Arnold Kling  

Charles Murray on Education

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The Philosophy of Introspectio... Tightwadism...

He writes,


it makes sense for only about 15% of the population, 25% if one stretches it, to get a college education. And yet more than 45% of recent high school graduates enroll in four-year colleges...

No data that I have been able to find tell us what proportion of those students really want four years of college-level courses, but it is safe to say that few people who are intellectually unqualified yearn for the experience, any more than someone who is athletically unqualified for a college varsity wants to have his shortcomings exposed at practice every day. They are in college to improve their chances of making a good living. What they really need is vocational training. But nobody will say so...

Large numbers of those who are intellectually qualified for college also do not yearn for four years of college-level courses. They go to college because their parents are paying for it and college is what children of their social class are supposed to do after they finish high school. They may have the ability to understand the material in Economics 1 but they do not want to. They, too, need to learn to make a living--and would do better in vocational training.

Combine those who are unqualified with those who are qualified but not interested, and some large proportion of students on today's college campuses--probably a majority of them--are looking for something that the four-year college was not designed to provide.


This is the second of three essays. In the first, he points out that it is unrealistic to promise to educate all K-12 students to the same level.

Unfortunately, Murray takes a very strong IQ-deterministic view, which will lead a lot of people to dismiss what he has to say. I believe that the point that too many students are going to college--or, conversely, that colleges are not properly serving many of their students--is difficult enough for people to grasp (although to me it seems obvious). It is too important a point to get tangled up with controversies about the meaning and the nature of IQ.


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COMMENTS (10 to date)
eric writes:

The IQ determinism is read into it, he is talking about averages and probabilities. Suppose someone argues that smoking causes cancer. Another could say, "My mom smoked her whole life and lived to 90 and died in a car crash!" How many times do you have to emphasize you are talking about propensities, odds, statistics, before this straw man is not used to dismiss the essential point. Aren't you the one baffled by the unstatistical minds of physicians (Baye's rule)? Heal thyself.

Bruce G Charlton writes:

I disagree with AK (unusually!) and I find Murray's piece unimpressive.

Take the long view (this is taken from Ernest Gellner): the univesral trend for the past couple of centuries has been for more years of formal education for a greater proportion of people. And within that trend there is another which is an increasing length of general education finished with a shorter period of specialist vocational education.

In the past, people would start an apprenticeship in early teens, it would take many years (traditionally seven) then that person was inflexibly committed (both in skills and attitude) to a single craft or profession for the rest of their lives. But of course, these jobs have, mostly, disappeared, or changed beyond recognition.

By contrast, college graduates can on average be trained quickly to work in a wide range of vocational specialties, and have the flexibility of mind to change jobs, get new skills, relocate and so on. College graduates are much better adapted to the needs of the modern world than the traditionally narrow vocational education.

So we should want _more_ people to go to college (although not necessarily straight after high school), and they would probably benefit from it. Especially, I believe, if they studied abstract systematic subjects, such as mathematics and the natural (and quantitative social) sciences.

We should forget about old style 'vocational' training as an alternative to college and be thinking about new ways of teaching systematic sciences to the less able and less motivated sector of the population at community colleges and open-access universities. This needs the market to do this, because we need to discover how to do it - we don't really know at present.

But any nation that achieves this goal of a broader and higher average level of scientific attainment will be well set for the next few decades.

[Note - actually vocational education is absolutely fine - so long as it includes a lot of systematic knowledge, is multi-disciplinary, and is not too orientated towards a specific existing job. After all, I am vocationally educated - medicine.]

Robert Speirs writes:

"So we should want _more_ people to go to college (although not necessarily straight after high school), and they would probably benefit from it."

Probably?? Isn't there more than enough data to show that most college graduates, much less dropouts, don't benefit from the college experience? The few who do skew the average, but everyone loses much valuable time and acquires much ignorance in the process.

Steve Sailer writes:

A big problem is how Milwaukee community organizer John Gardner calls the "Yale or jail" myth becomes self-fulfilling. Lots of young people, after years of being hectored about how they are doomed if they don't graduate from college, but being aware that they aren't college material, decide that, why wait for the inevitable, they might as well start dealing drugs now.

Nathan Smith writes:

Charles Murray is dismissive of those who attend college because it is "what children of their social class are supposed to do." Why? Why isn't participation in the way of life of one's social class a legitimate objective?

And who cares "what the four-year college was designed to provide"? Institutions and their purposes evolve and change.

I would like to know the evidence for Murray's claim that it "makes sense" for only 15%-25% of the population to attend college. And what does he mean, anyway? That it is only financially rewarding for 15%-25% of the population? Perhaps not, because Murray seems to disdain the idea of going to college just to increase one's earnings; perhaps it only "makes sense" in terms of some intellectual criterion of real learning, but that's even harder to measure. In any case, he himself admits that there is a lack of evidence about how many young people really want to go to college.

Whether people want to go to college sort of misses the point, anyway. People may want to have gone to college: they want the diploma on the wall, the respect in the eyes of their peers, the access to a certain social class, that comes from going to college, even apart from any career advantages.

To Murray's question, "What's wrong with vocational education?", I'd say: the economy is changing too fast. When economic change was slow, you could specialize as a blacksmith or a tailor, and you'd be sure that blacksmiths and tailors would still be in demand in 50 years' time. But today, globalization and technological advance, between them, make the skill set that the market demands change too quickly to have this kind of confidence. What you need to succeed is a more abstract, generalist kind of intellectual development, and a habit of learning and disciplining yourself, that enables you to respond flexibly to a changing economy. In other words, you need college.

Anyway, I think most people enjoy college. Certainly most people I knew in college enjoyed it.

Ajay writes:

Of course, all this assumes that there is a point to college in the first place. The current education system, from top to bottom, is so useless and wasteful that it should be overhauled all the way through. Take for example, Murray's example of calculus, a frequently cited example. The truth is that calculus is useless for practically anything. There was a time when intellectual fashion, as separate from utility, demanded that certain specializations like engineering and science were familiar with calculus but, with the PC becoming mainstream, even the vast majority of those specialties don't need calculus. Yet, this useless subject continues to be taught to far too many people.

And it isn't the only one. Why is English still taught almost everywhere with antiquated or even recent literature like Robinson Crusoe, A Tale of Two Cities, or A Sun also Rises? It's not for the benefit of the students. It's because this appropriately bland pap has already been vetted over the years and the same curriculum is turned over year after year, with very little work required from the teachers. One could go on and on. Why isn't statistics more widely taught at the high school level on up? Socialized education rears its ugly head again.

The good news is that the PC and the internet, by revolutionizing the filtering and distribution of information, provide opportunities for every information profession to be completely upended, whether it's technology, media, law, medicine, or education. People are slow to use these new tools but when they're utilized they will allow new educations systems to completely replace the old. The people in charge of the current systems are too fat and stupid to do anything about it and will be thrown by the wayside.

Mensarefugee writes:

There doesnt seem to be any sense of trade-offs in any of the replies so far.

Why shouldnt people under IQ 110 not go to college? Plenty of reasons.
1) They waste 4 years of their time. If they worked those 4 years (or 2 or 3 if they take vocational) thats a heck of a lot of money that they have over their lifespans, and a better functioning economy.

2) The presence of loads of sub IQ 110 people dumbs down college by creating a huge demand for non-rigorous courses, and indeed, reduces the level of rigor in tough courses too. Someone interested in philosophy will not get much out of it surrounded by people who are just there to fill up their credits.

3) As Murray mentioned... the trades get shunted, to the detriment of sub 110IQ people economically and society (okay, this is a repeat of point 1)

4) College is subsidized. There is no justification of taking someone elses money and wasting it on people who do not benefit from an education. If someone with an sub 110IQ wants to spend their own money (or parents) so be it. But its morally outrageous to reach into other peoples pockets for it.

Wake up sheeple.

jaim klein writes:

Murray's argument is impressive. He is 100% right. But unfortunately he does not understand how society works and what society (and the government in general) is trying to do, which is to confuse everybody except the very smart, about the nature of our society. Why young people are being pushed into college to acquire a meaningless degree? Why a multitude of student loans and grants are being offered (no, actively pushed down their throats) to low class youngsters, why the multitude of programs to motivate them to go to college and so on? The answer is because the alternative is bad, unworkable. A society rigidly classified by intelligence and with different types of educations and degrees (or even uniforms of different colors, as in some scifi books) - is simply not viable. Blacks and other groups will not accept that they are doomed to vocational training while other ethnii goes to be engineers or lawyers. They will be no social peace in structured society like that. The solution is to confuse everybody. It is a wasteful solution, but we can afford it and it is cheaper than a society paralyzed by class/race/antisemitism/etc. And as Murray writes, everybody enjoys the college experience as it is provided today - no ego-damaging exams, yes walk-in orgies, Polynesian islands full of coconut trees where responsability or commitment are unheard of. It is pathetic that Prof Murray, having had time to reflect on the reception of his book, insists in opening the windows and letting the day light in, when it is much better for all of us (including Prof. Murray) to keep the room in cosy semi-obscurity. And a last argument against what Prof. Murray is doing: Filling up the colleges generates jobs for teachers. Easy, confortable, semi-intellectual, air-conditioned, civil service positions for those too smart for blue collar jobs but not smart enough to manage on their own outside of these wonderful institutions.

Karl Hertz writes:

The Murray position of a limited number of people being appropriate for college has been around for a long time. I.Q. as the criteria may be one factor for decision making regarding placement, but research has shown that it is also flawed especially when it is the sole measurement.

A strength of the American system is the ability of people to access it at so many different places in life. This helps people who may suffer under the I.Q. only criteria. For instance, the person who does not get serious about education until he is older and gains more wisdom on the value of education can still enter the arena.

Finally, I.Q. as the only measure of entry into college is flawed in another manner; it is heavily dependent on reading speed. However, very little of a person's success in college is dependent on reading speed if the individual is willing to spend time covering the material at a slower pace.

As is the case with so many topics, the answer is not simple and can't be determined with I.Q. and some 15% notion.

Kelly Davis writes:

I agree with the comment that a large number of college students do not attend college for the right reasons. Most of these students would be better off receiving vocational training. However, there does seem to be an increase in the number of students who are truely attending four year colleges for their own benefit. This will more than likely create more job competion than ever before, and many students will not be guaranteed a job in their field of study. Even though there may be too many students in college, I would still say that it is a good idea to get a degree. It seems that more and more places of employment will hire people with college degrees over people without college degrees.

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