Thursday, January 18, 2007

Charles Murray for President! (Syke)

Sometimes, Scantron, a piece of well written writing comes along that is so odious that it needs to be addressed before anything else. Charles Murray's -- of The Bell Curve fame -- trilogy of op-eds in the Wall Street Journal is just such a piece.

Murray is in many ways a respectable thinker. Whether he's providing scientific evidence to support racist assertions and privatized school choice programs (as he does, along with co-writer Herrnstein, in the Bell Curve), or devising ingenious ways to decimate welfare programs as we know them, he's no doubt a creative fellow willing to offer up arguments incredibly unpopular in academia, and incredibly popular amongst a handful of people in three or four think tanks, and perhaps the descendents of John C. Calhoun as well. However, when The Wall Street Journal gives Murray three consecutive days to publish his thoughts on education, he loses his Neitzchian "the strongest man in the world is the man who stands alone" protection, and consequently, my sympathies.

One could almost understand Murray's arguments in the three pieces simply by following the narrative of their titles: "Intelligence in the Classroom"; "What's Wrong with Vocational School?"; and "Aztecs vs. Greeks". Arguments over where and how to implement school reform, he argues, are largely misplaced. Rather than focus on, say, economic, social, or cultural factors, we should chiefly be interested in one thing: the intelligence of the student. Intelligence, here, meaning not only the rather mundanely quantifiable Intelligence in the sense of g, or "general factor of intellectual ability," but also ... well, actually, that is really all he means.

Where he continues from this is clear from the second title. No matter how you slice it, he goes on to write, when there's just too many dumb kids in the school, there's just too many dumb kids in the school. No amount money, let alone pedagogical techniques or curricular advances, will solve the problem. Dumb kids -- his cut-off for those who should go to college seems to hover at around a "problematic" IQ of 110 -- won't learn what you want to teach them, and so instead of letting them suffer, let them prosper in more manageable fields. You know, "practical," "vocational" stuff.

After this discussion of the training of the lower and average sorts comes the climax: the training of the Guardians (a term he's not too eager to separate himself from), or the top 10% of the intelligence quotient. After a surge of aphorisms (each beginning "The encouragement of wisdom...") about from whence their education should spring (grammar, Aristotle, history), he gets to the crux of the matter:
The gifted should not be taught to be nonjudgmental; they need to learn how to make accurate judgments. They should not be taught to be equally respectful of Aztecs and Greeks; they should focus on the best that has come before them, which will mean a light dose of Aztecs and a heavy one of Greeks. The primary purpose of their education should not be to let the little darlings express themselves, but to give them the tools and the intellectual discipline for expressing themselves as adults.... In short, I am calling for a revival of the classical definition of a liberal education, serving its classic purpose: to prepare an elite to do its duty.
I will now, briefly, make the case for why this classical definition of a liberal education, despite its flashy empirical basis, is dangerous. Allow me to challenge and probe some of Murray's broader claims.

1) Despite claiming to be so adamantly against liberal academia's theories of student achievement being connected to socio-economic factors, Murray does quite little to actually refute these theories (with the exception of the ubiquitous "see The Bell Curve" explanation). The closest he comes is when he writes: "My point is just this: It is true that many social and economic problems are disproportionately found among people with little education, but the culprit for their educational deficit is often low intelligence." Surely, though, the author would not deny that there are hundreds of thousands of students in low social-economic-status schools and backgrounds who, despite measurably high IQs, experience social and economic problems because of liberal reasons as well as conservative ones -- cultural analyses as the "acting white" theory of low African American achievement.

2) If IQ is, however the guiding factor in achievement, and that it's inefficient and educationally worthless to have high IQ kids along with low IQ kids, then the only way to reform the schools would be to test for IQ early and separate out accordingly. But the trouble with this process of empirical filtering -- the same one that says someone with an IQ under 110 is a "problematic" case for college achievement -- is how is the line drawn. What about the slacker- troublemaker 120ish IQ he discusses in the first piece, and the hard-working, honest, and kind 110ish IQ? Surely the author would not deny that there's not a community in the world, let alone a teacher, who would prefer the former of these two students to the latter.

3) Community, though, appears to be the last thing on Murray's mind. After reading these pieces, as with most educational theories, the key question to ask is: what is the end of this education? Murray seems to suggest it will be a happier society. There will be less strife, as idiots won't have to constantly fail all the time, expecting to be rocket scientists, while geniuses will no longer will have to be held back by being in classes with idiots. But how is this happiness? Surely the author would not deny that a bunch of little kids being educated for the sake of being given the "tools and the intellectual discipline for expressing themselves as adults" doesn't sound exactly like Chucky Cheeses to a 5th grader. Indeed, I'm not sure what Murray wants to happen in primary schooling, where some of the most critical years of education occurs and where students learn more about concepts like "respect," "problem-solving," "cursive," and "multiplication tables," and not so much about how they should learn to act when one distant day they become an adult and have the great responsibility of doing something worthwhile with their high or low IQs.

