The Problem of Charles Murray

Charles “The Bell Curve” Murray is back with a three-part essay series on edcuation, published in The Wall Street Journal:

  • Part I: The world is full of stupid people.
  • Part II: Too many stupid people go to college.
  • Part III: We should spend more money on the tiny fraction of people who are smart.

(You can also find them on the American Enterprise Institute site, if the WSJ links rot.)

Charles Murray bugs me, because he makes my life more difficult. Not because he’s a bold iconoclast challenging the hidebound educational establishment, but because his writing on these topics has a smugly patrician and crypto-racist air that contaminates everything that even comes close to sounding related to one of his ideas. When, like the proverbial blind pig, he stumbles onto the occasional good idea (we do scant gifted education in this country, and it’s a shame), he wrecks it for the rest of us.

I have, on occasion, said some things about American education that are broadly similar to some of the things Murray says. The way he says them, though, makes me feel icky. Consider this gem from part I:

Now take the girl sitting across the aisle who is getting an F. She is at the 20th percentile of intelligence, which means she has an IQ of 88. If the grading is honest, it may not be possible to do more than give her an E for effort. Even if she is taught to read every bit as well as her intelligence permits, she still will be able to comprehend only simple written material. It is a good thing that she becomes functionally literate, and it will have an effect on the range of jobs she can hold. But still she will be confined to jobs that require minimal reading skills. She is just not smart enough to do more than that.

I mean, you can just hear the condescension dripping from his keyboard, puddling at his feet, and staining the floorboards. Even leaving aside his dogged insistence that IQ is a reliable measurement of anything, this just sounds creepy. “Even if she is taught to read every bit as well as her intelligence permits”– you can see the marks where he edited out “the poor little thing,” for length reasons.

And the maddening thing is, he’s rooting around blindly in a truffle-rich environment. There are good arguments to be made along some of these lines: There are a fair number of students in the educational system who would be better served by some sort of vocational training than by pushing them through high school and into college (though the Dean Dad does a nice job of explaining where he’s wrong about two-year colleges. But the fact that Murray is making these arguments makes it harder for anybody who actually has credibility to make them, once he’s oozed all over them.

Even when he takes a relatively inoffensive idea like “We should set aside more money for educating the best and brightest students,” in Part III, he has to sneak in a slimy little aside:

The gifted should not be taught to be nonjudgmental; they need to learn how to make accurate judgments. They should not be taught to be equally respectful of Aztecs and Greeks; they should focus on the best that has come before them, which will mean a light dose of Aztecs and a heavy one of Greeks. The primary purpose of their education should not be to let the little darlings express themselves, but to give them the tools and the intellectual discipline for expressing themselves as adults.

It’s absolutely maddening. He’s “Uncle Al” with a think-tank job. I realize it’s the Wall Street Journal op-ed page, and not a publication with an intellectual reputation to protect, but honestly, why do people keep promoting this slime?

Feh. Now I need a shower– I’ve got Charles Murray all over my hands.