Education Policy & Charles Murray

There’s a great series of opinion pieces in the Wall Street Journal from earlier this month. Three articles by Charles Murray on January 16, 17, and 18. For now at least they are online at:

I have to start by saying I disagree with him in a few significant ways, but I give Murray a lot of credit for saying things that many are afraid to say. He is a co-author of The Bell Curve, which I remember being rather controversial (for commenting on race/ethnicity and IQ, among other things). In discussing his articles I’ll mention things from them below, but this is not a summary. Read the articles. They’re worth reading, even if you disagree with him.

In the first article he notes: Today’s simple truth: Half of all children are below average in intelligence. We do not live in Lake Wobegon. I love the whole Lake Wobegon thing, especially since I now have two children, and of course they are above average.

What I find really funny about his quote is that he’s got the math wrong. Many people fail to understand the difference between average and median. If there are 31 kids, 10 with an IQ of 150, 10 with an IQ of 120, eleven with an IQ of 98, the average IQ of the group is 121.87096774194. The median is 120. Half the kids are median or above, and half are median or below (that’s what median is). But two-thirds (21 out of 31) are below average in this example.

Murray’s position (also likely to be controversial) is that many people have intellectual limitations, and the education system should recognize that and adjust to it. If little Mikey has an IQ of 90, he will never understand theoretical physics, so resources should not be wasted trying to prepare him for it. Not only that, but Mikey’s time should not be wasted on that either, as he will likely be frustrated and time will be taken away from teaching him things he will be able to do.

Along these lines Murray’s second article talks about vocational schools. He suggests that many kids with IQs of between 100 and 115 should not go to college but would be better off spending that time getting vocational education and training. He notes a cultural attitude that vocational education is “second class”. But as he brilliantly explains:

The spread of wealth at the top of American society has created an explosive increase in the demand for craftsmen. Finding a good lawyer or physician is easy. Finding a good carpenter, painter, electrician, plumber, glazier, mason–the list goes on and on–is difficult, and it is a seller’s market. Journeymen craftsmen routinely make incomes in the top half of the income distribution while master craftsmen can make six figures. They have work even in a soft economy. Their jobs cannot be outsourced to India. And the craftsman’s job provides wonderful intrinsic rewards that come from mastery of a challenging skill that produces tangible results. How many white-collar jobs provide nearly as much satisfaction?

I’ll get to my criticism below, but Murray really nails this point about the value of vocational education and training. We have this notion in our society that everyone should go to college, and that someone who doesn’t go to college is somehow a lesser person. It’s crap. I’ve got friends who either don’t have a college education or at least never talk about having one, and who work in blue-collar fields or otherwise work with their hands. Frankly having been through law school and having friends who are doctors, it seems to me that such professional schools are vocational in nature. That guy’s good at working with wood and I’m good at working with words (though some would dispute that I’m good at anything). Car mechanics and surgeons really are both just fixing machines. In some cases the car problem is more complicated.

What I don’t like about Murray’s approach is his reliance on IQ, or on any notion that there can be one measure of intelligence or intellectual ability. Testing for these things is horrendously unreliable.

I’ll digress for a moment and go off on testing. I think I have some credibility on this for a couple of reasons. First, I’m a great test-taker. My PSAT and SAT scores were very high. I did well on the GRE, fantastic on the GMAT, and nearly aced the LSAT. I never took a prep class for any of these. Second, I actually handled a testing case when I first started my own practice. I got to cross-examine a testing expert (I believe the field is called psychometrics) and learned a lot about the field.

At every level of education I have had friends who were without question as intelligent as I am, some smarter, who did not test as well as I did. When I was in Stanford Business School’s PhD program, just about everyone there was way, way, way smarter than me. I’m not saying I’m a chimp, but they were head-and-shoulders above me. Wicked smart. Good Will Hunting smart. Despite this I often did better on tests.

One of the ways I was born lucky was in getting great test-taking skills. I think quick on exams. If I don’t know the answer I guess and move on with no remorse, and I guess well. I have ice in my veins. I remember taking the LSAT. It was at SUNY Albany near the fountain. I got there early and relaxed, sitting by the fountain with my feet in the water. Others were huddled in the hallways cramming their LSAT review books. During breaks I would go out to the fountain. I watched college girls frolicking in bikinis. No, this is not an ad for U Albany. :-) Ahem. Anyway, others would go back to their review books during the break. I know that cramming at that time just isn’t going to help. It makes you more nervous about what you don’t know.

So one problem with Murray’s approach is figuring out who has the appropriate intellectual ability to go to college. From what I’ve read about Einstein, he wouldn’t have made the cut in almost any system.

Another issue is that there are various kinds of intelligence. One person may have great math skills but not be that good in verbal areas. This seems quite common for engineers. Others may be good with words but weak in math. One great thing about a broad education is that you can find your strength. Someone who does poorly in many areas may have a special aptitude, perhaps in Anthropology or the History of Film.

