Real Education

This is a re-run of a review I posted here in 2016. In the wake of The College Board’s recent announcement of the addition of an “adversity score” to the SAT assessment, I felt it was worth revisiting the very idea of what it means to be truly educated.

Real Education by Charles Murray. Published in 2008. 224 pages.

Murray attempts to outline what ails American education and offers a prescription to fix it by exploring what he describes as four simple truths:

  1. Ability Varies
  2. Half 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

Ability Varies

This should be common sense but as Murray notes, our current educational model is based on the romantic notion that if we just spend enough time and money, we can ensure that no child, regardless of intellect, upbringing or motivation is left behind.

In this section the author takes pains to explore what IQ is, how it is measured and how it is distributed among the population of school aged children without pushing any hot buttons. He also gives credence to the 7 different types of abilities that can be found among human beings. Nevertheless he stresses, and I agree, that when it comes to academic success, the abilities (or intelligences) that matter most constitute a narrow range of abilities that not all of us are amply blessed with. This brings me to his next truth.

Half the Children Are Below Average

This is yet another bitter pill that Murray knows full well the educational establishment will not accept, but he offers it nonetheless. He rightly notes that when we push, prod and drag children to reach a goal they can never reach, we keep them from achieving the goals they can.

I vehemently disagree with his dismissal of the old adage that “everyone is good at something.” I understand his reasoning, given that his book revolves around education, but I dislike the absolutism of his statement.  Not everyone has a marketable skill or a talent useful in an academic context, but that’s wholly different from asserting that there are significant numbers of people who are good at nothing.

Are half the children below average?  From a purely statistical standpoint, I cannot disagree with this assertion, as uncomfortable as it makes me. I fully agree with Murray that our educations system’s failure to face reality is damaging to an increasing percentage of the school aged population. However, most people are  born with an aptitude towards something. The mistake we have made is dismissing those aptitudes in favor of focusing solely on the things which can be quantified via a standardized test.

Too Many People Are Going to College

This was the portion of the book that was most relevant to our current economic and labor woes, and I’m not sure I could do it justice.  I certainly appreciated the author’s exploring not only the fact that those not academically proficient should forgo university, but also that a not insignificant number of cognitively gifted people also waste time in the current university system we have in place. To quote Murray’s closing paragraph of the chapter:

Ask yourself what you would think if one of your colleagues submitted this proposal:

First, we will set up a common goal for every young person that represents educational success. We will call it a BA. 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.

What I have just described is the system we have in place. There must be a better way.

Indeed. There must be a better way.

America’s Future Depends On How We Educate the Academically Gifted

Here Murray begins by noting that he is not advocating for a way of American life that sets up an elite class as rulers over the rest of us. Rather, he is pointing out what is obvious to anyone who is paying attention: That our culture/media, education system, and political system is already being ran by those who were among the academically gifted in their respective areas. This is, has always been, and always will be the case.

He asserts that one of the most important things to teach these academically talented students is to be wise, because being smart is not enough. As a traditionalist Christian, I would have preferred that he extol the principles of Christian virtue rather than combining it with the virtues espoused by Buddhists, Hindus, and Confucians, but I understand why he did so. That we have elevated intellect as higher than virtue among the elite has become our undoing, both educationally and culturally.

Frankly, I’m not at all certain how we can teach virtue in a society where all paths are treated as equal and feelings trump all, but I applaud Murray for offering the suggestion.

After exploring these four truths, Murray rounds out his treatise by suggesting that we:

Let Change Happen

He offers several suggestions for allowing sanity to gain traction in the currently failing educational system. Among these are that the educator establish the limits of the possible rather than engaging in educational romanticism by finding out what each child’s abilities are and giving a safe learning environment to those students who want to learn.

Additionally he suggests that every student regardless of ability be taught a core knowledge curriculum, such as the one offered in E.D. Hirsch’s Core Knowledge Curriculum.  He rounds out his list with: letting gifted children go as fast as they can, teaching what he refers to as “the forgotten half” how to make a living, and expanding educational choice.

From a post-secondary perspective, he strongly suggests using certifications to undermine the BA. My husband has built a very successful career on the foundation of certifications rather than a B.A. It can be done, and there was a time when things were aligned in such a way where it was easier to do it. He and I came of age at exactly the right time.

Unfortunately, that time has passed. Nearly every career field, including some which are fairly menial, requires a college degree, and most graduates are compelled to acquire a Master’s in order to make any real money. Things have gotten so ridiculous that a refrigerator repair man who visited our home told my husband that he held a Master’s Degree. I cannot recall what he studied, but it was refrigeration, and all he was left with was a mountain of debt.
Real Education is an honest critique of our education system, offering solutions untainted by political correctness that might actually work, if anyone would be willing to try. They won’t, but it’s still worth a read.

