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It's Common Sense: The Experts are to Blame US Life in 1842

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Charles Murray on Education

by Christopher Chantrill
October 15, 2008 at 9:48 pm


LAST WEEK Times Higher Education published the world university rankings. The rankings are available here. Harvard came in first, again, and the US, with 58, had the most universities in the Top 200. The Brits came in second with 29. But if you rank the nations by number of top universities per million population, then the US slips to 15th. Who comes out on top? The sensible Swiss who support seven top universities with a population of 7.3 million. Here’s the ranking by population:

  1. Switzerland
  2. New Zealand
  3. Netherlands
  4. Hong Kong
  5. Denmark
  6. Belgium
  7. Ireland
  8. United Kingdom
  9. Singapore
  10. Israel
  11. Australia
  12. Sweden
  13. Canada
  14. Norway
  15. United States

Number 15 doesn’t look quite as grand as No. 1. What should we do about it?

Charles Murray has taken a look at education in the United States in his new book Real Education and he thinks we have a problem. But he does not seem to care whether we are No. 1 or not in the Top 200 university rankings. The bigger problem with universities is that we seem to be convinced that everyone ought to go. That makes second-class citizens of everyone that doesn’t get in, and makes fools out of young people that go and then drop out, or that graduate and then find out that their degree doesn’t really buy them anything.

The political and cultural insistence on a college degree for everyone is at the bottom of the dumbing down of college courses. Murray reckons that only about 10 percent of each age cohort has the ability to master a real college education (i.e., a rigorous liberal arts or technical degree course). If about 50 percent of high school graduates enter college each year that means that something has to give, and it does.

The fact is that half of the nation’s children are below average.

We don’t like to admit it. That’s why we pass laws called “No Child Left Behind.” We think that, with proper application of money and effort, we can bring all of our children along in a single cohort.

No we can’t, writes Murray, and pulls out the data about IQ (let’s just call it “ability,” he suggests) that got him into so much trouble fourteen years ago in The Bell Curve.

Children in the lower half of the [ability] distribution are just not smart enough to read or calculate at a level of fluency that most of us take for granted. Children still lower in the distribution of linguistic and logico-mathematical ability... are just not smart enough to become literate or numerate in more than a rudimentary sense.

For generations we have argued about streaming in schools, and the left has usually had the best of the argument. It is inequitable, they argue, to brand children as dumb or unintelligent. That’s why they developed magical notions like positive self-esteem. If children think they can do it, then maybe they really can if they try.

Murray makes the opposite argument. If you mix everyone together and put children with below-average ability into classes with children with above-average ability then the below-average will start out school as failures. There’s nothing worse that telling a child to try something—go on, you can do it—when he really cannot. We cannot start to help the below-average children until we recognize that we do not know “how to make more than modest improvements in their math and reading performance.”

Charles Murray is on firm ground when he is showing us where we have gone wrong, and telling us what we should not do. But “America’s future depends on how we educate the academically gifted,” he suggests. They are the folks that form our “unelected elite” and they have “a huge effect on our future.” It is vital for everyone that they “become not just knowledgeable but wise.” Rigor is what is needed, he argues: rigor in verbal expression, in forming judgments, and in thinking about virtue and the good. It’s the Aristotelian program of cultivating the four cardinal virtues.

There may come a day when conservatives and libertarians can design college curricula, but that time is not yet. In fact, after 25 years of the Reagan era it feels like conservatives have less influence on campus than ever.

Nor should conservatives expect much progress on the rest of the education front.

If children with low IQ are badly served by the current system and young people feel forced to go to college to get that job-opening BA it’s no skin off the nose of our liberal friends. If our schools fail to educate then they need more money. If every high school graduate goes to college then colleges need more money.

But maybe with another ten or twenty billion dollars a year we can get more universities into the world’s Top 200. That would be something.

Christopher Chantrill blogs at www.roadtothemiddleclass.com.

Buy his Road to the Middle Class.

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presented by Christopher Chantrill

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