When Learning Has a Limit

August 22, 2008

Review of Real Education by Charles Murray

In the early 1980s, my mother taught at an Oakland, Calif., community college. Her students ranged from blacks born in the rural South to Southeast Asian boat people. When I was myself away at school, she sent me a moving letter describing how much she loved the job. Whatever their backgrounds, she wrote, her students showed a hunger for education and for improving their lot in life. For the most part, she said, their writing got better, too.

The vision that captivated my mother and her students — that education offers a chance not only for acquiring knowledge but for improving opportunity — has long been central to the American dream. Yet it is a vision that has too often gone unrealized — which is one reason that education reform has taken on such urgency in recent decades.

Since the release of “A Nation at Risk” 25 years ago, we have seen the introduction of top-down standards (including the No Child Behind Act), the spread of a bottom-up school-choice movement (including vouchers and charter schools), and the advent of entrepreneurial programs, like Teach for America, that combine a market-oriented approach with a focus on academic results.

Meanwhile, record numbers of students aspire to higher education, not least because the economic returns to a college degree are, despite a recent leveling off, indisputable. Thus all sorts of people are busy trying to make sure that more high-school grads get a shot not only at enrolling in college but at finishing it.

None of this much impresses Charles Murray. In “Real Education,” he suggests that teachers, students and reformers are all suffering from a case of false consciousness. “The education system,” he says, “is living a lie.”

The problem with American education, according to Mr. Murray, is not what President Bush termed the “soft bigotry of low expectations” but rather the opposite: Far too many young people with inherent intellectual limitations are being pushed to advance academically when, Mr. Murray says, they are “just not smart enough” to improve much at all. It is “a triumph of hope over experience,” he says, to believe that school reform can make meaningful improvements in the academic performance of below-average students. (He might have noted, but doesn’t, that such students are disproportionately black and Hispanic.)

Thus students are being steered toward college when many should be directed toward jobs for which they are better suited. At the same time, Mr. Murray argues, we’re giving short shrift to the academically gifted, who ought to be offered a rigorous education appropriate to their abilities rather than having their classroom experience dragged down by low-IQ underachievers.

Mr. Murray believes that Americans should forsake what he calls “unattainable egalitarian ideals of educational achievement” in favor of “attainable egalitarian ideals of personal dignity.” For high-school students that would mean more realism about potentially lucrative vocational options.

Mr. Murray would also institute a series of CPA-like certification exams for which students could prepare in a variety of non-B.A.-granting postsecondary schools. Only true high-IQ achievers — say, 10% or 20% of all students — would go on to college, study the Great Books and learn virtue, too.

To be sure, Mr. Murray does see a place for a broad liberal education — but only in elementary and middle school, where he would like teachers to use E.D. Hirsch’s Core Knowledge curriculum.

What is one to make of all this? For one thing, it is dismayingly fatalistic. One can accept the idea that inherent academic abilities are unevenly distributed while also believing that many low-achieving kids — and high-achieving kids, too, for that matter — could learn a lot more than they are learning now. International tests show that students in many other nations bypass American kids in reading and math. Could such comparative results really be a function of higher raw intelligence overseas — or are they more likely to reflect superior educational practices? It is telling that hard-headed education reformers like Eric Hanushek, Chester E. Finn and Jay Greene believe that we can do much more to boost the academic achievement of children upon whom Mr. Murray would essentially give up.

In Mr. Murray’s deterministic vision of education, IQ scores matter considerably more than teaching or curriculum or effort — variables that are within the control of individuals and not, as he would have it, mostly their DNA. He wants to make way for what is essentially an IQ-elite.

Let us hope that he has a fool-proof way of identifying this lucky group, beyond the universal IQ testing that he advocates. He does see his certification exams as egalitarian and notes in passing that otherwise nonelite students should be permitted to lobby for admission to advanced classes, so long as they accept the risk of flunking out. But one can’t help thinking: Woe to those who get put in the wrong category.

While accusing education reformers of being wooly-headed romantics, then, Mr. Murray conjures up a romantic vision of his own. In his brave new world, the bell curve of abilities is cheerfully acknowledged; students and workers gladly accept their designated places in the pecking order; and happy, well-paid electricians and plumbers go about their business while their brainy brethren read Plato and prepare for the burdens of ruling the world. It is hard to believe that a dynamic, upwardly mobile society would emerge from such an arrangement, or “dignity” either.

The view outlined in “Real Education” seems far from the one that Mr. Murray put forward in “Losing Ground” (1984). In that influential book, a headlong assault on the welfare state, he called for an “infinitely forgiving” education system in which students can try over and over to succeed, even if only some will.

And indeed, there is something in the American creed that sees the classroom as exactly the place for such second chances, a place where the efforts of personal will (those of students, teachers and policymakers alike) can make a difference in what we learn and how we live.

Mr. Murray says that he is deeply concerned about the dangers of overestimating the abilities of students. To which one might reply: Aren’t the dangers of underestimating their abilities vastly worse?