the student a more informed citizen-- however, I think it can contribute to liberal goals, particularly if it allows access to more rigorous and excellent literature, which there is some reason to believe it does, as Hirsch points out in Cultural Literacy).

Murray also thinks it's unfair to propose a BA degree as the goal of education and then make it unreachable for 2/3rds of the population, and dumbed down and electivized for the top third. I agree with that.

I think, as he does, that there ought to be a far more vigorous apprenticeship program than there is now (as it stands now, the government actively discourages most apprenticeship opportunities by applying punitive regulations and taxes that make it near impossible for small businesses to manage apprenticeship relationships).

I think that his idea of a certification exam for many skilled professions would make more sense than years of a top-heavy, cumbersome, expensive college education. Occupational therapists need master's degrees now, for instance! This just seems wrong.

I think the university should be detached from the "trade school" and devoted to the rigorous liberal arts.

He makes the point that university campuses are in many ways becoming obsolete because of the new technology. I agree with him to some extent. I also agree that universities have become havens of mediocrity and often party havens where students postpone their maturity process (and don't get me started on some of the elderly juvenile professors).

There was more that I agreed with.

The last part was where I started having trouble again, and once again I pinned it to a faulty image -- this time, the funnel. He pictured a funnel with its point down and cup raised towards the sky.

"For all the seven abilities, education's potential role is shaped like a funnel. For those who have the least ability, education's potential is represented by the narrow end of the funnel, and there's not much room to do anything. As ability rises, the potential role of education expands. For those at the highest level of ability, the width of the funnel is limited only by the breadth of the knowledge available to be taught. The funnel applies to education of all kinds, whether its goal is to teach someone to play basketball, play the violin, draw a pictures, make a sale, meditate, read, or do math."

This was his picture of education, and I think it's a modern one. Nowadays we tend to think of specialization as "true" education and think only the "experts" or specialists really know what they are talking about. All the previous education is preparatory, in that model. So if it's preparatory, and some people are not capable of or willing to reach the heights, it seems to cast into doubt the worthiness of the pursuit from the start.

Murray does not explicitly cast the value of basic education into doubt, as I explained. However, his models of the bell curve and the upwards funnel are essentially part of our educational problem, and can have nothing to do with the solution.

He proposes evaluating and tracking children by IQ measurements from day one. He does NOT then propose putting them into academic tracks based on their results. However, by implication this would be the next step, and even if he does not recommend it or think it advisable, I think this opens the door for the nasty kind of eugenic social planning that was such a strong force in the original decay of our educational system.

As for the funnel -- everyone up till fairly recent times thought of the funnel as being the other direction-- narrow at the top, broad at the bottom. Or perhaps, a mountain like Parnassus is a better image than a funnel. Everyone is glorious and capacious by virtue merely of being human (and this was not thought of as being romantic but philosophically realistic). The bell curve should not compare human to human -- and if it sought to compare humans to the rest of living things, the difference between the least intelligent human and the most intelligent animal would be one of kind, not degree. That's the only humanistic way to approach the matter, and it avoids the short-sighted naivete of the other sort of bell curve.

To get back to Parnassus or the funnel with the broad part on the bottom. Every human by virtue of being human has access to the most important parts of education from day one. ... those most important parts being to ask for and receive nurture from their intimate associatons, and give back according to their capacity. The vast bulk of essential education never has to be taught explicitly. Statistical science accords with that when it says that a large percentage of a child's knowledge is already in place by the time he enters kindergarten. With the exponentially increased access to knowledge that our society possesses at present (as Charles Murray well says) the main function of formal education is to help us sort out and discern and to "think, speak and act" well. Much of even this more "formal" type of education can be done informally. This part is the essential part, the part that belongs to everyone by virtue of being human (the profoundly impaired are in a different category yet still have access to the primary educative aspect of humanity "to ask for and receive nurture from their intimate associations, and give back according to their capacity").

All the ancients were of one voice, that "specialization" was basically the province of insects, not men. Not that we don't need some specialized scholars, especially in these days of information explosion, but that this type of education can distort the human IF it's not properly based on a solid liberal education. For the human, the funnel does not go upwards where the top section is the "real deal". The funnel narrows as it ascends into philosophically more trivial expertise and if it is not broad at the base, it will be a shaky construction altogether.

Murray seems to agree when he says that the "leaders" of society, those cognitively elite who are our politicians, journalists, scientists, professionals, businessmen and think-tank inhabitants, should be given a rigorous liberal arts education that will help foster virtue and wisdom.

I agree with that. There is no doubt our country could use a more educated and virtuous top strata. By definition, we do not need everyone to be in the top strata.

