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No nation left behind: An interview with Charles Murray

By Bernard Chapin
web posted September 8, 2008

Charles MurrayMy father always said that anyone who lived through John F. Kennedy's assassination remembers what they were doing at the precise moment the president was shot. This may well be true, but we also lucidly recall the circumstances of far lesser events such as the controversy surrounding the publication of The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life by Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray. The furor its conclusions caused is forever ingrained in my memory.

At the time I was a psychology graduate student and found that most of my associates were familiar with the work but deemed it a book to be burned rather than read. I, however, bought it anyway, and like to think that my purchase foreshadowed my eventual defection from the Democratic Party. While the mainstream media may deem Dr. Charles Murray a pariah, he has been a hero of mine for fourteen years. His fame preceded the 1990s, however. Losing Ground: American Social Policy 1950–1980 is a work that permanently altered public perceptions regarding the welfare state. Therefore, it was an honor to have him answer a few questions about his latest publication, Real Education: Four Simple Truths for Bringing America's Schools Back to Reality. Currently, he is the W. H. Brady Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

BC:Congratulations on the publication of your new book, Real Education: Four Simple Truths for Bringing America's Schools Back to Reality, why does the future of this nation depend on the education of the gifted? Personally, I find your assumption non-remarkable, but why are so many of our elites offended by the notion that we should assist the strong?

Dr. Charles Murray: The academically gifted run the country. That's not what should be, that's what is. It can be demonstrated empirically that the overwhelming majority of people in positions of economic, cultural, and political influence is drawn from among those in the top ten percent of academic ability. That being the case, they need to arrive at those positions possessing an education—a classic, rigorous, liberal education—that gives them the best possible chance of being wise as well as technically well-trained.  The resistance of the elites to this idea? It makes them feel…elitist.  And above all else, we mustn't think anything that makes us feel bad about ourselves.

BC: Along these lines, is our nation's devotion to the education of the handicapped—as discernable in the billions spent on special education since 1975—at the expense of higher functioning students—an example of compassion gone mad? In your view, for what reason do we preference the disabled over the abled?

Dr. Charles Murray: I am an impassioned advocate for the proposition that none of us deserves the academic ability we possess, whether it be high or low. So I am happy to see money spent on the academically handicapped, as long as the money actually accomplishes something. Most of it doesn't, and meanwhile we have neglected the kind of education that might really make a difference in their lives (e.g., teaching them ways of making a living despite their handicaps). But neglecting the gifted is just as morally bankrupt as neglecting the handicapped. We don't consider deliberately withholding special training from the athletically or musically gifted—we would think it unfair (even spiteful) to the child to do so. The same logic applies to the academically gifted.

BC: The major group tests given to college applicants—such as the SAT and the ACT—assess academic skills, is it your position that new evaluation measures should be normed and implemented that incorporate cognitive capacity as well (due to it better identifying, for employers, students who will excel in a vocational setting)?

Dr. Charles Murray: The SAT and ACT are actually pretty good measures of cognitive ability. But I'm in favor of moving toward certification tests that are specific to a vocation (the CPA exam is the archetype), and that measure what a job applicant knows, not where he learned it or how long it took or, for that matter, what his cognitive ability is. If I'm hiring a carpenter, I want to know if he's a good carpenter. The same principle should apply if I'm hiring management trainees, physicians, or even, God help us, public policy analysts.

BC: For those of us who have been to college, the correlation between a Bachelor of Arts degree and future vocational achievement is not readily evident. What brought about the state wherein the four-year degree is a prerequisite for white collar employment? It seems that what many students learn at college is completely superfluous to the tasks they must perform after graduation.

Dr. Charles Murray: Except for a few technical majors such as engineering, a bachelor's degree does not signal professional competence, but is a no-cost (to the employer) screen for perseverance and a certain degree of intelligence. As the number of BAs grew from the 1950s onward, it has made more and more sense for employers to use it as a  screen (as more people get BAs, the fewer good job prospects the employer is missing by requiring a BA). The problem is: It's a very coarse, low-information screen. Certification tests would give the employer more information by orders of magnitude.

BC: In your opinion, how politically corrupted are the liberal arts colleges within our universities? One always hears leftists say that the radicals in the news—as profiled in books like David Horowitz's The Professors—are not indicative of the whole.

Dr. Charles Murray: One of my daughters finished at Middlebury a year ago, got an excellent liberal education (in the classic sense of that phrase), and experienced little political correctness among her professors. Another of my daughters told me matter-of-factly that of course she had to incorporate the right feminist perspective in her senior thesis, because otherwise her thesis supervisor wouldn't accept it—and that was at Harvard. So I don't have a good answer to your question.  It all depends. I'm sure my Middlebury daughter could have found courses that were corrupt and that many Harvard thesis advisors would be appalled at the idea of letting politics contaminate scholarship. 

BC: How likely is any educational reform with the teacher's unions as strong as they are?

Dr. Charles Murray: In my experience, the teachers' unions are mostly a problem in the big-city systems. My younger two children went to the public schools in a small town. The teachers are unionized, but I can't see how it created any serious problems. I'm one of those who thinks that teachers are getting too much blame. The real problem with public education (again, except for the big-city systems) is the awful curriculum that the teachers have to work with.

BC: Even for higher functioning children—males in particular—given the exorbitant cost of a college education would not a career in the trades be a more prudent choice?

Dr. Charles Murray: Have you checked out the going rate for master stonemasons these days? Forget the ridiculous costs of a college education. Just take a close look at the real and large rewards, monetary and intrinsic, of becoming a master craftsman in almost any trade.

BC: I know a great many educators and the vast of majority of them wholeheartedly believe that educational deficiencies in urban settings are due to a lack of funding. Of course this is totally fallacious. Washington D.C. has some of the worst schools in the country and they are third on the list in terms of per pupil spending while Chicago is well above the national average. In your estimation, what's the best way to refute the horrendous argument that in education cash equals quality?

Dr. Charles Murray: It's been done. The technical literature has documented the unimportance of differences in per-pupil funding for more than 40 years, going back to the massive Coleman Report. So how do you get newspaper editorial writers and politicians to become technically literate? Beats the hell out of me. Maybe we should pass a No Journalist or Politician Left Behind Act.

BC: Thanks so much for your time, Dr. Murray. ESR

Bernard Chapin is the author of Women: Theory and Practice and Escape from Gangsta Island along with a series of videos called Chapin's Inferno. You can contact him at veritaseducation@gmail.com.






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