On 'Real Education' - I

On 'Real Education' - I
August 21, 2008

With the enactment of a new GI Bill, the time has come to once again recall former University of Chicago President Robert Maynard Hutchins' prediction that the original 1944 legislation benefiting World War II soldiers would convert colleges and universities into "educational hobo jungles." Perhaps it's unfair -- Hutchins, a veteran himself, was a noted legal scholar and philosopher whose influence on the university he led is still quite visible today. But that's the price you pay for being so spectacularly (and quotably) wrong about one of the great policy issues of our time. Helping returning veterans attend college was only the beginning of the massive mid-20th century expansion of access to higher education in America. Most people see this as an unequivocal good and a job not yet done.

Yet an active strain of educational hobo-phobia remains, a persistent, largely sub rosa muttering that perhaps too many of the wrong kind of people are being allowed inside the ivy-covered walls. It's not respectable conversation outside of conservative circles, due to its unvarnished elitism and 0-for-the-last-60-years-and-counting historical track record. But it lives on, and now has a new standard-bearer in the person of Charles Murray, author along with the late Richard Herrnstein of the hugely controversial 1994 treatise, The Bell Curve. In his new book, Real Education,Murray offers "four simple truths for bringing America's schools back to reality." The third is: "Too many people are going to college."

The book has many flaws, like the fact that the "four simple truths" descriptor is inaccurate. Murray actually offers one simple truth, one tautology, and two opinions (one somewhat legitimate, one not). The one (very) simple truth is that "ability varies," by which Murray means intelligence, or I.Q. All reasonable people acknowledge this; the question is how it varies, and what that variance means. The tautology is that "half of the children are below average," an odd statement to offer as evidence in support of Murray's main subject: educability, which is an absolute quality -- not, like below-averageness, a relative one. Basically, Murray believes that (coincidentally!) half of all children are more or less uneducable in the traditional sense and thus need to be identified as such via mandatory first grade I.Q. testing so they can be shunted off into vocational education programs for their own good. This is absurd and immoral, for reasons too numerous to recount here.

Murray continues in a similar vein as he begins the second, higher education-focused half of Real Education. "No more than 20 percent" of students have the innate ability to do college level work, he opines, and really "10 percent is a more reliable estimate." His evidence: a study showed that students with SATs of X have at least a Y chance of getting decent grades as freshmen at 41 average-or-above colleges. Only about10 percent of students actually score that high on the SAT, ergo the rest have no business trying to get a B.A.

Among the many problems with this line of reasoning is the fact that roughly 35 percent -- not 10 percent -- of young adults actually do earn bachelor's degrees. But Murray simply explains this away as prima facie evidence that academic standards in higher education are too low. Real Education is shot through with this kind of circular reasoning; once you decide that variance in cognitive ability = pervasive uneducability, everything else falls in line. Murray's only other real "evidence" is a random selection of passages from some survey textbooks, which he notes are "not easy to read." Indeed, they're often "demanding to tortuous," "studded with unexplained references," replete with words the meaning of which is "sometimes downright obscure." Notably, this cannot be said of any sentences in Real Education. Why? Because Murray is a good writer who communicates with economy and precision. (Whether this is a function of his I.Q. or Harvard education, I won't speculate.) Perhaps college students would learn more if the same were true of the people who write their textbooks.

But that idea and others like it lie outside the bounds of Real Education, which is, more than anything else, an argument against the efficacy of schools and universities. It seems not to occur to Murray that a student's capacity to successfully meet college standards is substantially a function of how well he or she is educated in high school and college, as well as the broader social circumstances in which students live. Instead, the bell curve rules. The book is full of confident and largely unsupported assertions about the cold hard truth of limited human potential, e.g., "people of average reading ability do not understand much of the text in the assigned [college] texts." Not "may not," but "do not." Or: one third of all children are "just not smart enough to become literate or numerate in more than a rudimentary sense." Stuff like this is catnip for his likely audience: people with an unhealthy appetite for the politically incorrect and a strong need for so-called simple truths.

Murray could have wrapped up his argument for the futility of educating below-average students here, around page 75. But that would have left him well short of a book, even one as slight as this. ( Real Education is an expansion of three previously published Wall Street Journal op-eds, and it shows.) So he devotes the remaining 80-some pages to a broader critique of contemporary higher education. And I have to admit: it's pretty good. He notes that most students go to college primarily to prepare for a career, and that it doesn't really make sense to assume that such preparation should always take exactly two or four years, regardless of the field. He observes that most institutions haven't really come to grips with the implications of Web-based distance learning. Lacking any reliable information about the rigor of college learning standards, Murray says, employers mostly use the B.A. as an inexpensive first-cut screen for general, non-academic attributes and skills, to the detriment of capable applicants who drop out of college or never go. Fair critiques, all.

Murray then turns to an impassioned argument for the restoration of liberal education. The nation is run by an "unelected elite" of cognitive top-10-percents, he says: CEOs, journalists, doctors, lawyers, scientists, clergy, even (because we're apparently still in 1944) "a large number of housewives" who lead local civic organizations. For all of our sake, they need a college education that teaches them to be wise as well as smart, that trains them in the arts of rigorous verbal expression and nuanced judgment. They need to be steeped in our shared intellectual inheritance, to reflect on the human yearning for transcendence and grapple with timeless conceptions of virtue. I agree; I just think this is true for far more people than Murray allows. Lose the I.Q. determinism and the second half of Real Education is worth reading.

It's wrong to say that too many students are going to college. Too few are going, particularly those from disadvantaged communities. The history of American education is one long series of decisions to open up the halls of academia to students who, at the time, were looked down upon as undeserving. The naysayers have been disproven, over and over again. More broadly, our nation has long had an usually open economy and education system, one that puts a premium on second and third chances and shies away from giving the government power to shut citizens out of educational opportunities based on some imperfect estimate of "ability." Again, the wisdom of this philosophy in hindsight seems clear.

But it's fair to say that too many students are going to colleges that are unprepared to serve them well. Colleges often seem unwilling to make the hard choices required to provide a true liberal education to the students who want and/or need one, while simultaneously failing to adjust their ways of teaching and credentialing to a world where 75 percent of high school graduates go to college and many are primarily interested in training for a productive career. In observing this -- and only this -- Charles Murray has a point.


Kevin Carey is the research and policy manager of Education Sector. He blogs about K–12 and higher education policy issues at The Quick and the Ed. An archive of his Outside the Circle columns may be found here.



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