23 thoughts on “Real Education

  1. Elspeth says:

    It truly is worth a look even if your kids are past school age because it is about education and its effects on a broad scale rather than simply suggestions for proper schoiling.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Forays In Fiction says:

    It is vitally important that educators understand genetic determinism so they stop selling incapable children down the path of slavery. Liberal arts education is for people who won’t need to actually come away from school with a job path. Associate degrees are far more pragmatic for the average and below-average IQ. I say this as a high IQ person with a graduate degree, a teacher, and the parent of a below-average IQ child.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Bike Bubba says:

    Yes, half the children are below average, but what is average in a hypothetical system which actually meets the needs of students instead of those of teachers’ union members? To draw a picture, I guarantee you that Toyota and Honda used a lot of Bell curves as they developed cars in the 1960s, but they emphatically did NOT assume that half of their cars would be below the then-average of about 60,000 miles of useful life! Rather, they understood that one could approach an “entitlement” of quality that one can determine through analysis of the systems.

    I would also disagree that lower-IQ students won’t benefit from the real liberal arts–not the “smattering of this and that” they sell at places like St. Olaf and Gustavus Adlophus up here, but rather grammar/logic/rhetoric/arithmetic/geometry/astronomy/music that the ancients studied. It may work at 25mph instead of 200mph for a “slower” student, but it still works.

    One big thing that Murray seems to miss here is to begin with the end in mind; our goal is not in itself to have this many BAs, MAs, and Ph.D.s out there. It is to provide people with the opportunities to provide themselves with necessary food, shelter, clothing, and creature comforts–what do we do to get people to that stage? Not central planning, mind you, but perhaps there is something that the farmer, the weaver, the seamstress, the lawyer, and the doctor all have in common. Perhaps that is the core of what we ought to do in education.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Elspeth says:

    I would also disagree that lower-IQ students won’t benefit from the real liberal arts–not the “smattering of this and that” they sell at places like St. Olaf and Gustavus Adlophus up here, but rather grammar/logic/rhetoric/arithmetic/geometry/astronomy/music that the ancients studied. It may work at 25mph instead of 200mph for a “slower” student, but it still works.

    I agree completely Bike. The utilitarian model of education (people as cogs) are what has gotten us into this mess.


  5. Eavan says:

    This real liberal arts education does work for all students. I absolutely disagree with Murray that some people cannot be educated – true education is training in wisdom and virtue, not the schooling to accept mindlessness that we call education, and all children can access wisdom and virtue to one degree or another. Sometimes the “dullest” students are the ones with the most sensitivity to God (Brother Lawrence). I have never had a student who couldn’t move forward in some way.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Elspeth says:

    Okay, I’ve been seeing these comments come in and I have only had time to approve them but am chomping at the bit to respond because I really feel strongly about this topic:

    Bike Bubba hit the nail squarely on the head with his question about a system that is there to serve students rather than preserve jobs and political power. Make NO mistake: This is a large part of what drives our current educational model. Yes, there are good men and women in the trenches who are sincerely interested in helping the children. However, the “education” of children is ancillary to the primary goal, and any cursory research into how mass public schooling came to be will show that this has always been the case. The social/political ends have always superseded the “best interest of the child”.


  7. Elspeth says:

    To the question of whether every child can be educated.

    This is a re-post, and it’s been a while since I read the book, still I didn’t think Murray was questioning whether every child can be educated, but whether every child can be effectively schooled in a way that turns out a person educated to his or her maximum potential.

    Again, and this is of utmost importance, I do not posit that education and schooling are synonymous, particularly as it relates to the public system or many private schools. Education CAN take place in the context of school, but often doesn’t and many people receive the lion’s share of real education outside of their school years. First I want to define education. From the dictionary, here is the definition at the top:

    the act or process of imparting or acquiring general knowledge, developing the powers of reasoning and judgment, and generally of preparing oneself or others intellectually for mature life.

    There are very few individuals, regardless of IQ, for whom this is not attainable. And yes, Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric are good for everyone.

    If we hold as the standard that the only education worth having is one that produces “marketable skills”, and many marketable skills, as we define them today, are soul killing characteristics, then yeah, there are people who won’t do well within our current educational (re:school) framework.

    More in a bit. I’m just getting started, but life-and duty-calls.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Forays In Fiction says:

    A responsible parent does not completely entrust the education of his child to a school. A responsible teacher does not attempt to usurp the parenting of a student. Each has their role to play. Teachers teach skills and concepts. Parents teach values.

    A liberal arts education can not benefit a person who does not understand it. Not all children are capable of accessing wisdom and virtue. These are the lies of equalism. Ridding ourselves of equalist lies regarding gender is only the first step to truly understanding the differences that exist among people. Human beings have finite limits to their physical and mental capacities. Teaching children that anything is possible is a lie.


  9. Elspeth says:

    Not all children are capable of accessing wisdom and virtue. These are the lies of equalism.

    I do not believe in egalitarian thinking nor do I believe we should be teaching children that anything is possible. I am in fact, vehemently opposed to that kid of thing.

