‘Grinch’ Provides Sound Guide to Improving Nation’s Schools

Published November 1, 2008

Real Education: Four Simple Truths for Bringing America’s Schools Back to Reality
by Charles Murray
New York: Crown Forum, 2008
219 pages, hardcover, ISBN 9780307405388, $24.95

“No one wants to be education’s Grinch,” writes Charles Murray in Real Education: Four Simple Truths for Bringing America’s Schools Back to Reality. Don’t believe it: Murray clearly loves the role, and we should be thankful for it.

Murray grabbed the Grinch mantle in 1994 with the hugely controversial—and bestselling—book The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life, a 912-page tome coauthored with Harvard University psychologist Richard Herrnstein. Herrnstein died a week before the book’s release, leaving Murray to defend its thesis that intelligence is increasingly the determinant of who succeeds and who doesn’t, and that some people simply have more smarts than others.

In Real Education, Murray drives on with this case, noting different people are endowed with different levels of intelligence, and arguing many aren’t equipped to handle tough academic work. It’s just reality, Murray states, a reality our education system ignores to the detriment of both students and society.

Wasted Efforts

Using nonacademic components of the very education system he critiques, Murray illustrates the illogic of acting as if everyone should be William F. Buckley when some haven’t the academic potential of Bluto Blutarsky.

“Children with below-average bodily-kinesthetic ability have to take PE … but no one tries to make them into good athletes,” Murray writes. “Children with below-average musical ability are usually exposed to music classes in elementary school, but they are allowed to drop out thereafter. … Only for linguistic and logical-mathematical ability are we told that we can expect everyone to do well.”

The results of our “educational romanticism,” Murray asserts, are too many kids being shoved onto academic tracks for which they are ill-suited, and countless hours wasted in college classrooms.

Remedial Classes

Some broad figures lend credence to Murray’s contentions. Federal data show roughly one-third of U.S. college freshmen take remedial courses, and those students have a low probability of completing degrees. Analysts often attribute this to a “broken pipeline” of schools through which students flow to higher education, and Murray acknowledges that many, especially urban, schools fail their students. But lots of products of “good” schools also take remedial courses, indicating the problem might not be only the pipes, but some of the water.

The oft-lamented high school dropout rate is another likely product of a system that tries to wedge every round, triangular, or dodecahedral peg into a square hole. Students drop out for myriad reasons, but no doubt two are that they either can’t master the academic material that’s forced on them or they have no interest in it.

Choice Solution

The problem, then, is how to get each all children the education best suited to their abilities without imposing a specific fate upon them. The answer, Murray says, is school choice, which would enable students to pursue studies that truly engage them while destroying the public schooling imperative to push everyone into ivy-ensconced institutions.

“Good things can happen in thousands of individual schools where parents have chosen to send their children and where the school has authority over the way it educates its students,” Murray explains. “On the other hand, none of these good things will be implemented by a large, centrally administered public school system. All of them are too politically sensitive for one reason or another.”

Arguments like these make Real Education logically sound, and the book anticipates many of the objections that have been lodged against it.

Recognizing Differences

But the book is not perfect. Most aggravating is its documentation. Murray does not use traditional endnotes or footnotes, “to avoid cluttering a conversational presentation.” The effect, however, is worse than clutter. The curious—or suspicious—reader is forced to constantly interrupt the “conversation” for a trip to the book’s rear, page-numbered notes section, and he may not find what he’s looking for.

Normal endnotes, with superscript numbers in the text, would at least let readers know whether to bother with an excursion.

Murray is also guilty of making things a bit too black-and-white. He argues, for instance, people planning to become lawyers, corporate heads, or other elites should intensively study the liberal arts in order to develop “wisdom,” and he deems a liberal-arts infused college education “ridiculous” for future accountants, software designers, or farmers. But can’t software designers become community leaders in need of wisdom?

Despite these flaws, by directing attention to the nearly unmentionable possibility that only so many people can master tough academic material, the Grinch has done American education a valuable service. People simply aren’t all the same, and we help no one by acting as if they were.

Neal McCluskey ([email protected]) is associate director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom.