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.