Questioning the Paper Chase

Charles Murray is a scholar known for his willingness to say controversial things, back them up with mountains of research, and then calmly deal with the firestorm of protest from people who can’t tolerate a challenge to their beliefs. His first famous book, Losing Ground (1984) made the startlingly counterintuitive case that welfare hurts the very people it’s supposed to help. Now he has done it again with Real Education (Crown Forum, 210 pages), a book that is certain to cause screaming in America’s education establishment.

Most Americans are lost in a fog of wishful thinking about education, Murray argues. They want to believe that every young person is equally educable and that we can solve social inequalities by ensuring that nearly all children complete high school and go on to earn college degrees. Reality says otherwise, however. Kids vary enormously in ability, which means that the right kind and extent of education varies tremendously. And instead of trying to put more students through college, we should recognize that we already have far too many there.

I’m going to focus mainly on Murray’s thoughts regarding higher education, but it’s important to get the big picture. Throughout our whole educational system, 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,” he maintains. From kindergarten to college and from the smartest students to the dullest, our education system underperforms.

What is the matter with higher education in America? The main problem is that most students go to college because they think it’s the best or only path to a good job. Unfortunately, Murray argues, it hardly ever makes sense to go to a traditional four-year college simply to acquire vocational skills: “For the student who wants to become a good hotel manager, software designer, accountant, hospital administrator, farmer, high school teacher, social worker, journalist, optometrist, interior designer, or football coach, four years of class work is ridiculous.”

Most of what such workers need to know will be learned on the job and they ought to have alternatives to getting a B.A. for the basic knowledge that helps them get started. Community colleges, vo-tech institutes, and online courses are far more sensible for occupationally minded students.

Murray does a masterful job of debunking the idea that nearly everyone should go to college because of the “wage premium” that is supposed to come with having a bachelor’s degree. People who ought to know better keep saying that the U.S. should put more students through college because they’ll earn far higher incomes – a notion I recently wrote about here here. Murray first observes that the benefit of the college degree, if any, usually stems from the fact that employers use it as a screening device, writing, “The employer does not value what the student learned, just that the student has a degree.” Then he sets up a thought experiment involving a hypothetical high school student to show how foolish it is to assume that having the college degree necessarily means a better life.

Consider a young man who is at the 70th percentile in language and mathematical ability. He is easily a good enough student to get into mid-level universities. As far as his “people skills” go he is average, but in small motor and spatial skills, he’s at the 95th percentile. The fellow could go to college and get a degree that would put him on track for a management job – where he probably wouldn’t rise far because he’ll be competing with many others who have better skills.

On the other hand, he could become an excellent electrician. If he were to do that, he would probably earn substantially more than if he became a manager and also enjoy far greater job security. Moreover, there is the important matter of personal satisfaction. Our young man will probably have far more of it in a career where he can see tangible results every day and quite possibly become his own boss.

Conclusion: “(G)uidance counselors and parents who automatically encourage young people to go to college straight out of high school regardless of their skills and interests are being thoughtless about the best interests of young people in their charge.” Murray has that exactly right. We need to break out of the mindset that you can’t be a success in life unless you have a college degree.

Putting hordes of students in college who don’t have any great desire to learn but only want their degree has bad effects on the academic environment. Schools get pressure to keep lowering standards, to inflate grades, and to make courses entertaining and “relevant.” Not only does this waste an awful lot of time and money, but it also prolongs adolescence. The pervasive coddling that goes on at many schools, such as professors’ reluctance to criticize lousy student writing, keeps them from growing up.

Now, if we took away all the students who are in college only because they think it puts them on a good career path and eliminated the many courses that supposedly accomplish that, what is left? Answer: a small cadre of students and a liberal arts curriculum. That’s Murray’s vision for the ideal higher education system.

But we need something more than merely an assemblage of good courses, Murray argues. “The problem with the education of the gifted involves not the amount of education nor their professional training, but their training as citizens…We need to structure their education so that they have the best possible chance to become not just knowledgeable but wise.”

Accomplishing that is something for which there is no direct and simple method. The best we can do is to educate in a way that imparts to the student humility – the recognition that we all have limits and can be mistaken – and sound judgment. Sound judgment can be taught or at least encouraged by teaching logic and data evaluation. Murray’s sense of what a good education consists of is thus dramatically different from that which now prevails, where the constant emphasis on student self-esteem and satisfaction tends to discourage humility and where courses on logic and data analysis usually find few takers.

Real Education is a radical book in the true sense of the word – it penetrates to the root of our largely ineffective and overly costly educational system.