Charles Murray, bestselling author of Losing Ground and coauthor of The Bell Curve, has written a new book focused on the transformation of our educational system: Real Education: Four Simple Truths for Bringing America’s Schools Back to Reality (Crown Forum Publishers). In it, he outlines the four simple truths that he contends must be addressed to initiate real transformation of our schools: (1) Ability Varies (2) Half of Children are Below Average (3) Too Many People Are Going to College, and (4) America’s Future Depends on How We Educate the Academically Gifted. Below is a brief discussion with Mr. Murray about a few of the book’s main points.
NN: Your most recent book, Real Education, is a hard-hitting critique of our educational system, but it seems to have a larger audience than merely policy wonks. Who would you say should read the book and what can they expect to learn from it?
CM: Actually, it isn’t written for policy wonks at all. It’s written for teachers—both K-12 and college—and parents who know from their own experience that education today is out of touch with reality. They know that ability varies among children, and that education should take that into account. It’s just the politicians and the educational bureaucrats who try to pretend that children can be anything they want to be if they try hard enough.
You mention early in the book that evaluation of intelligence (or what you predominantly refer to as “ability”) has been largely left out of discussions on education. Why do you think this has been the case?
We had a concatenation of two shifts in the culture in the late 1960s. The Civil Rights revolution made it embarrassing to acknowledge academic deficits among some black children, so they were ignored, or attributed to easily-solved problems with the schools (despite everything that the Coleman Report had already taught us). And if you couldn’t talk openly about intractable academic problems among some black children, you couldn’t talk about similarly intractable problems among some white children. At about the same time, the self-esteem movement took off, and it was decided that criticism and acknowledgment of academic limits were damaging to self-esteem, and high self-esteem was the be-all and end-all of child development. The net result: Straight talk about the relationship of academic ability to education became verboten.
Much has been written recently about the brain’s plasticity, yet it seems the jury is still out on whether we can permanently alter intelligence in any significant way. Given the progress that has been made in the area of plasticity, do you think it’s a worthwhile project to attempt to alter IQ? Is this, in your opinion, even possible?
Eventually, it will happen, without question—but whether “eventually” means ten years or a century from now remains an open question. We have proved that altering IQ significantly through environmental enrichment is really, really hard. Adoption at birth produces the only consistent results, and even adoption at birth does not bring the adoptive children up to level of the biological children of adoptive parents, independently of the genetic heritage of the adopted child.
Measuring intelligence is controversial and inevitably leads to claims of cultural bias. You have said that regardless of the specific tests being used, the underlying academic ability (g) remains a fact that must be acknowledged. How do we arrive at an honest assessment of g that won’t be derailed by cultural bias arguments?
Two separate issues are involved, both of which are empirically resolved. Is g real or just a statistical phenomenon? It’s pretty hard argue that it’s just a statistical phenomenon when neuroscience keeps identifying new physiological characteristics of the brain (e.g., the volume of very specific portions of the brain, glucose metabolism in specific portions of the brain) that are not just correlated with IQ scores, but with the measurement of g embedded in those scores. Are IQ test scores culturally biased? The serious scientific debate about cultural bias in IQ tests was over as of the mid 1980s—for practical purposes, since Arthur Jensen’s Cultural Bias in Mental Tests was published in 1980. All the major empirical issues involving bias in predictive validity are settled. The major tests, administered to the people for whom they were designed and in the way they were designed, are not culturally biased. Period. But when will the nature of the public debate catch up with the science? Not for a while. Look what happened to Larry Summers when he talked about sex differences in cognitive profiles. The science didn’t matter. He became instant PC road kill.
In your book’s chapter entitled “Too Many People are Going to College”, you make reference to distance learning technologies and their potential for eventually making bricks and mortar colleges—as we understand them now—far less important. How do you address objections to “online literacy”, like those voiced by Mark Bauerlein in his recent book The Dumbest Generation, which argue against relying on the new technologies to enhance learning?
There’s nothing inherent in learning over the Internet that makes it less rigorous than learning in the classroom. The differences in process between the classroom experience and the Internet experience are constantly being narrowed as technology improves. Content is everything. If the online learning consists of a probing interaction about Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics, then there’s no problem. I grant the aspects of the Internet that are problematic in ways that Bauerlein describes, but they needn’t contaminate online learning if the course designers do their job right.
Some of your critics have said that your positions would lead to “giving up” on a certain percentage of children, and that you’re guilty of “underestimating their abilities” (I’m thinking especially of Ben Wildavsky’s book review in the Wall Street Journal, “When Learning has a Limit”). How do you respond to these criticisms?
They are educational romantics. Anyone who thinks that every child can learn, say, how to factor quadratic equations needs to spend a lot more time around children who are well into the lower half of the distribution of math ability. The odd thing is that the educational romantics who are parents of more than one child know from their own experience that there’s no way to make their own children more alike in their profiles of cognitive abilities. But they keep insisting that they can do it with other people’s children. It is worse than romanticism. It is intellectual self-indulgence.
You’re careful to point out that, whether we like it or not, America’s future depends on academically gifted elite that have the greatest affect on the country, and our ability to choose the elite, as with elections, is limited. What is the most important thing that needs to happen in our educational system to prepare the next generation of elite leaders to positively influence the nation?
Every one of them should be viscerally aware of their own limits, and the current college curriculum of the social sciences and humanities seldom forces them to do that. We have far too many students coming out of elite colleges who have never had their feet held to the fire intellectually, and are far too in love with their own wonderful selves. Humility is a prerequisite for wisdom, and we are in urgent need of more wisdom among the people who shape the culture.