However, he seems to go further than I would in a democratic country in saying that the education of these "leaders" is of primary importance. In reality, I think it is the populace that allows these "leaders" top status and if the populace was better formed and educated, it would be less likely to put up with the kind of crassness, wrongness and venality that we presently tolerate or even approve in so many of these supposed leaders. I think a society run as ours is tends to put the "cream" at the top, and if the "cream" is so often the scum, then the drink itself is in question. So I would argue from that, that the education at the lower levels, the kind that the majority has access to, is essentially more liberal and also of far more importance to society than the upper reaches. A thing is only as strong as the foundation on which it stands, and this goes both for education of the individual AND education more broadly conceived as social policy.

I would argue that Murray implicitly admits this when he talks about empowering parents by means of school vouchers, for instance. So I would rewrite the title of his Chapter IV as "America's Future Depends on How We Educate at the Foundational Level". A serious consideration of this imperative would allow the intellectually gifted to excel based on a properly humanistic foundation and also allow the middle group to fulfill their stabilizing function, which I would argue is more crucial to our future and also compatible with thoroughly educating the gifted. "Wisdom" is not the exclusive province or capacity of the cognitive upper section.

In that way I thought all the talk about the bell curve and the funnel pointed downwards simply confused the real goodness of his good points, and to me they both indicated a basic conceptual flaw that is part of our educational problem ... too much reliance on comparative statistics, and a belief that the higher strata of education is of more importance than the lower parts. His efforts to propose solutions are admirable, but will never be consistent or successful until he examines those premises a bit more carefully.

(Another side point -- I don't think the schools have been co-opted by romantics, though I think they have co-opted some romantic people. The average spending on education per student in the 50's, according to Diane Ravitch, was something like $50 and this was a 100% increase from the decade before. Today it is something like $11K per student. I see the schools as very successful in their apparent goal, which is to provide an income for a plurality of people who are only indirectly involved in actually educating kids. The funnel does point downwards there in my opinion, with the students getting the least actual benefit, then the poor beleaguered teacher, and then upwards to the cushy textbook providers and school administrators and policy makers, whose function is less essential but more remunerative).

A note:

I would welcome discussion. Particularly, if you disagree with any of these points I would really like to hear it because I'm still working it out in my head.


  1. Willa, thank you for your thoughts! I think they make a lot of sense. I look forward to rereading this post and digesting it a bit more.

    On first thought, I wonder if it might be helpful to differentiate "schooling" from "education" in the same way you can separate "wisdom" from "intelligence."

  2. Excellent post! There are too many thought-provoking points here to comment on them all. I saved it to my shared items and will probably be back.

    It reminds me a bit of the discussion on my post on Leadership Education/RDI. While it it true that a minority of people will be policy makers, physicists, professors and so forth, *everyone* needs to be prepared to rear thoughtful children, to be citizens, and to be thinking voters. And we owe everyone a shot at a "generous education," per Charlotte Mason, simply because we're all human and have a desire and a right explore our curiosity, appreciate the world around us, and reach our full intellectual potential.

  3. Willa, I'm afraid I don't have much to add to the discussion right now. Though there is a lot here I'd normally want to comment on. I've got new baby brain and limited ability to type. But especially as you apologized for it, I just wanted to chime in and say I enjoyed this post and the last one. This is actually the sort of thing I really enjoy: meaty discussions about the big picture of education.

  4. Whoa, Willa! Here I am trying to think out one tiny post on a book I just read, and you've written, I think your cognitive level is higher than mine ;-).

    But I do recommend the book I'm reading because it relates to this Murray post. (I don't like Murray's tone, but sometimes he makes some good points.) The book is Shop Class as Soulcraft, by Matthew Crawford. (I may be repeating myself from another comment on your blog--hope not.)

    Crawford would argue that manual labor can be quite intelligent and engaging, and that the whole push to get everyone into college is so that more people can work in cubicle jobs with with no objective standards or direct accountability (think tech support). I think he quotes Murray somewhere in the book, but he has a whole different take on the "not everyone should be white collar" issue. He just doesn't think it's the societal savior that the government sets it out to be.

    Crawford seems to be classically educated, in addition to being a motorcycle mechanic. Tough guy talk included in book.

  5. I'm going to check out the book, Laura, sounds like a good read.

    That thing about evaluating by cognitive ability bothers me deeply, even beyond the fact that it seems like a foothold for academic tracking in the earlier grades, and I'm trying to figure out why. I have a young child with brain damage who seems so smart to me EXCEPT when he is ranked on a curve in comparison with his peers. He will never be a news anchor, thank heaven, nor a senator (though I know some who do dumber things than he does) yet I can't believe he won't be a leader in some ways. He has already been so, in his short life.

    Melanie, I'm glad to hear the feedback -- I do know what you mean about being interested even though you have much more vital things going on. Blogging's nice to communicate across different places and different seasons of life, isn't it? I didn't start blogging until after I had given birth to my present lastborn... nice I can still enjoy other babies from a distance, at least : ).

    The post that Laughing Stars mentioned is here and is an excellent take on TJE's Leadership Education in regard to children who are different learners.

    Thanks for commenting, Lindsay, your new blog is one of my favorites already.


I would love to hear your thoughts on this!