Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Schools are Broken But Not in the Way You Think

Charles Murray is the only author whose books I will read simply because he wrote them. He has a profound gift for saying provocative things elegantly yet in a way that any reasonably educated person can understand. His books alternate between serious scholarly studies (The Bell Curve - co-authored with Richard Herrnstein - and Human Accomplishment) and essays, mostly on the relation between politics and the well-lived life (What it Means to be a Libertarian and In Pursuit: Of Happiness and Good Government.) His latest, Real Education, is a tour through several different broken-down parts of, as he sees it, a fully dysfunctional U.S. education system.

He begins by anchoring the book in the central claim of The Bell Curve - that IQ is profoundly important in the way lives turn out, and that it is not that amenable, once diminishing returns set in, to public policy. He asserts that many Americans come out of schools knowing too little to prepare them for American adulthood not (a few wretched inner-city schools aside) because the schools have failed for mechanical reasons to prepare students for high-skilled work but because the schools have failed to recognize what these children are and are not capable of. He notes that according to national testing data two-thirds of American eighth graders fail to answer a multiple-choice question much like the following properly:

“A business owner currently employs 90 workers. He decides that next year he will increase the workforce by 10 percent. How many workers will he then have?

a. 110
b. 99
c. 80
d. 90”

This is not a schools problem, it is an IQ problem. There is a vast world of lower-IQ Americans who simply are not going to be able to get much use out of an education system that prepares them for college, even though they might be terrific at other (often high-paying) jobs for which a college degree used to be unnecessary. This in no way suggests that such people are not equally valuable members of society as any Harvard graduate, merely that their skill set is different.

A good educational system would prepare everyone for a career he is capable of, instead of preparing for a college degree, which many end up not getting and which is for most of those who do an extraordinarily expensive way to get training that could be provided more efficiently outside the ivy-covered walls. It would also provide the essentials of democratic citizenship, at an appropriate level and at an earlier age. It would also do better at challenging to the limit (demarcated by their failure to achieve a goal after everything else came easy) the nation’s gifted.

I found three things to quarrel with. (I am not competent to dispute his summary of the psychological literature on intelligence.) If his thesis is correct, the American democratic political system has created and sustained for an extended period of time a profound failure, something one could wonder about. Some policies that I find objectionable – the welfare state – are popular despite my misgivings. Others – sugar protectionism – are so small despite their obvious problems that it is easy to understand the lack of public clamor for the repeal of any particular one, even if the costs of all similar policies are high. But that a fundamentally misguided yet major component of American policy could persist for so long raises questions for anyone who believes in the efficacy of democratic politics in weeding out at least the most obvious mistakes.

I also wondered whether other countries show the same huge number of low-IQ students as the U.S. does. If not, that might argue against the IQ-is-destiny foundation of the book. (Messrs. Murray and Herrnstein claimed, to great notoriety, in The Bell Curve that the IQ distribution differs among different ethnic groups, but a big enough difference in the IQ distribution among the US and other less polyethnic countries might swamp this effect.) It could be that other countries do in fact get better results through better schools, but no mention of other countries was made.

I finally found myself wondering about my own children. Our son attends a private school. It is a progressive school, in the old-fashioned sense, situated in an unabashedly left-wing college town. Most of the parents are themselves impeccably progressive politically. And yet none of the culture-wars nonsense infects this school. There is no “Heather has Two Mommies,” no clamor about different ethnicities having different learning styles, none of that. The school is educationally progressive (meaning a lot of learning is self-directed), not politically progressive, despite the fact that the parents generally are politically progressive.

I think the reason for this is precisely that it is a private school. No parent is going to lobby for something that the other parents do not want, because all parents get an equal say, not through voting but through their dollars – if they find the school lousy, their kids are gone. In public schools, in contrast, small numbers of parents (and non-parents) can lobby to get the curriculum changed to favor their side of the culture wars, and do. The turning of the public schools into a big cultural rent-seeking swamp is a problem that I think deserves more attention, although it would undoubtedly have distracted Mr. Murray from the things he wished to talk about in the book. Having said that, I came away, as it were, smarter for having read it.


Post a Comment

<< Home