Real Education by Charles Murray, 2008

To demand that students meet standards that have been set without regard to their academic ability is wrong and cruel to the children who are unable to meet those standards. pp. 47

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Murray argues that there are four crucial facts about human ability and educational practice that have been ignored, to the detriment of the students and broader society. They are: 1) ability varies 2) half of the children are below average 3) too many people are going to college 4) America’s future depends on how we educate the academically gifted.
The first three points follow from Murray’s prior research on ability and intelligence. For me, the observations that ability varies and that half of the children are below average are uncontroversial, and should influence the structure of our educational system, to a greater degree than currently happens. Students, teacher, parents, and society would benefit if students received more targeted instruction at the boundary of their capability (zone of proximal development).
The claim that too many people are going to college may seem elitist and silly on its face, but Murray isn’t arbitrarily denying people the golden ticket. He argues that students who are unable to complete college-level work, or who are unmotivated to do so, shouldn’t be punished. There should be multiple options for post-secondary career and academic training, not a one-size-fits-all certification that leaves so many without a viable way to certify their value to potential employers.
The claim that America’s future depends on how we educate the academically gifted had me intrigued; there are many laws and services in place to ensure that students with disabilities receive an appropriate education, and perhaps a similar approach to gifted students would encourage the school system not to squander the potential of our brightest students. Murray doesn’t worry about meeting their academic needs (presumably they are bright enough to see to that themselves, and/or their academic potential is too obvious to be missed). Rather, he worries that the cognitive elite will move through educational institutions without ethics, common decency, and a sense of duty toward society in general.
Essentially, Murray hopes that the brightest students can be trained to think about people other than themselves and those inside of their bubble. They will be leading institutions, businesses, and communities, and they must understand—and act upon—ideas like justice, duty, impartiality, etc.
Murray asserts that common principles are shared between many of the world’s global religious and ethical systems. So, the specific tradition we choose to teach students (or that they choose to study) isn’t terribly important. I’m not sure how true this claim is, and I’m confident that you could not get the general public to agree. Finally, it seems doubtful that studying an ethical system inside of a classroom will lead to enacting the principles in daily life. If mosques, synagogues, and churches continue to turn out sinners, why would an academic approach be any better?

Ideas per Page:  4/10 (medium)

Related Books: Coming Apart by Charles Murray

Recommend to Others: maybe

Reread Personally: no


12, 13
-Ability Varies
-Half of the children are below average
-Too many people are going to college
-America’s future depends on how we educate the academically gifted

21 …doing a somersault with a full twist off a pommel horse is impossible for most people, no matter how much they might practice. The difference in what they can do and what proficient gymnast can do is one of kind. … Grasping calculus requires a certain level of logical-mathematical ability. Children below that level will never learn calculus, no matter how hard they study. It is a difference of kind.

26 For understanding an individual child and what that child’s educational needs might be, you want as much disaggregation of the child’s abilities as possible. For understanding the overall relationship of the components of academic ability to educational performance and later outcomes in life for large groups of people, you are better off using a combined measure.

29 Empirically, it is not the case that we can expect a child who is below average in one ability to have a full and equal chance of being above average in the other abilities. Those chances are constrained by the observed relationship that links the abilities.

44 Children with below-average musical ability are usually exposed to music classes in elementary school, but they are allowed to drop out thereafter. … Only for linguistic and logical-mathematical ability are we told that we can expect everyone to do well.

47 In large groups of children, academic achievement is tied to academic ability. No pedagogical strategy, no improvement in teacher training, no increase in homework, no reduction in class size can break that connection.

69 For many years, the consensus intellectual benchmark for dealing with college-level material was an IQ of around 115, which demarcates the top 16 percent of the distribution. That was in fact the mean IQ of college graduates during the 1950s.

96 …the satisfaction of being good at what one does for a living (and knowing it), compared to the melancholy of being mediocre at what one does for a living (and knowing it). This is another truth about living a human life that a seventeen-year-old might not yet understand on his own, but that a guidance counselor can bring to his attention.

106 First, we set up a common goal for every young person that represents educational success. We will call it a B.A. We will then make it difficult or impossible for most people to achieve this goal. For those who can, achieving the goal will take four years no matter what is being taught. We will attach an economic reward for reaching the goal that often has little to do with the content of what has been learned. We will lure large numbers of people who do not possess adequate ability or motivation to try to achieve the goal and then fail. We will then stigmatize everyone who fails to achieve it.

121 [a liberal arts education should provide] a disciplined, coordinated study of the question that every college student is of an age to ask: What does it mean to live a good human life?

142 Disruptive students are not permitted to remain in class.

Students who are chronically disruptive are suspended.

Students who in any way threaten a teacher verbally or physically are expelled.

143 It is morally unacceptable to continue to sacrifice their [children who are trying to learn] futures—and we must not kid ourselves; this is what we are doing—just because we do not know how to reach the children who are not trying to learn.


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