January 19, 2007

Read it and - I don't know, freak out?

Came across the latest 3-part piece by Charles Murray in the WSJ that basically states that too many folks who shouldn't be in college are. I agree with that general assertion, based on a lot of the kids I saw when I was a TA. You could predict who would wash out after the first semester, and you wondered why they wasted their time--they seemed dispirited and uncomfortable from the start, and beyond a certain point, there just wasn't much in the way of remediation that would benefit them. To put it bluntly, they just weren't smart enough to do the work--it wasn't a socio-economic thing, a home environment thing, or anything else.

I admire anyone who wants to get a college education to better him or herself, but watching the struggle and subsequent depression some of these kids experienced was painful. So I'm down with the whole "everyone doesn't necessarily need college" argument, and no, I don't mean that those folks without degrees should be doomed to low-paying jobs. Murray argues much the same way, but he will inevitably be called a racist, or sexist or elitist, because of what his argument is based on.

Murray's assertions are based on simple math formulas and IQ scores, which is what makes them so controversial and unpleasant. And I wonder what reaction other folks had to reading these pieces?

For me, I understand that not everyone is created equal, not intellectually or physically. But as someone raised in the fullness of the American dream--trust me, I could totally run as a populist and tell horror stories about my mill-worker grandparents with the elementary school educations while shoveling muck in the aftermath of some natural disaster, blah, blah, blah--it grates on me to hear that IQ determines educational success. "What about good old-fashioned elbow grease and spirit and bootstraps?" cries the tiny voice in my head.

Murray points out that high IQs don't necessarily lead to prosperity, and that low ones don't lead to poverty. And he's right. So why am I so disheartened by this? Is it because it seems awfully deterministic? Or am I so sensitive to things that seem deterministic because I was raised in the age of "you're a special flower of individualism"?

Posted by Big Arm Woman at January 19, 2007 12:31 PM | TrackBack

Those who object to saying someone ought to learn a trade rather than get a degree are betraying their own prejudice against 'ordinary' people. It doesn't denigrate 'Smith' in the least to suggest he may be a better plumber than proctologist, unless we suppose that there is something inferior about plumbers.

Posted by: PersonFromPorlock at January 24, 2007 08:41 AM

PfP -

I don't think it's the reverse snobbery thing, at least not for me. It's the conflict with the idea I've always held that "if you want something badly enough, you can achieve it" conflicting with Murray's "no you can't; you're limited by IQ get over it and move on" that bothers me.

That underlying determinism, the idea that you can't really overcome what you're born with runs contrary to the American dream, particularly if we're to believe what all those inspirational Hallmark movies want to tell us. ;)

Posted by: BAW at January 24, 2007 09:39 AM

BAW, sorry to be the bearer of bad tidings but your dog will never learn calculus. It would be nice if all the American dream took was trying hard, and trying hard will help, but trying hard at something you've a talent for works even better... which is Murray's point.

As for an "underlying determinism," our limits define who we are. Having this talent and not that one, or *this* one and not *that* one, is what makes us individuals. We're still free to act within those limits, or indeed outside of them if we don't mind failure.

Posted by: PersonFromPorlock at January 24, 2007 06:29 PM

Whew, it's a relief your comments are back up, I was worried I was going to have to post this whole thing on my own blog.

The problem with the article is Charles Murray spends most of it being colossally disingenuous. The first section tells us how people with average or slightly below average IQ's just can't possibly be expected to get good grades in school or even graduate from college. It's not an unreasonable hypothesis. Clearly there is some such thing as "intelligence". And it is equaly clear that some people have less of it and that they suffer in educational pursuits.

The problem (for Murray's theory) is that average people *can* excel in college and we know this is true because they *do*. In part two, Murray admits this, "yet more than 45% of recent high school graduates enroll in four-year colleges." But rapidly carries on to say this doesn't prove he's wrong, no, some 75% of all people who go to college are going for the wrong reason, "some large proportion of students on today's college campuses--probably a majority of them--are looking for something that the four-year college was not designed to provide."

Why are these people wrong to go to college? Part three explains, "It requires first of all recognition of one's own intellectual limits and fallibilities--in a word, humility. This is perhaps the most conspicuously missing part of today's education of the gifted." In sort, we can't have slightly less then 45% of people succeeding at college because college should be set up to humble the 15% of society that is the most intelligent and motivated to succeed in intellectual pursuits.

But wait! The start of the article, the very first line or perhaps the subhead said, "Half of all children are below average, and teachers can do only so much for them. " This was never proven! After several contortions what Murray seems to have said is teachers can't teach the bottom 50% because they should be busy humbling the top 15%.

That’s why the article’s annoying even if you agree that too many people choose meaningless college degrees in marketing when they should be becoming electricians. It’s annoying because it’s both dishonest and tautological.

But what of Murray's dream society where the best and brightest go off to school to become humble renaissance men? It’s attractive. No doubt about it, the academia you so frequently mock (and many other pursuits besides), might be considerably less laughable if they’d spent more time during school being overwhelmed by a fire hose delivered flood of Socrates and Hobbs and less time doing jello-shots and smoking pot. Unfortunately, it’s also a very unlikely. For one thing, modern academia would have to abandon their current teaching practices wholesale and start working considerably harder to challenge really intelligent people. Number two, I hardly thing Murray wants the best and the brightest to learn absolutely all the Marxist and post modern philosophy that they can, so academia would need to shift their philosophical outlook to that of 1940’s Britain. And number three the entire white collar economy is happy to use college as a system for determining who’s reasonably, if not exceptionally, intelligent and willing to jump through strange hoops. What massive economic force is going to prompt it to change?

In short, we all long for the days when men were just and bold, wise and educated, valiant and stalwart, but we certainly shouldn’t fool ourselves into believing they ever really existed or that we know how usher that age of prosperity back into being.

Posted by: David Krumm at January 24, 2007 07:29 PM
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