A famous contrarian insists that children differ in ability and that their education should recognise this.
I first encountered the writing of the social scientist, Charles Murray when he published a long article in an English newspaper in 1989 entitled, “The Emerging British Underclass.” At the time his view, that a whole swathe of British society was functioning dangerously apart from the usual consensus of civic behaviour, was derided by both the left and right of the political scene. Ten years later he revisited the trends he had analysed to such devastating effect in his earlier article. These were: that large numbers of unemployed young men and single mother households where fathers were absent were causing massive social problems -- violent crime in particular. By the year 2000 these findings could no longer be derided, though there has been much debate both as to the causes and the solutions.
I mention this preamble to establish Murray’s credentials as a serious conservative thinker who has done thorough and painstaking homework on the controversial issues he discusses. A Harvard history graduate, he did a doctorate in political science at MIT. In Real Education, a critical survey of the educational scene in America, he includes 30 pages of notes and statistics as well as a 10-page bibliography; this is not designed to impress but to aid those readers who wish to deepen their own understanding of the subject in hand.
So what is his thesis here? To confront the accepted “lie” that every child can be anything he/she wants to be with four truths: that ability varies; that half of the children are below average, that too many people go to college; and that the future of the US depends on how we educate the academically gifted. Like the subject of race and multiculturalism, the question of intellectual ability is an explosive topic over which there seems to be a conspiracy of silence. Yet what Murray states would be simple common sense to most mothers; they know early on which of their children has academic ability and which has not. (Children in the classroom also know this very early, although the school structure tries to disguise it).
On his first point Murray argues that we recognise special ability in athletics, in music and in art, but that when it comes to logical-mathematical ability and linguistic ability we refuse to do so. “Many of the things that high ability students can do are different in kind [not just degree] from the things that low ability students can do.” On his second, seemingly harsher point, readers will interject, “What exactly is meant by ‘below average’?” Here Murray has examined all the well-known research findings: the NAEP Long-Term Trend Study, the Coleman Report, Title I and No Child Left Behind. He also surveys schemes of early intervention, the differing standards of the public schools, low income neighbourhoods and other variables that might impact on test results.
His conclusion: that it is possible to move children from far below average intellectually to somewhat less below average; that family background “is far and away the most important factor in determining student achievement”; and that the NCLB scheme “has done nothing to raise reading skills despite the enormous effort that has been expended.” All this will be anathema to members of the progressive establishment, but Murray is at pains to emphasise that although current egalitarian ideals of educational achievement are unattainable, more can be done for children of below average academic ability -- if we cease to be educational romantics and get a grip on reality. Indeed, his sub-title is “Four simple truths for bringing America’s schools back to reality” – a disarming enough idea if it were not walking through an ideological minefield.
This leads to his third point: too many young people are steered towards a college education, for which they are unfitted, because of the necessity of a BA for employment prospects. He would like school career advisers to point out to non-academic pupils that they could earn a higher income and get more job satisfaction from training to be a first-class plumber or electrician than spending four years at college chasing a devalued BA to end up in an office job of low status. He is also scathing about the reality of campus life, including that of prestigious universities: “College life...is not designed to midwife maturity but to prolong adolescence.”
His final consideration, how should we properly educate the 10 per cent (his estimation) of those academically gifted enough to benefit from a college education, is the most stimulating. “We need to give them the chance to become, not just knowledgeable, but wise.” This requires the practise of the cardinal virtues: prudence, justice, fortitude and self-control; being nice or being pleasant is not enough to form character, the characters that will, inevitably, become the elite that will run the country and shape its opinions. Murray does not introduce a religious perspective; his suggestions come from a consideration of Confucius and Aristotle -- that is, what civilisation has concluded are the natural virtues necessary to lead a good human life. Needless to say, few of the future leaders of society are ever challenged today during their school and college careers on what it means to lead a good, as opposed to a successful, life.
This is only the briefest of summaries of a book that is thoughtful, provocative -- and wise. Reading it I had a strong sense of familiarity with the terrain, for the situation in the UK is very similar to the US education scene under discussion: an overloaded, enormous, state-run school system (Murray favours charter schools, among other positive ideas), a worryingly high number of school drop-outs who are functionally innumerate and illiterate (raising the question of the underclass again), a disproportionately large number of college students studying subjects such as “Health and Tourism” (with a further high drop-out rate) and so on.
To end with a personal memory that came irresistibly to my mind when reading this book and which illustrates Murray’s essential point: I do some private coaching in English language and literature and some years ago a girl came to me wanting tuition for her English Advanced Level exam. She was 18, soon to leave school and her ambition was to be a nursery nurse. However, her school had persuaded her try for college and for this she had to have at least one A level; she had been advised to take English literature, on the basis of having muddled through the English Ordinary level exam (taken at 16). The set text was Shakespeare’s Othello which she confessed she didn’t “get”. I was to help her “get it”.
She was pleasant, hard-working, wrote many notes and struggled with the essays I gave her, which were based on former exam papers. That she found it difficult is an understatement; with the best will in the world she could not do it. The climax came when I asked her to analyse Desdemona’s state of mind in the scene just before she is strangled by Othello. The girl described her as being “cute and cheerful”. I could not tell her she was unsuited to a study of Shakespeare as this would have undermined her self-esteem (and contradicted her teachers). So she took the exam – and to my amazement she scraped through. This, I am certain, was nothing to do with my tuition and everything to do with the increasingly low standard of what was once an elitist exam.
Francis Phillips writes from the UK.