- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 3, 2008




First of three excerpts.

America is run by an elite. That’s not a controversial statement. Every complex society is run by an elite, in the sense that a tiny fraction of the population has a decisive effect on the economy and culture.

Consider the American economy, and the role that is played by the heads of the hundred largest corporations, hundred largest financial institutions, and the hundred largest hedge and venture capital funds. Combine their influence with that of the hundred most powerful economic policy-makers in the executive branch and the hundred most powerful politicians in the House and Senate. It amounts to just 500 people, but think of the collective effect they have on how much your groceries cost and whether you can find a job.

Consider the culture, and the comparably small numbers that apply to people who shape our constitutional jurisprudence, report the news, and create the nation’s films, television shows, music, and books. Even in the age of the Internet, a few thousand people have vastly bigger megaphones - and raw power-than everyone else.

Membership in the elite has no hard boundary. The CEO of the 101st largest corporation is also obviously part of the elite, and so is the CEO of the 1000th largest, albeit with declining influence. Using a broad definition, the elite includes the nation’s notably successful in all the professions-professors who publish influentially in their fields, for example, or trial lawyers who take the big cases and set legal precedents. It includes the people who shape the life of a community-who run local businesses, banks, television stations, newspapers, schools, and churches. In the aggregate, this broad elite also has a massive effect on the nation’s economy and culture.

Add them all up, and America’s elite comprises more than a million adults. But it is still an elite - a small fraction of our 300 million people. The good news is that America has gone further than any other country in opening admission to the elite to talented people whatever their origins. But that does not change the reality that a small proportion of the American population has a huge effect on our future.

What these people have in common is that, with the exception of the occasional empty-headed heir, they are almost always pretty smart. They don’t have to be geniuses but, just as an offensive tackle in the NFL has to weigh 300 pounds to have much chance to make the team, you have to have intellectual ability in the top ten percent to have much of a chance to be notably successful in the elite occupations.

The top ten percent is not a hard-and-fast requirement (just as there are still a few 290-pound offensive tackles), but it is a good ballpark figure for the intellectual ability needed to stand out in the jobs held by the people who run the country. It has to be true for jobs that require advanced professional degrees, because the academic filter requires intellectual ability that high. But scholarly investigations have found that extremely large proportions of people who are notably successful in the rest of the elite occupations I listed have intellectual ability in the top ten percent. For convenience, I will refer to the top ten percent as “gifted” - the right word, since no one earns high intellectual ability. It is a gift.

To anticipate the standard criticisms: Being gifted does not mean you are part of the elite. The great majority of the gifted are not. Nor is intellectual ability the decisive factor in success - other qualities are more important than intellectual ability once you’re smart enough, just as other qualities are more important than poundage to offensive tackles who weigh enough.

My point is this: Almost all of the eighteen-year-olds who will become the elite of the future are heading off to college this month. We need to think systematically about how college should educate this group that will produce the people who will run the country in the future-think about it not for their sakes, but for ours.

The defect with their current college education is not that they don’t get enough years of education. More than ninety percent of the gifted go to college. About eighty percent of them get a BA. Of those, about half continue in some form of postgraduate education. If the measure is raw amount of education as measured by years in school, then the nation is doing fine with its next generation of gifted children.

If the measure is the quality of their professional training, the nation is also doing fine. America’s professional and graduate schools are the best in the world at turning out physicians who know their medicine, lawyers who know their law, and engineers who know their engineering.

The problem with the education of the gifted involves not the amount of education nor their professional training, but their training as citizens. Those among the gifted who go on to become members of the elite make decisions that affect the lives of the rest of us. We need to structure their college education so that they have the best possible chance to become not just knowledgeable, but wise.

The encouragement of wisdom requires a special kind of education that hardly any college requires any more: A classic, rigorous, liberal education. In the next two days, I will take up two of its aspects: rigor in thinking about virtue and the good, and rigor in understanding one’s own limits.

Charles Murray is the author of “Real Education: Four Simple Truths for Bringing America’s Schools Back to Reality.”

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