Charles Murray, author of the new book Real Education, kindly agreed to an interview with me to discuss his new book. You may know him as a coauthor of the bestselling The Bell Curve or from his hit Losing Ground, a book that changed the national conversation about welfare. You may also recognize his name or some of his ideas about education reform from the Wall Street Journal. Whether you’re familiar with him or not, I think you’ll enjoy what he has to say.
Please also check out his new book, published just last month by Random House.
Katie Favazza: It seems your book has a broader audience than simply parents of school-age children. Who should read this book?
Charles Murray: Parents are the first audience, without question. But I hope the book also provides an opening wedge that makes it easier for teachers to state their case. I got a lot of reaction from teachers in K-12 and college when I first published some of these themes in the Wall Street Journal, almost all of them being of the “thank God someone is finally saying out loud what we see in our classrooms” variety. Once the conversation has been opened up, we might see a lot more teachers speaking out publicly. Just last month, the Atlantic published a wonderful article by a Professor X who teaches at a college of last resort. He still felt he had to remain anonymous, but at least he got his experience into print.
And don’t underestimate the degree to which students will respond to the book. I’ve heard from a number of students telling me about the pressure they were under to go to college when they already knew that college wasn’t right for them. I guess the audience for the book includes everyone but politicians and school administrators. They’re pretty much beyond hope.
Katie Favazza: Your ideas about tailoring education to suit different abilities seem so basic at first, but are truly revolutionary in their nature. When you were in school, what were your strongest abilities and how did they–or did they not–shape your own educational path?
Charles Murray: I grew up in a small town and I was a bright kid–regarding verbal skills anyway, nothing special in mathematics–who had all sorts of intellectual interests that none of my friends shared. Maybe you should strike “bright,” and replace it with “weird.” How many seventh-graders get interested in mountain climbing (in Iowa!) and send away to Switzerland for a climbing guide, in German, for the north wall of the Eiger, then try to translate it using a German-English dictionary? Truly weird.
I yearned from eighth grade onward to go to Harvard, my image of the Great World, and I always knew that once I got there I would major in history. I knew what my strengths were from very early on (though I probably thought I was smarter in math than I really was) and my educational path was pretty straightforward.
Katie Favazza: One of your books’ truths is that half of the children in schools are below average–and you go on to say that schools have no choice but to leave some of these children behind. When should educators say, “Enough is enough?” Must an educator simply walk away?
Charles Murray: Educators never need to walk away. Let’s rephrase that last sentence to read “When must a teacher realize he’s done all he can do, and guide the student in another direction?” I think you need a concatenation of three perspectives on a child. One is a thorough technical assessment that occurs early in a child’s education and is periodically updated thereafter–not just a test for math or reading aptitude, but including personality measures and test batteries that will reveal learning disabilities. The second is the record in the classroom in the form of grades and scores on examinations. The third is the teacher’s observation of the child in class–the three-dimensional picture that integrates the technical information from the first two perspectives with the flesh-and-blood reality of how the child copes in the classroom. Say, for example, we have a student who can’t seem to get the hang of Algebra I. When all three of the perspectives correspond, it’s time for a teacher to think in terms of a future for that child that does not include Algebra II.
Katie Favazza: You assert that too many students are going to college today. What damage do you think this does to American society? Why does America need “the forgotten half,” as you call them?
Charles Murray: I’m less concerned about the damage to society than I am with damage to the kids who don’t belong in college. High school students are indoctrinated with the pernicious idea that jobs are divided into two bins, good jobs that require a college degree and bad jobs that don’t. So you end up with students whose counselors encourage them to go to college regardless of their abilities, who have never been told about the myriad technical and crafts jobs that are challenging, fun, and pay well. So they try to go to college, fail, and too often seem to think that their only alternative is being a checkout clerk at Wal-Mart. As for why we need the forgotten half–I would find it a whole lot easier to live in a society with a tenth as many lawyers and professors than to live in a society with a tenth as many plumbers. I am at war with the whole concept of occupational prestige. It exists, and I can’t see any way to get rid of it, but it is senseless.
Katie Favazza: What are the best ways to push the “academically gifted” to prepare them to run the country?
Charles Murray: The academically gifted–which I define a lot more loosely than others as the top 10 percent in academic ability–almost all go to college. They need to have their feet held to the fire. They need to have term papers graded by professors who automatically cut the grade for grammatical errors, and who demand precise logic and coherent prose. They need to acquire the tools for forming accurate judgments–which means among other things lots of history, because Santayana was right about those who are ignorant of history, and a thorough grounding in probability, because there is hardly any difficult issue in public policy or, for that matter, in the governance of a corporation, that does not involve probabilistic alternatives. And they need to get a thorough grounding in the great issues of ethics and what it means to live a good life–and by that I don’t mean a one-semester course in philosophy. I mean the many courses that call upon the best that human beings have produced on these issues in philosophy, literature, and the arts. And finally, the brightest-of-the-brightest need to learn that they aren’t as smart as they think they are. They need to know what it feels like to be unable to do some intellectual task. They need to learn intellectual humility the hard way.
Katie Favazza: How do government mandates harm America’s young students in general? What has been the single greatest failing of No Child Left Behind in particular?
Charles Murray: Don’t get me started on No Child Left Behind–the first time in history, I believe, that a government passed a law saying that all the children must be above average. I mean that literally. The standards of “proficient” that all children are to meet by 2014 require test scores on math and reading that only those in the top thirty-odd percentiles meet. All children in 2014 are to be where the 70th percenticle was when the law was passed. It’s an idiotic goal that refuses to accept that many children just aren’t smart enough to become proficient in reading and math. NCLB has demoralized teachers who want to teach, not teach to a test. It has focused resources on those who are on the cusp of passing the dreaded test that is used to assess “Adequate Yearly Progress,” ignoring those who don’t have a prayer of passing and those who would pass it anyway. It has induced school systems to engage in all sorts of chicanery to try to meet the law’s requirements. I do not make these comments just on the basis of the technical literature. My wife and I had children in school during NLCB’s first years and saw what it did to our local schools.
Katie Favazza: Why is a clear understanding of virtue and happiness necessary for a complete “education?”
Charles Murray: If there’s one topic that just almost every 19-year-old thinks about, it is the meaning of life. No longer a child, not yet an adult, with a strong sense of setting out on a long journey through life, 19-year-olds are trying to figure out what kind of people they want to be (involving issues of virtue), what they want to make of themselves (involving issues of the meaning of happiness). But as matters stand, students who do not have a well-articulated religious faith tend to assume that they have to think through these questions de novo, or maybe in bull sessions with their friends. In fact, of course, human beings have been thinking through these issues for thousands of years, and some humans have created works that speak to those issues brilliantly. College is the one institution in a position to provide this rich nourishment on such central issues to young people. That colleges no longer do that is one of the most damning indictments of today’s colleges.