Monday, September 8, 2014

Real Education by Charles Murray

I found Real Education by one of my favorite thinkers, Charles Murray, fascinating. The subtitle is “Four Simple Truths for Bringing America’s Schools Back to Reality” and the book focuses on each of the truths in turn. Murray believes the educational system is living a lie and aims to correct these fundamental misconceptions. He states, “The unifying theme of the [book] is that we are unrealistic about students at every level of academic ability -- asking too much from those at the bottom, asking the wrong things from those in the middle, and asking too little from those at the top.”

The four truths he promulgates are:
  1. Ability varies.
  2. Half of the children are below average.
  3. Too many people are going to college.
  4. America’s future depends on how we educate the academically gifted.

You can see these statements are not only heretical, but push uncomfortably into territory the educational behemoth has staked out for itself. 

Ability varies. Murray shows how with the theory of multiple intelligences, it is assumed that everyone excels in at least one of them. However, research shows that only four of the main seven contribute to academic ability and those are closely related to each other. Therefore, someone with may have high bodily-kinesthetic abilities, but that doesn’t correlate to academic success. It may correlate to other kinds of success, however, but not academic. 

Half of the children are below average. So the question becomes, can we raise the academic ability of those who are below average in the intelligences that matter most to academic success? Apparently, very little. 

Those at the lowest level of ability are able to rise a little and become a little less below average. But basic ability seems to be fairly fixed. (He’s not talking about taking a talented, but underachieving youngster out of an atrocious school and seeing him rise in a more conducive environment. He’s talking about ability regardless of environment.) In fact, he believes we have already made the leap at which most schools are adequate and the source of underachievement is not bad schools. The dream of raising up the bottom half through fundamental reform of the public schools is a romantic dream and a “triumph of hope over experience.”

Too many people are going to college. Murray estimates that between 10-20% of all students are mentally equipped to handle the rigors of a true college education. He further makes the case that colleges are not delivering a good, quality liberal arts education anyways. In fact, most students should be receiving that in high school. In addition, college as we know it is becoming obsolete. With the invention of the internet, the educational establishment is being blown wide open. Finally, the correlation of a college degree with monetary success is not necessarily true and the resulting stratification of society is an outcome to be avoided. 

This chapter hearkens back to the book I just read, Cultural Literacy, and makes the same case that even at the elementary level, our kids are not getting a true education. Creating a core of knowledge that all children proceed through is the best way to educate our citizens, not expecting everyone to go to college and pick it up there. 

He illustrates the difference between our current standards and a core knowledge format. Current Standards: “Read a variety of literature such as folktales, fairytales, poetry, newspapers, magazines, & Internet Web sites.” Core Knowledge Standards: Read “poetry by Lewis Carroll, Nikki Giovanni, Langston Hughes, Eve Merriam & Ogden Nash. Read or are read Alice in Wonderland, tales from The Arabian Nights, “The Little Match Girl,” “William Tell,” selections from Wind in the Willows, Norse myths, Greek & Roman myths, & folktales from around the world.” See the difference. Business as usual hitting and missing key cultural components vs. a true education for all students. 

College has become a no-cost (to the employer) way of screening applicants, has lengthened the time of adolescence, has cost parents a small fortune, has wasted the time of most students, and has led to assumption that the graduates are actually educated. Sigh. 

Murray summarizes the theory behind college today quite nicely: First, we will set up a common goal for every young person that represents educational success. We will call it a B.A. We will then make it difficult or impossible for most people to achieve this goal. For those who can, achieving the goal will take four years no matter what is being taught. We will attach an economic reward for reaching the goal that often has little to do with the content of what has been learned. We will lure large numbers of people who do not possess adequate ability or motivation to try to achieve the goal and then fail. We will then stigmatize everyone who fails to achieve it. 

America’s future depends on how we educate the academically gifted. Ideally, college should be for the 10-20% of our most gifted students. Although it is not politically correct to say, these students are the ones who will end up in influential positions in society (whether we like it or not). “All we can do is try to educate members of the elite to be conscious of, and prepared to meet, the obligations that go with the roles they play.” “The elite is already smart. It needs to be wise.”

Murray calls for a revival of a classical liberal education in college that best teaches the elite to do its duty to society. He advocates rigor in verbal expression, rigor in forming judgments using the study of history, rigor in thinking about virtue and the good starting with Aristotle and the cardinal virtues of temperance, courage, practical wisdom, and justice, as well as Biblical virtues and wisdom, and finally humility. Our elite must be taught what it is to fail. The responsibility of leadership must only be bestowed on those who know how badly things can go wrong. 

Finally, Murray advocates viewing education as a funnel. Those in the lower half are represented by the narrow end. The gains in this area are minimal and the focus should be on core knowledge. Those with the most ability are represented by the wide opening picturing the almost limitless possibilities of the elite. This is the opposite of our current system where gains by the bottom half are the most sought after. 

Instead, group children by ability and treat them differently. Pure heresy, I know. The kids know who is at the top anyways, why try to paper over it. Instead focus on the needs of each group. Teach the bottom half how to make a living and become productive citizens rather than college drop-outs. Offer school choice so kids can go to the school which best fits their abilities. Focus on the overall success of the students in life, not simply math and reading scores which necessarily focus only on those with high academic ability. Forget degrees as the one and only path to success and create a system that embraces interning, credentialing, and entrepreneurship. Open up our current one-size-fits-all system to welcome and facilitate different paths and abilities. 

Redefine the goal of education - “to bring children into adulthood having discovered things they enjoy doing and doing them at the outermost limits of their potential.”

1 comment:

  1. Great summary and review of a thought-provoking book