The Magazine

Murray's Truths

No. 1: Half of American students are below average.

Sep 22, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 02 • By LIAM JULIAN
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Real Education

Four Simple Truths for Bringing America's Schools Back to Reality

by Charles Murray

Crown Forum, 224 pp., $24.95

Charles Murray has written a bracing book about education, one determined not only to upset apple carts, but explode them. In varied ways he has succeeded, and for that we should be thankful; the conversations of self-described education reformers tend toward the stultifying and could generally benefit from some well-placed pyrotechnics.

His big point is this: American education suffers from a surfeit of romanticism. It is too idealistic and pursues goals it will not and cannot attain. By blindly believing that all students will be able to achieve at high academic levels, and by ignoring reams of facts that belie such a notion, the educational system does significant harm to the students it purports to help. The individual talents and aspirations of millions of young people have been sacrificed on educational romanticism's altar.

One of the truths Murray believes the romantics don't accept--but must--is that too many people are going to college.

That higher education is overly inclusive is certainly counterintuitive, especially when there exists such widespread agreement that the more Americans in college (which Murray defines as a four-year residential institution) the better. Politicians spanning the hues from navy to vermilion strive to make university education widely accessible, and the country's high school curricula typically have, as their goal, the production of graduates who matriculate at college.

Murray dissents. He finds profoundly mistaken the prevailing college-or-bust mindset. For starters, it ignores the blatant fact that millions of high school students have absolutely no desire to attend college, and that their professional goals are in no way furthered by sitting through professorial soliloquies on Milton or calculus.

For many such students--teenagers who have recognized that their talents and interests are not of the academic variety--high school becomes a terrible bore and unbearable waste of time. And some 30 percent of them make the decision to drop out, forgo a diploma, and get a job.

But what of the many students who do graduate from high school and go on to enroll in a four-year university? There were 1.5 million of them in 2005. Murray writes that many don't belong in college because they aren't capable of doing college-level work. Thus, a predictable result:

Of those who entered college in 1995, only 58 percent had gotten their B.A. five academic years later. Another 14 percent were still enrolled. If we assume that half of the 14 percent eventually get their B.A.s, about a third of all those who enter college leave without one.

Those who leave have, of course, squandered precious time, and many are newly saddled with mounds of debt, for which they have nothing to show.

Another logical, foreseeable result of an inflation in the number of those who attend college is grade inflation, which leads to degree inflation. By pushing into college those students who don't want to go, don't need to go, and aren't prepared to go, our educational system has produced scads of people who possess college diplomas of rising flaccidity.

To wit, in July, the Wall Street Journal ran an article entitled "The Declining Value of Your College Degree," which detailed that "the typical weekly salary of a worker with a bachelor's degree, adjusted for inflation, didn't rise last year from 2006 and was 1.7% below the 2001 level." Certainly there are sundry culprits here, but the proliferation of meaningless B.A.s doesn't help.

Of course, this trend is more debilitating for those who don't possess college degrees, even flaccid ones. Now it has become common for employers to require of all job applicants a bachelor's degree, regardless of whether the responsibilities of the position in question actually require a college education--have anything at all to do with a college education--or not. Those high-school graduates who, after evaluating their professional goals, decided that attending a vocational school or community college made sense may be well qualified for certain jobs from which they are nonetheless peremptorily excluded. So they trudge off to four-year institutions, and the cycle continues.

Murray's diagnosis of America's everyone-to-college romanticism is spot on--as is his assertion, later in Real Education, that America is inadequately educating its most talented pupils, as well as other suggestions about expanding educational choice. But his diagnosis of the everyone-can-learn romanticism--namely, that many American students, despite improvements in their K-12 schooling, can never make appreciable academic gains--is less spot-on.