Charles Murray co-authored the controversial book, The Bell Curve. In Real Education, he criticizes the whole “no child left behind” idea as harmful romanticism. Some children, he says, are just lost causes. We don’t live in a Lake Wobegon where they’re all above average.
But, Murray argues, education policy wonks do live in worlds populated by much above average people, and thus have no real idea what below average actually means. Mercilessly, he tries to show us, using actual questions from eighth grade exams.
His first example: if a company has 90 employees and increases that by 10%, how many does it now have? Sixty-two percent got this multiple choice question wrong. Indeed, inferring that some who didn’t were merely guessing, Murray posits that only around 23% actually knew the answer.
Call me a romantic, but I don’t think most American eighth graders are this dumb. They probably even have better social intelligence than me. While Murray is persuasive that cognitive ability measured by IQ tests does matter, it’s far from the whole story. Recall again the marshmallow test. And if 77% of kids don’t know that 90 + 10% = 99, I suspect it says more about the teaching than about the kids. Surely if schools were doing their job properly, a normal kid would learn such simple math. (Murray does not agree.)
What Murray fails to take into account is – oddly enough – the bell curve. He writes as though below average and above average students are two species apart. But intelligence falls along a classic bell curve – that is, a few people at each extreme, but most bunched near the middle. So while those in the highest tenth are a lot smarter than in the lowest tenth, in the broad middle range a student at, say, the 66th percentile is not actually twice as smart as someone in the 33rd. Their test scores are probably not that far apart. Both can be considered typical and average, and generally similar. So even if Murray is right that those at the very bottom are no-hopers, that surely isn’t true of the entire half who (by definition) are “below average.”
Murray is more persuasive in his critique of American educational practice. We place ever more weight on something with ever less true meaning: the college degree. Its recipients join the elite; others are consigned to loserdom. Fine perhaps if the degree really represented educational attainment, but we know how hollow that rings in an era of gradeflation, dumbing down, student entitlement demands, and degrees filled out with fluff courses like the “History of Comic Book Art” (Indiana University) or “Campus Culture and Drinking” (Duke; which spotlights another point about what the college experience actually entails). Yet still the BA degree functions in society like railroad tracks used to: as a dividing line. You didn’t want to live on the wrong side of the tracks. We are becoming a nation riven between the BAs and non-BAs. (As well as between the “progressive” cult and the “conservative” cult.)
I have repeatedly stressed that education is increasingly vital for people to prosper in the modern global economy. But that doesn’t mean herding everyone willy-nilly to get BAs, as Murray argues, because there’s little call for comic book art historians. While doctors, scientists, engineers and, yes, college professors, can only get the necessary training via college, that’s not true for many kinds of skilled technicians we also need. America doesn’t have much of a system for producing them (unlike Germany, notably). We do need more education, but not the sort we’re doing now.
And for people who are not going to become BA-holding professionals, the non-academic skills are even more important. Like the ability to pass the marshmallow test. A positive attitude toward work. Cooperativeness. Showing up on time. But maintaining the idealistic notion that all kids should target college, and giving up on those who don’t, again consigns too many to loserdom.
Inequality fetishists stress the wealth of the top 1%, but that’s the wrong focus. It’s untrue that they get their wealth at the expense of the rest, and sociologically a 1% population segment is irrelevant. They might as well be Martians, so little do they actually affect the lives of the 99%. The real inequality, that does matter, is between the meritocratic college-educated elite and the rest of the country with a very different culture. That societal division is far more consequential than the 1%-vs-99% wealth divide. (Murray has written about this too, as I’ve discussed.)
One increasingly important issue Murray does not address is the cost of higher education. Too many come out with $150,000+ of debt. Just like health care providers, universities charge what they charge because they can. And asking government to pick up more of the tab is not the answer because government money in the picture is itself a key reason why universities are able to charge so much. They’re milking taxpayers.
Lately there’s also been some discussion of how there’s too much emphasis on math and science and career-oriented education, to the detriment of humanities. Murray makes the point that while our system does succeed in turning out, say, biologists who know their biology, they become part of the intelligentsia running the country; and, for that role, their education should be broader, to give them the breadth of view and cultural grounding that a classical liberal education should ideally provide. But, again, a grounding in comic book art history doesn’t quite cut it. We are hardly educating anyone anymore to be citizens of the world.
Well, maybe a few. Elizabeth, are you there?
Tags: bell curve