Or more accurately, da bomb thrower. And for all the controversy he’s stirred up in the course of his career (and boy, has he stirred it up), I have to say that I have a grudging respect for his willingness to take on accepted ideas and fearlessly say things that many find uncomfortable. Last year, for example, he reversed himself and argued for the abolition of the SAT.
A year later, he’s at it again with the publication this month of his new book, Real Education: Four Simple Truths for Bringing America’s Schools Back to Reality. I’ve not read it yet, but a taste is on offer at the Wall Street Journal, which published this essay, For Most People College is a Waste of Time, on August 13. Talk about a blunt title.
And what are Murray’s “four simple truths?” (quoting here from the American Enterprise Institute website)
- Ability varies. Children differ in their ability to learn academic material. Doing our best for every child requires, above all else, that we embrace that simplest of truths. America’s educational system does its best to ignore it.
- Half of the children are below average. Many children cannot learn more than rudimentary reading and math. Real Education reviews what is known about the limits of what schools can do and the results of four decades of policies that require schools to divert huge resources to unattainable goals.
- Too many people are going to college. Almost everyone should get training beyond high school, but the number of students who want, need, or can profit from four years of residential education at the college level is a fraction of the number of young people who are struggling to get a degree. We have set up a standard known as the BA, stripped it of its traditional content, and made it an artificial job qualification. Then we stigmatize everyone who doesn’t get one. For most of America’s young people, today’s college system is a punishing anachronism.
- America’s future depends on how we educate the academically gifted. An elite already runs the country, whether we like it or not. Since everything we watch, hear, and read is produced by that elite, and since every business and government department is run by that elite, it is time to start thinking about the kind of education needed by the young people who will run the country. The task is not to give them more advanced technical training, but to give them an education that will make them into wiser adults; not to pamper them, but to hold their feet to the fire.
Murray laid out some of his early thinking for that last point in the third piece of a three-part series that appeared–again–in the pages of the Wall Street Journal last January. (“Aztecs vs. Greeks: Those with superior intelligence need to learn to be wise.” Readers interested in this blog will find it worth reading.) He wrote:
Because giftedness is not to be talked about, no one tells high-IQ children explicitly, forcefully and repeatedly that their intellectual talent is a gift. That they are not superior human beings, but lucky ones. That the gift brings with it obligations to be worthy of it. That among those obligations, the most important and most difficult is to aim not just at academic accomplishment, but at wisdom.
The encouragement of wisdom requires a special kind of education. 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. Many high-IQ students, especially those who avoid serious science and math, go from kindergarten through an advanced degree without ever having a teacher who is dissatisfied with their best work and without ever taking a course that forces them to say to themselves, “I can’t do this.” Humility requires that the gifted learn what it feels like to hit an intellectual wall, just as all of their less talented peers do, and that can come only from a curriculum and pedagogy designed especially for them. That level of demand cannot fairly be imposed on a classroom that includes children who do not have the ability to respond. The gifted need to have some classes with each other not to be coddled, but because that is the only setting in which their feet can be held to the fire
Murray is an exercise in nodding “uh-huh” and wincing. Just about every point in Murray’s “Four Truths” is guaranteed to get people’s noses out of joint and their tongues wagging. His take on American education flies directly in the face of current educational conventional wisdom and, more specifically, the No Child Left Behind Act, with its goal that *all* children will reach 100% proficiency in reading and math by 2014. (See what he says about NCLB here.) Already, others are picking up on Murray’s ideas.
Personally, I think we’re at the beginning of a fundamental shift in education that mirrors–and is a reaction to–changes happening in other parts of society. (See “The World Is Flat“–really, a video lecture. See mortage crisis. See fuel prices. See death of newspapers.) Remember that Chinese proverb? “Crisis is danger plus opportunity.” That’s where we are. The conventional model of education is straining-at every level. Not everyone can homeschool–and not everyone should. Even private schools are feeling stress–but what replaces it is unclear. However while we sort it out, look for interesting voices such as Murray‘s to get everyone thinking… and talking. We live in interesting, nay exciting, times.