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Charles Murray on Elites
September 2, 2008 - 3:48pm



As we wait for the next water to break on the Palin story, it's worth recalling that one of the country's most high-profile conservative thinkers, Charles Murray, has been promoting a book which argues, among other things, that college should be reserved for America's intellectually gifted. The cognitive elite, Murray says, is the group most likely to be running government and industry; and, given these crucial responsibilities, it should be as seriously educated as possible:

There is an elitewhether we like it or not. And what that elite has in common is that they are not only able, they are also academically talented. They are all in the top ten percent of intellectual ability. And we've got to start thinking about the kinds of education those people who have such an enormous influence on the culture and the society -- what kind of education they need. Here is where college comes into play in a useful form. College should be the place where they are forced to think deeply, drawing on the best that has been written in the past about questions of virtue and the nature of the good and what is required in order to live a good life.

For everyone else, "the solution is not better degrees, but no degrees," Murray argues, noting that the vast number of Americans don't need the higher-level reflection on "questions of virtue and the nature of the good" that the elite needs. Most Americans merely need certification programs in a vocational field, not a four-year BA with its courses in philosophy and so forth. Again, the academic elite needs a serious education in virtue because it's most likely to be running the country; the vocational non-elite can save everyone a lot of time and money by taking career-oriented training targeted to success on a certification test.

The Palin mess puts the problem with this position in an especially clear light.

A lot of Americans don't seem to like highly educated people, and they don't want them running the country. They prefer people with poor academic backgrounds, like John McCain, whose class rank in college was 894 out of 899, and like Sarah Palin, who got a degree in communications at the University of Idaho, a Tier 3 school in the US News and World Report rankings. Mike Huckabee, who had a very parochial college education, did extremely well in the primaries. If John McCain drops Palin from his ticket, he might well pick up Huckabee, who seems to share her genial indifference to large parts of the world outside of the United States.

Many conservative voters, then, disagree with Charles Murray; they expect cognitively middling people with little academic exposure to moral philosophy and international relations to run the country.

Given this preference for intellectually average and below-average folk in positions of power, I think we need -- with Country First the watchword -- to take a position as far away as possible from Charles Murray's. We need to encourage everyone to be in college for as many years as they possibly can, in the hope that somewhere along the line they might get some exposure to the world outside their town, and to moral ideas not exclusively derived from their parents' religion. If they don't get this in college, they're not going to get it anywhere else.


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