But why care about respect, or playing nice together, or sharing, or cooperatively constructive activities, when community itself plays no part. Here is where I become enraged, for here lies ultimately one of the most individualistic and anti-democratic educational philosophies I have read. His aphorisms demonstrate such:
Humility requires that the gifted learn what it feels like to hit an intellectual wall.

The gifted must assimilate the details of grammar and syntax and the details of logical fallacies not because they will need them to communicate in daily life, but because these are indispensable for precise thinking at an advanced level.

The encouragement of wisdom requires being steeped in the study of ethics, starting with Aristotle and Confucius. It is not enough that gifted children learn to be nice. They must know what it means to be good.
With an incredible sleight of hand, Murray transforms the immensely social concepts of humility, communication, and ethics into skills for the individual's improvement vis-a-vis herself. Humility will make him/her probe deeper. Communication will make him/her smarter. Ethics will make him/her "good" (the ambiguity of this adjective, I suppose, was permitted by his editors because it has something to do with Aristotle and Confucius).

In a democracy, the end of education must have at its intellectual core that "self evident" truth that Jefferson once wrote about. What's self evident about it is that after we decide that a democracy is a satisfying political, social, and ethical arrangement, this kind of truth nearly necessarily follows. "Democracy is not concerned with freaks or geniuses or heroes or divine leaders but with associate individuals in which each by intercourse with others somehow makes the life of each more distinctive," John Dewey once wrote. (For a more extended philosophical critique of the Murray piece, by the way, I recommend the Collected Works of John Dewey.) If we value living together cooperatively as human beings in a community more than we value efficiency of IQ; if we value interaction more than we value isolated genius and geniuses; if we value a college education as an enlightening, fun, and diverse experience more than we value as a training ground for elite adults ... then we must reject Murray's educational theory because it's nothing more than a bunch of recycled ideas utterly devoid of meaning to Western Civilization for over seventy-five years.

We also, it seems to me, must reject the Wall Street Journal editorial page. What a bunch of right wing loonies, eh?

4 Comments:

Blogger Austin 5-000 said...

If you look at the trends in university education, the question of educating the elite with hoi poloi has already been decided in favor of division. The marketization of university admissions created by the US News rankings has meant that elite students will study with elite students and not so elite students will study with other mediocre students. Moreover, the measure of "eliteness" has come down in between your and Murray's preference: for the most part, admissions are decided by IQ, as tested by the SAT, while other "soft" factors are included, but increasingly less so, because the rankings offer a disincentive for schools to admit students with bad SATs or GPAs but good "soft" factors.
Murray has a problem with the fact that the mediocre schools have become four year training grounds for people who really only need two years of training. I can see why this bothers him but I don't think there's any solution to the problem.
The same with your argument: universities that attempt to be inclusionary at the expense of accepting high IQ students will be punished by lower rankings; it is unlikely that schools, despite the professed morality of those they employ, will be willing to sacrifice prestige for justice.
So this controversy really comes down to two questions: the content of elite tertiary education and whether secondary and primary education should be kept as a whole or divided into different levels. In the former question, I'm pretty sure most of us think that schools should provide more of a "liberal" education than they do now, but I'm not sure, once again, if our preferences matter. Because schools have to compete with one another for students, high-school seniors now determine many of the "big choices" in college administration. My hunch is that this will continue to be bad for classics and good for anthropology ("the aztecs").
So the real question is whether high IQ students should be kept with low IQ students in primary and secondary public education. Murray seems to assume that grouping excellent students with poor students will hurt the former without helping the latter. My own experience in the public schools indicates that this is probably true. Moreover, my experience was not tremendously beneficial for either kind of student or for the community at large. Intelligent students had much of their time wasted by the slow learning of unintelligent students, while any time spent on more advanced subjects was wasted for the unintelligent students. I'm not sure that it had any benefits for the community; I would be curious to hear what specific benefits it might supposedly have.
Does this mean that educational waivers make sense? I'm not sure. Perhaps the current system of having different tracks for different aptitude levels will continue to expand and be sufficient. Perhaps a divided school system like Germany's would be more appropriate. But isn't this an empirical question, about which system obtains better educational success, rather than an ideological one?

9:58 AM  
Blogger Robot said...

