Sunday, December 28, 2008

How not to think about higher education

This morning's NYT doesn't have an "On Language" column in the Magazine, but they have something that may fundamentally ruin your breakfast, not in Safire's out-of-touch-old-guy-talking-about-stuff-he-doesn't-get way, but in the wrong-way-on-the-interstate-at-blinding-speed, here-comes-disaster kind of way. It's an op ed piece by Charles Murray. (For the record, he lists a Ph.D. in political science from MIT and a B.A. in history from Harvard.) You may remember him as the co-star of such affronts to civilization as the Bell Curve, a book that argued for deep 'racial' differences in intelligence.

His current hobbyhorse, here presented as advice to President-elect Obama, is potentially more dangerous because it may not be instantly obvious to every lifeform how batshit insane it is. He's pushing the line that we "should forget the dream of universal college education". Why? Almost all of us are innately stupid. Consider a couple of quotes:
  • A large majority of young people do not have the intellectual ability to do genuine college-level work.
  • Except for the freakishly gifted, all of us are too dumb to get through college in many majors.
  • Many young people who have the intellectual ability to succeed in rigorous liberal arts courses don’t want to. For these students, the distribution requirements of the college degree do not open up new horizons. They are bothersome time-wasters.
Speak for yourself, dude. Murray presents no evidence for any claim he makes, but he does give numbers, presumably invented ones:
About 10 percent to 20 percent of all 18-year-olds can absorb the material in your old liberal arts textbooks. For engineering and the hard sciences, the percentage is probably not as high as 10.
I'm guessing nobody has tried to test this, and testing it would be far from straightforward. Anybody who believes such stuff may be so gullible that higher education will present a challenge for them, but those of us who work in the classroom have signed on for a challenge. It would be cool if we had a president who had, say, taught at the university level.

Image from here. Yeah, I thought about going for a Barbie "math is hard" image, but …


Anonymous said...

The real argument against universal education is that someone has to clean the floors for us.

Mr. Verb said...

Thanks. I'm not entirely sure about that. I know somebody who went to college and then for a Ph.D. assuming he probably wouldn't get a job because of the field he was in. He likes to say that he figured he'd end up driving a cab but that he'd be a happier cab driver with a graduate degree.

The Ridger, FCD said...

Yeah, but he's not just arguing against universal education, he wants it restricted to less than 10% of the population.

Mr. Verb said...


Anonymous said...

Just wondering if you've actually read "The Bell Curve", Mr. Verb, and are not just one of those people who attack it without doing so. The authors make a very impassioned argument at the beginning about race and equality, and the value of human life. As far as limiting education goes, I don't see why having a BA in communications has to become a prerequisite for working at McDonald's. I think we only have to look at Europe and the higher quality of their primary schools to see that the idea of universal college education in America is actually just a cover-up for poor elementary and high schools. We need to address the weaknesses in these lower levels before we can legitimately call for a universal college education. Until then, college just ends up teaching students what they should/could have learned at an earlier level, only later (look at foreign languages, for example!).

Mr. Verb said...

I certainly don't remember everything in the book, but isn't it safe to say that they argue for "deep 'racial differences in intelligence"? I deliberately avoided terms like 'genetic', and I'm not drawing on the extreme statements from the book, like "It seems highly likely to us that both genes and the environment have something to do with racial differences."

To your real point, I certainly agree that (1) we need to get K-12 education in order in this country and (2) not everybody needs a college education. The core of Murray's argument is ostensibly along the latter lines, while yours is along the former. Murray actually argues that improving K-12 will not change things, doesn't he?

The truly bizarre thing in the piece, and what I chose to focus on is this argument that most of us are too dumb for higher ed. Do you see that as a defensible position?

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