Arnold Kling  

Charles Murray and the Dilemmas of Education

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After reading Real Education, by Charles Murray, I decided that there are three dilemmas in education.

1. What do we do about inequality in incomes depending on education levels?

2. Should the curriculum be designed by experts or emerge in the market?

3. To what extent is education a public good?

1. On inequality, the current approach is to try to deny that there are differences in ability. Instead, we will Leave No Child Behind and enable everyone to go to college. Murray calls this the "romantic view" of education. What annoys me about the much-ballyhooed new book by Goldin and Katz is that they champion the romantic view. They provide a number of tables and charts that pertain to other issues, but they never establish that widespread college readiness is achievable.

Murray is the anti-romantic, and that is refreshing. Moreover, he provides convincing evidence for the view that we already are trying to push too many young people through the college door.

In my view, however, Murray's language too often lapses into the binary: you're either part of the cognitive elite, or you're not. In fact, just thinking in terms of IQ, there is a continuum of ability. I agree with his view that we should offer students educational opportunities that fit their abilities. However, I would not want to make that sound as if that means you either go to an elite college or you go to trade school.

On curriculum design, Murray sees the K-12 curriculum as designed by experts whom he distrusts, and he thinks that school choice and the market will bring about improvements. However, he advocates the core knowledge curriculum, designed by the expert E.D. Hirsch.

For the cognitive elite, Murray sees the current college curriculum as dumbed-down and guilt-inducing. He wants an expert-designed curriculum, with himself as the expert. He wants to include the great philosophers. He wants to replace middle-class guilt with noblesse oblige. I'm not fully persuaded, although I do think that, if you can grasp them, then it benefits you to learn what the great philosophers were trying to say.

3. Murray never wrestles with the public good issue. However, I think this one is really important.

To the extent that education produces higher income, it is a private good. Subsidizing people to get an education is like subsidizing people to dress well for job interviews and show up on time for work. I mean, we have gotten to the point where it would not shock me to have government get involved in how people dress for interviews and in reminding them to go to work on time, but those are not what are classically considered public goods that government should provide.

It could be argued that learning a core curriculum that makes you a better citizen is a public good. However, I have my doubts on that one. The politically correct citizenship education strikes me as a public bad.

Overall, I think that one could argue that education ought to be taxed rather than subsidized. Higher education is correlated with ability, and as Greg Mankiw famously showed concerning height, in a progressive tax system anything that is correlated with ability ought to be used to raise the marginal tax rate on income. The intuition is that other things equal, taxing the incomes of people with different abilities at the same rate is doing more to punish the effort of the low-ability person.


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COMMENTS (8 to date)
Bill Mill writes:
These grounds justify government subsidy of only certain kinds of schooling. To anticipate, they do not justify subsidizing purely vocational training which increases the economic productivity of the student but does not train him for either citizenship or leadership. It is extremely difficult to draw a sharp line between the two types of schooling. Most general schooling adds to the economic value of the student -- indeed it is only in modern times and in a few countries that literacy has ceased to have a marketable value. And much vocational training broadens the student's outlook. Yet the distinction is meaningful. Subsidizing the training of veterinarians, beauticians, dentists, and a host of other specialists, as is widely done in the United States in governmentally supported educational institutions, cannot be justified on the same grounds as subsidizing elementary schools or, at a higher level, liberal arts colleges, whether it can be justified on quite different grounds will be discussed later in this chapter.

- Milton Friedman

I just finished reading "Captitalism and Freedom", and your argument reminded me of that passage.

Alex J. writes:

Curricula could be both designed by experts and "emerge" in the market. Books work this way. Many books are written by experts, but surely the prominence of certain books emerges on the market.

Whenever the issue of school choice comes up, in my experience people have two main objections. One is paternalistic concern over the ability of low-ability (Robin Hanson would say low-status) parents to decide well for their own children. The other is that some people regard the public school system as an end in itself rather than seeing the education of the people within it as the end.

In both cases, I think that people vote to express their loyalty to poor children and the public school system. You might be able to demonstrate persuasively that the two things are inconsistent with one another, that public provision of education will fail the worst for those with little political influence of their own. However, for most voters, I think this would just be an irritation, and they would happily continue to oppose school choice while sending their own children to relatively good suburban schools or urban private schools.

George writes:

Arnold,

1) You write:
...it would not shock me to have government get involved in how people dress for interviews and in reminding them to go to work on time...

If I recall correctly, there are programs where you can donate "interview clothes" for homeless people to wear to job interviews. The government is probably involved with that in some capacity.

2) The politically correct citizenship education strikes me as a public bad. This is your best line all week. How much of the government's efforts result in "negative public goods"?

3) I strongly urge you and all other economists to provide a brief (even parenthetical) definition of "public good" every time you introduce the term. We non-economists do not understand it as "non-excludable and non-rivalrous" -- we understand it as "something good for the public" or "a good the public should naturally provide through government".

It would be even better to take the term out back and kill it with an axe, but that's not going to happen (even though doing so would constitute a non-rivalrous, non-excludable good).

Ryan writes:

FYI, the link to the book does not work.

[Thanks, Ryan. I've fixed it.--Econlib Ed.]

Dan Weber writes:

I think I slept through this class; I get why education is considered non-rivaled, but why is it non-excludable? It's easy enough for me to close the door and only teach people in the classroom.

Of course they can get an education from another provider who doesn't care about excludability, but they could also get, say, cable TV, and that's still considered excludable.

bgc writes:

On the basic economic logic that if you subsidize something, you will get more of it (implicitly more than is optimal) it is likely that there is too much college education.

I think young people need to consider more carefully how they use their precious resource of years of life.

Years at college can be costly in money, but years of youth have a _very_ big opportunity cost. Not least because IQ declines from mid-twenties, so if you want to do stuff that requires rapid learning and abstract understanding - you'd better get on with it...

And it is emerging in psychology that personality is a factor much like IQ - substantially heritable and stable throughout life, and predictive of educational and many social outcomes.

So, if we add the effects of IQ and personality together, there isn't very much left over for educatioal change to influence.

dearieme writes:

My daughter assures me that Aristotle is the man. We had to lavish an awful lot of money on her education before she came to that conclusion. On the other hand, her early education - provided by an all-nurtuting state - was a poor thing.

Larry writes:

Workers do not capture anywhere near the full measure of their productivity. To the extent that education improves productivity, it is therefore worthy of public support.

I grant that US education is far less beneficial than it could be given the resources involved, but that is an argument on the facts, not the principles. Other polities get more and more useful public education for much less.

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