Finally, Murray’s series reflects a particular purpose of college education, and I don’t agree with it. College doesn’t have to be for the purpose of qualifying for jobs in intellectual fields. We had a landlord in Moss Beach (north of Half Moon Bay) who had a degree in Classical Greek, and he was a contractor and home-builder. Just because you get the degree, it doesn’t mean you have to become a philosopher professionally. College can be for the purpose of making someone well-rounded, and exposing them to intellectual concepts. Even if they don’t master these concepts, the exposure may help the person as they face the challenges of citizenship in a rapidly changing world.

I strongly agree with Murray on the value of vocational education, but I would still encourage anyone who is motivated to give college the old college try. If you like working with wood or some other craft or trade, then go ahead and do that if you know it’s what you want. But don’t let someone else’s tests or their concepts of intelligence keep you out of college if that’s what you want.

4 comments to Education Policy & Charles Murray

  • I recently heard Charles Murray speak on this subject. He stressed that no one should know her own IQ. He made no suggestion that colleges should use IQ as a way to screen applicants.
    If I understand his point correctly, it is that we should not see college as a box into which everyone should be squeezed. The result will likely be a diminution of the standard of a college education, an increase in frustrated students incapable of doing the work, and an increase of those who view college as a 4-year tailgate party with a $30,000 cover charge as Murray Sperber (Beer and Circus) puts it.

  • Anonymous

    I found Dr. Murray‘s series of articles about intelligence and education very thought provoking. Although his comments are persuasive, I urge your readers to pause and think carefully before acting upon any of Dr. Murray’s conclusions.

    We have over time sought to govern ourselves – at least in the United States – according to principles which better reflect our aspirations for society than our more practical understanding of human behavior. Prime among the examples supporting my point is our founding principle that all men are created equal. Even the fourth graders of below average intelligence to which Dr. Murray refers intuitively know that this principle is not supportable with facts. This unrealistic expression of hope informs our approach to many social issues, especially education.

    Further support for the value of impractical social ideals can be found in an examination of the debate over the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Even those who presented valid arguments against the ADA acknowledged the very noble purpose for which it was put forward. It is neither practical nor efficient for us to devote great resources to making new and existing buildings more easily accessible for the benefit of a small fraction of our population. And yet, we must all be proud that more of our fellow citizens can independently enter and work in our buildings.

    If we promote the lofty ideal that we are all created equal, then it follows that we all have the ability and the right to learn. For at least the last several decades of U.S. history, advancement in economic and social status has been closely tied to obtaining a college degree. Efforts towards education are not only about social status, however. The idea that the act of learning at any level is an end in itself is a signature understanding of our best teachers. Day upon day, educators at less celebrated institutions throughout the U.S. are motivated by this understanding to keep up efforts towards engaging many students with little chance for any resulting academic success. These educators know that building up even a few students among many is a noble achievement.

    A job in the trades remains an option for those of us with college degrees. Although some of the IQ-limited students Dr. Murray identifies may be better served by starting vocational training earlier, I bet most would prefer the chance to at least explore their academic potential. As several European and East-Asian countries now demonstrate, trying to determine too early whether a given student should be directed to vocational training rather than college prep tends to stunt creativity in the national economy. Here in the U.S., late bloomers are often welcome in both the laboratory and the board room.

    I tend to think that many intelligent students are indeed being left behind. If the U.S. ever does reach a status in which most of our wasted efforts in education can be clearly attributed to students of low intelligence, we can then look to Dr. Murray’s observations for some guidance.

    Steven Weseman
    Arlington Heights, Illinois

  • I’ve written many blog posts in my time, and the two comments above have to be the most intelligent ones yet. I’m honored that something I wrote attracted such thoughtful comments.

    Thanks — Warren

  • All these observations are completely relevant to the problem of this country's way of doing and encouraging education. There are problems: we need more craftsmen; students aren't doing as well as they could in schools; and quite a few people are wasting time and money on college (though some aren't).
    However, I believe it does boil down to personal choices. Each person should work to find their own abilities and go from there. People are generally smart enough to do what they want; and they do. What they choose for themselves may involve a degree; and it may not. But the choice should be left up to them.

    Warren, you're right; when the big gov't gets involved in testing the IQ of people and deciding for them what is best for them, that's when there is a major problem. Testing 'smarts' is tricky anyway. So perhaps the idea of implementing IQ testing is worse that "mad rushes" toward degrees that Murray is talking about, because it would potentially involve the goverment deciding your life & vocation, and using tax dollars to do it!
    I believe an individual very often either knows best what type, kind, and duration of education would be best for them and/or how to go about it.

    Whenever social scientists educators get hyped up about "fixing" something in the system, I get wary. And for good reason; the responsibilty and choices of education ought to be left in the hands of the people.

    I have enjoyed you post, and will be back again.

    H. Hottenstein