Commentary Magazine


Real Education by Charles Murray

Hard Knocks
Real Education:
Four Simple Truths for Bringing America’s Schools Back to Reality

by Charles Murray
Crown Forum. 224 pp. $24.95

In no other area of American life is the gap between rhetoric and reality more pronounced or more persistent than in education. The chief reason is not hard to find. Almost from the start, Americans have entertained outsized expectations of their schools, seeing education as a magical instrument of social transformation and individual upward mobility, not to mention the single most important engine of national progress.

Horace Mann, the most visible champion of the early public-school movement, envisioned public education as “the great equalizer” of the human condition and the “creator of wealth undreamed of.” Today one sees the same fundamental faith shining through, undiminished and unchastened, whether in paeans to education as the source of necessary innovation and human capital, complaints about flat or declining test scores among high-schoolers, or jeremiads directed at “our underachieving colleges.”

It is not that our goals for education are unrealistic, these voices tell us; it is that we are unsteady and faltering in pursuit of them. Hence, we must never give up on those goals, no matter how hard it may have become to square them with the disappointing reality. An especially powerful example of this syndrome is the latter-day doctrine that the ideal of higher education for everybody is not only fully compatible with but inseparable from the ideal of educational excellence. You will never hear an American administrator contend otherwise, despite the obvious truth that the two ideals are radically in tension, and that no educational system can serve both fully. But who will risk the ire of an inflamed public, or an educational establishment, by clearing the air of cant and false pieties?

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Sounds like a job for Charles Murray, a man who has repeatedly done the intellectual work that others do not want to do. Most notably, it was Murray’s controversial book Losing Ground (1984) that transformed the national conversation about social policy and prepared the path for successful welfare reform. Whether Real Education can do the same thing for educational reform is harder to say, since the constituencies are more entrenched, the resistance to change fiercer and more multifaceted, and the reforms Murray proposes arguably more radical. But the book itself—wonderfully stimulating, utterly straightforward, and bracingly honest—does not disappoint.

Despite its modest size, Real Education is an indictment of the entire philosophy and practice of contemporary American education. To Murray, we are “living a lie”—the lie being, at root, the belief that “every child can be anything he or she wants to be.” The lie is two-pronged, being made up partly of a misplaced and sentimental attachment to the romantic illusion of omni-giftedness, and partly of an excessive and exclusive regard for formal kindergarten-to-graduate-school education. The result is a system that cannot make fundamental distinctions among the talents and abilities of students. Far from educating all equally to a high standard, it has ended up cheating the best, the less than best, and the nation as a whole.

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There is both a populist and an elitist strain in Murray’s analysis. This becomes clear when he puts forward the four “simple truths” that form the backbone of the book’s argument. These are that ability varies; that half of the children are below average; that too many people are going to college; and that America’s future depends on how we educate the academically gifted.

One can sense the sheer delight with which Murray puts forward these blunt, calculated-to-offend statements. To many readers, they will seem intended to consign large numbers of Americans to permanent second-class status. But Murray insists that, to the contrary, he is merely pointing out something patently true. Although we have allowed the academic-credential mania to persuade us otherwise, going to college is, for a great many of life’s purposes, vastly overrated. In a free society there are other paths to learning about the world and finding one’s place in it, and a school-centered yardstick that de-values those means is not only false but impoverishing.

Indeed, there was a time, well within the memory of many living Americans, when one’s advancement in life was not so heavily determined by where, or whether, one attended college. To be sure, it was no easy leap from, say, Eastern Illinois State Teachers College to a white-shoe New York law firm. But in other areas—including, notably, politics—things were very different.

One of the greatest of America’s 20th-century Presidents—and one of the most literate and historically informed since the time of the founders—was Harry S. Truman, who did not have a college education at all, but instead began working for the Santa Fe Railroad upon graduating from high school. Moreover, Murray writes, the less organized and more loose-jointed America of Truman’s day was far less snobbish, and more open to sheer human possibility, than today’s putatively meritocratic iron cage of standardized tests, attitude adjustment, and dissembling skills that we imagine to be less elitist than the world it replaced.

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This is a key point, especially for someone like Murray who (as his fourth “simple truth” underlines) is frank to recognize the crucial need for a highly educated elite. And yet, thanks on the one hand to the consumer mentality of students, and on the other hand to the incoherence of undergraduate curricula and programs of study, many colleges have become unable even to enforce proper academic standards.

As for social standards, Murray astutely observes that colleges and universities have become very bad places for young people to mature into adults, and indeed seem tailor-made to accomplish the opposite. He points to the utter disintegration of civilized manners and mores, whether manifested in the sad rituals of binge drinking and hooking-up or in the disappearance of the common courtesies that used to mark students’ relations with their teachers.

None of this will surprise anyone who has ventured into a college dormitory recently, or read Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons or Wendy Shalit’s classic recounting in these pages of her experiences at Williams College (“A Ladies’ Room of One’s Own,” August 1995). Is it any coincidence, one wonders, that the notion of a college serving in loco parentis disappeared at the same time as academic rigor, even as the idea was gaining ground that everyone should attend college and the idea was waning that there were other and perhaps deeper schools of life?

Although Murray never quite comes out for a restoration of in loco parentis, he does urge a more general “resumption of responsibility by the grown-ups.” For him, this means not just reinforcing students’ sense of worth, as today’s system does rather too well, but bringing them face to face with the news that the stars are not always reachable and that you may not be able to become whatever you want to be—though you may be able to excel in the things for which you have gifts.

Far from the cosseted lotus-land existence offered by our top schools, Murray would come at the gifted with a relentless flow of tough challenges, meant to develop them not only intellectually but also morally. We know elite kids are smart, he says. The goal should be to make them wise as well: to teach them rigor in analyzing texts and data and sobriety in forming judgments, to instruct them about virtue and the good not as remote academic subjects but as ideas worth striving for and orienting one’s life around, and to impress upon them that the world is larger and more various than what they see inside the ivied walls.

Above all, in Murray’s view, elite children need to have their self-esteem punctured, to learn what it feels like to fall short and to “hit their own personal walls”—a crucial step in “developing . . . empathy with the rest of the world.” “No one among the gifted,” he writes, “should be allowed to rise to a position of influence without knowing what it feels like to fail.”

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There is much more in this winsome and utterly jargon-free book, including a long list of concrete steps that might further the changes Murray wants to see. These range from expanding school choice, to providing safe and orderly classrooms, to acknowledging the limited value of formal schooling, especially college, and awarding greater social standing to the non-college-bound.

All of these proposals deserve a closer look, and more thorough examination. As I said earlier, they may amount to a more radical program of change than anyone is prepared—yet—to countenance. But is it a change we need, a change we can believe in? You betcha.

About the Author

Wilfred M. McClay, who holds the SunTrust Chair of Excellence in the Humanities at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, contributed “Is Conservatism Finished?” to the January COMMENTARY. His latest book is Figures in the Carpet: Finding the Human Person in the American Past.




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