- The Washington Times - Friday, September 5, 2008



A Q& A with Charles Murray, author of “Real Education: Four Simple Truths for Bringing America’s Schools Back to Reality.”

TWT: “Real Education” posits that “the educational system is living a lie.” Explain.

CHARLES MURRAY: Everybody pretends that every child can be anything he or she wants to be, and yet nobody really believes it. Everyone has known from first grade that some kids are smart and some kids are dumb. By fifth grade, we knew that some of our classmates weren’t going to become engineers no matter how hard they studied and that some kids would be lucky if they finished high school. But if you’re a politician or part of the educational establishment, you can’t say such obvious truths.

Some people tell me “lie” is too strong a word. OK, here’s a test: Politicians of both parties are constantly telling us how their plan will get more students to go to college. Tell me the last major politician you heard acknowledge that some high school graduates just aren’t smart enough for college. You can’t - because none of them will say it, even though everyone knows it’s true. That’s what I mean by “living a lie.”

TWT: If too many people who do not need a liberal education are heading to college anyway because employers demand it and society expects it, as you argue, what would be the optimal number of liberally educated Americans?

CM: In an ideal world, everyone would get a liberal education. It is a wonderful thing to have acquired. But start with the reality that lots of people don’t want to go through the process - spending day after day studying philosophy and history and literature is not something they enjoy doing, and it’s hard to make people get a liberal education if they aren’t interested.

Then consider the intellectual demands. If “liberal education” refers to a core curriculum with demanding survey courses in history, literature, the hard and soft sciences, and the arts, then a maximum of 20 percent of the population can get a liberal education. That’s not elitism. Just take a look at the books you have to be able to read and understand to get through those courses. In Real Education, I gave examples of some randomly chosen sample paragraphs from major textbooks just to remind people how hard genuine college-level material is. Then there’s the advanced mathematics you need to get through the science and economics requirements that must be part of a liberal education. 20 percent is optimistic, actually.

But the skeleton of a liberal education is accessible to people with a wide range of intellectual ability. If you have the skeleton, you haven’t, for example, read Kant’s Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, but you know who Kant is and know what “categorical imperative” means. I think every child should be given an opportunity for that level of liberal education - but let’s not wait for college to do it. A great deal of the skeleton of a liberal education can and should be done in K–12.

TWT: You write that “The elite is already smart. It needs to be wise.” How so?

CM: You can get a degree from Harvard, Brown, Stanford, Duke - take your choice of elite university - without having been required to acquire rigor in verbal expression, rigor in forming judgments, or rigor in thinking about virtue and the Good. By “rigor” I mean having mastered the intricacies of logic, rhetoric, probability, and the nature of proof, among other things, and then having had your feet held to the fire for every logical lapse, every glib argument, every misuse of evidence in your term papers. Along with that, students need to graduate knowing, in a deep sense, the difference between being nice and being good. Most of all, they need to have taken the first step toward wisdom, which is being painfully aware that they aren’t as smart as they once thought they were.

TWT: How likely is it that the bachelor’s degree could lose its status as the nearly exclusive entry point to the middle class?

CM: It’s going to be tough, because the upper middle class is happy with the college system the way it is. But the B.A. is such a weak indicator of job qualifications. There are so many young people who are being punished by the artificial importance of the B.A. And the alternatives to going to a four-year, brick-and-mortar institution to learn what you need to learn are growing so fast, that I am long-term optimistic.

TWT: Could the presidential candidates contribute meaningfully to this debate? If so, how?

CM: Let’s see now. John McCain says in a speech “You know, we’ve got to realize that No Child Left Behind is never going to work, because many children do not have ability to become proficient in reading and math in the way that the law demands.” I don’t think so. Or Barack Obama says, “We’ve got to start pointing out to young people that a lot of jobs that require a BA are really boring and that we’ve got a profusion of well-paying and satisfying jobs that don’t need a college degree. We’ve got too many people going to college who don’t belong there.” It’s not going to happen. Because, when it comes to education, let me say it again: We are living a lie.

Brendan Conway writes occasionally for The Washington Times.



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