    Leaving aside severe mental handicaps and cognitive disorders of a pronounced nature, is it your argument Foray that there are significant numbers of children incapable of accessing wisdom and virtue?

    I will give you a chance to answer before I go any farther.


  10. Bike Bubba says:

    It’s important for “Forays in Fiction” to first define what he (?) means by “liberal arts”. I’m using the ancient definition as best I can, he may be using another.

    But that said, I would argue that except for the severely retarded, almost all people are capable of taking a look at an argument logically and rhetorically, which is the core of the liberal arts. They may not be able to do so at the rate at which the argument is presented, but put it on paper and they will be able to do so. It’s really not a question of ability, but of will. Lots of people love their ad hominem attacks, I’ve noticed, and will not give them up.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. Elspeth says:

    Additionally Bike, I also wonder what he (or she) means by “wisdom and virtue”, which is why I hoped to get clarification.

    I just wasn’t sure what to make of the assertion that not every child can grasp the concepts of wisdom and virtue.

    In my experience, even the youngest children have an innate sense of justice and almost instinctively know what is abhorrent (ie, not virtuous).

    It is only the combination of acquired worldly wisdom and exposure to things that trip the sinful natures we are all born with that you begin to see the rejection of the good.

    Toss in parents who model folly and vice, and you get what we see all around us.

    As much as I appreciate what the great philosophers added to our civilization, I still think the book of Proverbs is a greater source of wisdom and that most people can understand its basic precepts. Ergo, most people can grasp wisdom and virtue.

    Proverbs in a nutshell: Fear the Lord. Be good. Don’t be bad. If you can’t figure out which is which, here is an entire book of examples of what to do and what not to do in every area of life, plainly expressed.

    Not rocket science and it seems to me there are PhD’s who miss it and janitors who grasp it.

    No, not everyone is apable of being a great philosopher, an engineer, or a professional baseball player, but just about everyone who is born without a severe cognitive deficiency is capable of living a moral, virtuous, and productive life.

    Liked by 2 people

  12. Robyn says:

    @ Bike

    “Lots of people love their ad hominem attacks,”

    Opinion, by definition, just reveals ignorance. The more vehement the opinion, the more ignorant. Just give me logic, not an emotional bias.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Elspeth says:

    Yes, Robyn, this is true. Too often, people use science to under gird their emotional biases, going so far that they often veer away from said science.

    I have absolutely no qualms with the idea of individuals being born with more or less cognitive ability than others; that we are born with different levels of intellect. Even within our 5 kids, I can see the range of intellectual abilities.

    Going even farther, I’m not even opposed to or in disagreement with the science that shows slight differences in IQ distribution among different ethnic groups.

    Where I draw the line is at the assertion that these differences necessarily crowd out the ability for people to ascertain and comprehend the things needed to be educated to the best of their individual ability.

    For most people, that can take them far in life when coupled with hard work, and with the principles of wisdom and virtue -for now using the book of Proverbs as a baseline- applied, that individual can go far whether they are a PhD or the manager of a fast food restaurant.

    Of course, elitists can’t comprehend this for some reason because only people of above average IQ are people to them (which I am one, btw). Everyone else is a tolerated being.

    Liked by 2 people

  14. Robyn says:

    “… people to ascertain and comprehend the things needed to be educated to the best of their individual ability.”

    This is key!

    Let’s say that Albert Einstein had a teacher that judged his “intellect” by his ability to score home runs or goals and shoot hoops. (now, I am taking liberties in assuming he had no athleticism and for the good of my example … you get my point I’m sure) He would be labelled with a lower IQ.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Eavan says:

    Some quotes to ponder from Norms and Nobility by David V. Hicks that reflect or expand on comments above:

    “True learning knows what is good, serves it above self, reproduces it, and recognizes that in knowledge lies this responsibility.”

    “Education as paideia is not preparation for life, for college, or for work; it is our inherited means of living fully in the present, while we grow in wisdom and in grace, in conscience and in style, entering gradually into ‘the good life.'”

    “The greatest part of education is instilling in the young the desire to be good: a desire that sharpens and shapes their understanding, that motivates and sustains their curiosity, and that imbues their studies with transcendent value.”

    I’ve heard people object to focusing on the soul of the student because that won’t fit them to make money, but when the focus is on the soul the student becomes the kind of person who can take on the challenge of vocation, whatever that vocation happens to be. For those students who will never have a vocation because of cognitive deficits, well, they still have a soul that needs feeding. A person with a fat soul can find joy no matter their station in life. In fact, fat souls don’t need to be envious or strain against their station, but can accept it as a gift from God because it’s actually the least important thing about a person.

    Liked by 3 people

  16. Elspeth says:

    Totally forgot to mention this:

    Teachers teach skills and concepts. Parents teach values.

    I laughed. Seriously, Forays in Fiction, was this just a hasty use of language or did you really mean this?

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Forays In Fiction says:

    You are not prepared to have a good faith discussion. My part in it is over. Reread what I wrote at a later date. Maybe it’ll make sense, maybe it won’t.


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