Leave Those Kids Alone

, Heather Latham, Leave a comment

Charles Murray has a few problems with the United States’ current educational policy. In his book Real Education, he lists four cardinal ones: ability varies; half of all children are below average; too many people are going to college; and America’s future depends on how we educate the academically gifted. He argues that these are ideas that must be embraced before public education can improve.

Murray starts with the idea that the ability to do and learn certain things varies in degree and kind with children. He uses the multiple-intelligence system developed by Howard Gardner to define the different kinds, although he prefers to call these types of intelligence “abilities.” The abilities that he describes are: bodily-kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal, intrapersonal, spatial, logical-mathematical, and linguistic. He separates linguistic, logical-mathematical, and spatial abilities associated with mental visualization into one other category he calls “academic ability.” He also believes that the current measures used in elementary schools are not effective in determining these. He says, “Educational measures such as test scores and grades tend to make differences among schoolchildren look as though they are ones of degree when in reality some of them are differences in kind.” He goes on to say that educators should not run on the assumption that every child has some above average ability and will overcome their deficits. He argues, “Schools that ignore those realities are doing a disservice to all their students.”

The next problem that Murray discusses is that half of all children are below average. Although he agrees that most readers of his book would be able to empathize as to “what below average means for” most of the abilities, he disagrees that any of his readers would understand what it means to be below average in academic ability. This is because his readers are at a level where they can read a public policy book and find it interesting.” A second reason “is the nature of cognitive segregation.” He argues that certain people are interested in certain topics, and these people are usually either from a wealthy background or a highly academic background.

Murray states that “Just not smart enough” “is a phrase that we all use in conversation, we all know what it means, and it has to be made available once again to discussions about educational policy.” He also gives three arguments that could realistically disprove his ideas: “The measure of academic ability is invalid. We can raise academic ability. The schools are so bad that low-ability students can learn a lot more even if their ability is unchanged.” He discusses each argument in turn. He explains that academic ability as he uses it is virtually an IQ score. He says, “Even if no test is administered, 50 percent of the children are below average, 33 percent are in the bottom third, and 10 percent are in the bottom decile. There is no getting around it.” He says, “We arrive now at the heart of the educational romanticism that pervades American education.” He comes to this conclusion: “To continue to assert that major improvements are possible in the academic test performance of the lower half of the distribution through reform of the public schools is more than a triumph of hope over experience. It ignores experience altogether. It is educational romanticism.”

The third problem Murray has with the public education system is that it encourages every student to go to college. He says, “One of the most damaging messages of educational romanticism has been that everyone should go to college.” In regard to this, he discusses five topics. “The first is…How smart do you have to be to cope with genuine college-level material? … The second topic [is] college’s role in providing a liberal education.… Next I turn to the ways in which colleges are becoming obsolete….The fourth topic is labeled ‘College isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.’… Finally, I turn to the divisive role that the college degree is acquiring in American society.” Murray argues that it would be more beneficial for many students to pursue a vocation or attend a vocational or community college before starting to work rather than focusing on getting into a four-year college.”

Murray’s last point, that “America’s future depends on how we educate the academically gifted,” focuses on teaching them to be good leaders, as he says, “The last of the simple truths is easily misunderstood, so let me be clear at the outset: The proposition is not that America’s future should depend on an elite that is educated to run the country, but that…America’s future does depend on an elite that runs the country.” He argues, “The elite is already smart. It needs to be wise.” He says that schooling and education should not be easy for them—they need to be challenged in order to grow more, and they should not be overly praised. He argues that they need to be taught to be good, virtuous, and humble.

Murray has a few ideas to make the changes he calls for. These are:

• “Establish the limits of the possible;
• “Find out what each child’s abilities are;
• “Give a safe and orderly classroom to every student who is trying to learn, no matter what;
• “Teach the core knowledge curriculum to every student;
• “Let gifted children go as fast as they can;
• “Teach the forgotten half how to make a living;
• “Expand choice;
• “Use certification to undermine the BA;
• Make sure every academically-gifted student gets a liberal education;
• Take responsibility.”

Murray finishes, “The goal of education is to bring children into adulthood having discovered things they enjoy doing and doing them at the outermost limits of their potential…. It is a quintessentially human satisfaction, and its universality can connect us all. Opening the door to that satisfaction is what real education does.”

Heather Latham is an intern at the American Journalism Center, a training program run by Accuracy in Media and Accuracy in Academia.


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