In some ways your right about tertiary education. Harvard is a great example: a place once reserved for daddy's children that actively excluded the intelligent (poor whites, Jews, etc.) that now is not only open to everyone, but has made tremendous strides in eliminating class as an admissions factor. State universities, meanwhile, still likely have a mix of high and low IQ students, but in many cases segregate them into different program ("honors" or "gemstone" programs, as in the University of Maryland's case).

In general, though, I think you should try to look at what Murray's talking about without falling into his trap of high IQ/low IQ. Everyone's pre-university experience, public or private, likely reveals the same thing: that there were a bunch of likely high IQ kids who were a bunch of immature, lazy, worthless bastards, and a bunch of low high IQ kids who were in many ways model students -- hard-working, curious, polite, active, etc. From this kind of anecdotal evidence alone, don't you think it's worthless to just get rid of the kids who can't score very high on their SATs?

As for the communal aspects of education (I'm largely talking about primary and secondary schooling, here), I'd like to stress that what happens in a school is more than just what happens in the classrooms. To build off of what you suggest, within the classrooms themselves, American public and private schools have their own selecting, differentiating, and tracking mechanisms that try to prevent the obvious problems you discuss about having whiz kids learn their mathematics or whatnot without being held back by a slower learner asking a lot of simple questions. If this is the problem, then why shouldn't the answer be for more effective tracking rather than wholesale segregation of IQ?

Perhaps, then, we have agreed upon more tracking as the sensible, moderate solution to Murray's extremist proposals. Nonetheless, I'd like to make sure I address the benefits to the community, which I believe to be those that come with any kind of diversity. So long as everyone takes learning seriously (which Murray himself admits as having no necessary relation with high IQ), I see the situation in just the opposite way you and Murray do. Within an educational environment, these "low IQ sorts" could be inspired at times to work harder and learn more by being exposed to "higher IQ sorts"; the "higher IQ sorts" could be inspired to appreciate whatever activities the "lower IQ sorts" engage in, including the sorts of practical activities Murray mentions. I'm thinking of the things that go on in high schools besides AP classes. I'm thinking of theatre (acting, design, lighting, set construction, etc.), athletics (players, managers, fans, etc.), and other extracurricular activities which certainly enrich the school and greater community -- the school stuff that usually takes on the most memorable and meaningful qualities. So, in short, I'll turn the question back around to you? Can you really that in all your public school days you never benefited from someone you suspect to have a lowerish IQ? Can you really say the community never benefited from it? Does the fact that you may have benefited more from more intelligent students really justify wholesale segregation in public schools by a number students receive on an IQ test?

And I do think this is more than just an empirical matter. You're right that test scores are an important way for students, parents, schools, governments, etc. to have an idea of progress and accountability. However, very few people outside of positivist schools would argue that test scores are the only measure of "educational success." Furthermore, I'd like to again mention that test scores, other than Murray's sacred IQ test, will never perfectly reflect IQ. If they did, they wouldn't reflect that which has been learned, seeing as how IQ is a rather stable number. So long as we test for something other than pure intelligence, we run the risk of segregating students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds. We run the risk, in other words, of excluding all sociological factors in the educational equation.
Again, contra Murray, I think we should try to view education as something closer to what every single educational theorist since Plato has conceived it as: as something not entirely empirical. Schooling is about a lot more than just training the golds to be golds and the bronzes to be bronzes. It's also about, at the very least, teaching the golds and the bronzes to appreciate each other and, indeed, learn from each other. Should we ignore that education is also about learning to live together in a community (something Murray certainly ignores), then I don't see how we don't return to pre-Brown v Board thinking.

12:35 PM  
Blogger Scantron said...

I will join y'all's conversation about the philosophy of education, which is fascinating, shortly, but first I wanted to point out this particularly great bit from Murray:

Part 2: "What they really need is vocational training. But nobody will say so, because 'vocational training' is second class. 'College' is first class."

"The fault lies in the false premium that our culture has put on a college degree."

"Every time that happens, the false premium attached to the college degree will diminish."

But Part 3: "In all other respects, the government, economy and culture are run by a cognitive elite that we do not choose."

No incentive to get a college degree here. None at all.

7:36 PM  
Blogger Sebonde said...

I wish I had time now to make a significant contribution to this discussion, but I do not. Perhaps, tomorrow, I will write more, but for now I wish simply to ask this question: "Can a community supply its own teleology?"

By the way, I must say that I try to read this weblog religiousy. I especially love Scranton's livid but ever so eloquent rants against the Spawns of Imperial Satan, a.k.a. the neocons. I don't, however, appreciate his calling people who believe in the Doctrine of the Real Presence stupid. I know this is hardly relevant to the particular topic of this particular post, but I just had to blurt that out.

1:59 PM  

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