We must accept that some children are brighter than others, says Jack Carrigan
BY CHARLES MURRAY CROWN FORUM, £17.16
Ifirst encountered the writing of the social scientist Charles Murray when he published a long article in 1989 entitled “The Emerging British Underclass.” Ten years later he revisited the trends he had analysed so effectively in his earlier article and found they had worsened. A Harvard history graduate, he did a doctorate in political science at MIT. In Real Education, a critical survey of the educational scene in America, he includes 30 pages of notes and statistics as well as a 10-page bibliography.
So what is his thesis here? To confront the accepted “lie” that every child can be anything he or she wants to be with four truths: that ability varies; that half of the children are below average; that too many people go to college; and that the future of the US depends on how the academically gifted are educated. None of this will please the progressive establishment.
On his first point, Murray argues that we recognise special ability in athletics, in music and in art, but that when it comes to logical-mathematical ability and linguistic ability we refuse to do so. “Many of the things that high-ability students can do are different in kind from the things that low-ability students can do.” On his second, seemingly harsher point, readers will interject: “What exactly is meant by ‘below average’ ”? Here, Murray has examined all the wellknown research findings: the NAEP Long-Term Trend Study, the Coleman Report and “No Child Left Behind”. He also surveys schemes of early intervention, the differing standards of the public schools, lowincome neighbourhoods and other variables that might impact on test results. His conclusion: that it is possible to move children from far below average intellectually to somewhat less below average; that family background “is far and away the most important factor in determining student achievement”; and that the NCLB scheme “has done nothing to raise reading skills despite the enormous effort that has been expended”.
Murray is at pains to emphasise that more can be done for children of below average academic ability, if we cease to be educational romantics and get a grip on reality.
This leads to his third point: too many young people are steered towards a college education for which they are unfitted because of the necessity of a BA for employment prospects. Murray would like school career advisers to point out to non-academic pupils that they could earn a higher income and get more job satisfaction from training – eg to be a first-class plumber or electrician than spending four years at college to end up in an office job of low status and satisfaction.
His final consideration, how should we educate the 10 per cent of those academically gifted enough to benefit from a college education, is the most stimulating. “We need to give them the chance to become, not just knowledgeable, but wise.” This requires the practice of the cardinal virtues: prudence, justice, fortitude and selfcontrol; being nice or being pleasant is not enough to form character, the character that will, inevitably, form the elite that will run the country and shape its opinions.
Murray does not introduce a religious perspective; his suggestions come from a consideration of Confucius and Aristotle – ie what civilisation has concluded are the natural virtues necessary to leading a good human life.
The situation in Britain is very similar to the American scene under discussion: an overloaded, enormous, state-run school system, a worrying number of school leavers who are functionally innumerate and illiterate, a large number of college students studying subjects such as “leisure and tourism” and so on. Thus, this stimulating, well-argued book deserves our serious consideration.
On a personal note that illustrates Murray’s essential point: I once coached a girl for A-level English. Her ambition was to be a nursery nurse but her school had persuaded her to try for college. The set text was Othello which she confessed she didn’t “get”. She was pleasant, hardworking and struggled to write the essays I gave her. With the best will in the world she could not do it.
The climax came when I asked her to analyse Desdemona’s state of mind in the scene just before she is strangled by Othello. She described the tragic heroine as being “cute and cheerful”.