- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 7, 2008


By Charles Murray

Crown, $24.95, 168 pages


Few people now speak openly about something almost everyone believes to be true: Students’ academic abilities vary — a lot. Yet we act as if all children attend a Lake Wobegon school district bursting at the seams with above-average students. The result is a stress between what we know and what we profess. And it is at the heart of America’s education woes, argues Charles Murray in his new book, “Real Education: Four Simple Truths for Bringing America’s Schools Back to Reality.”

Because education involves children, our views about it are softened by sentimentality, a natural tendency accelerated by the modern self-esteem movement. We no longer accept the statistical fact that half of all children are below average in academic ability. Politicians have no incentive to renounce this romanticism. “Of all the people hooked on wishful thinking,” writes Mr. Murray, “politicians have the most untreatable habit.”

“Educational romanticism” has another source. Education “is a powerful divider and classifier. Education affects income, and income divides. Education affects occupation, and occupations divide,” Mr. Murray wrote in “The Bell Curve,” his controversial book about intelligence and class structure. Many Americans worry that while for those with advanced degrees and credentials life appears to be growing easier and more prosperous, for those with little education it is harder to earn a decent living and society’s respect. If only the benefits of education could be redistributed more evenly across the population.

Our attempts to do this have been counterproductive, according to Mr. Murray, precisely because we refuse to deal honestly with students’ diverse academic ability. He asks us to consider two common goals of education policy: We must close academic achievement gaps between groups of students, and ensure that all students have the opportunity to attend college. Closing achievement gaps is the purpose of the No Child Left Behind education law. NCLB caps a decades-long obsession with raising reading and math scores-obstinate things-and requires that all students be proficient in the subjects by 2014. It is wrong to demand that students meet standards set without regard to their ability, says Mr. Murray. We are “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,” shortchanging all of them.

Advocating college for all is a harmful goal because it creates a single definition of success. “The misbegotten, pernicious, wrong-headed idea that not going to college means you’re a failure” deforms our whole education system. Ignored and disparaged are programs to support and guide the majority of students who do not attend or will not graduate from college because their ability and interests carry them elsewhere. Our schools mislead students into thinking that success constitutes a career doing something many of them will be mediocre at, rather than “the satisfaction of being good at what one does for a living.”

Mr. Murray takes a moral sledgehammer to our one-size-fits-all education mind-set. The beginning of reform lies in redefining the measures of education success, and it starts with telling our kids the truth: “They will have succeeded if they discover something they love doing and learn how to do it well.” What people love doing and are capable of doing well varies greatly, and our schools need to adjust themselves to this truth.

“Real Education” offers practical suggestions for making such adjustments. We should expand choice. Teach work-bound students applicable skills. Use certification programs to undermine the bachelor’s degree. Let gifted children go as fast as they can. But Mr. Murray’s primary purpose is to rattle our thinking. He indicts current policy because it represents conventional thinking, the romanticism that permeates our education system.

The question is whether we can do the right thing for our children while the education system is “living a lie.” Plato wrote that men ought to be told they were born as gold, silver or bronze, and that this birth characteristic will immutably determine their station in life. It was the noble lie of the ancients, and it is one that American democracy utterly rejects. But the antithesis-that there are no limits in life-is no better, and it is America’s own noble lie.

We can reject both of these lies. In the deepest and most meaningful ways, all people are free and capable to determine the trajectory of their lives. At the same time, individuals differ dramatically in their abilities. Kids already know this. It’s only the adults who continue to construct educational fantasies.

Phil Brand is director of Education Watch at the Capital Research Center.

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