Upon reading the headline for Charles Murray’s Sunday Times opinion piece, “Should the Obama Generation Drop Out?” I couldn’t not continue further. Author of The Bell Curve in the 1990s and, more recently, Real Education: Four Simple Truths for Bringing America’s Schools Back to Reality, critics dismiss him as elitist, though I’m sure he would argue that he is a realist, a pragmatist who eschews political correctness and, instead, implores us to consider the historical implications of the function and purpose of education, noting that times have changed, but the core composition of the population has not. Quite simply, for Murray education is not a golden ticket to success linked to the upward mobility promised by the delusional American Dream, but a utilitarian concept linked to economic functionality – we educate the populous to perform tasks that ultimately keep wheels turning in a free market society. While idealists argue that education is a tool of personal enlightenment, pragmatists acknowledge it as a tool of social utility.
In his article, Murray suggests the Obama administration should “use [its] bully pulpit to undermine the bachelor’s degree as a job qualification,” in favor of emphasizing ability and skill: “It’s what you can do that should count when you apply for a job, not where you learned to do it.” Murray’s assertions are similar to the underlying philosophy of the Teach For America program, which draws its teacher-participants from areas outside of traditional teacher education programs — if an individual has the ability and skill to perform a job, then jumping through systemic hoops is merely bureaucracy run amok. The average American’s goal, he says, is not receiving a liberal education and enjoying learning for learning’s sake, but “to learn how to get a satisfying job that also pays well.”
To make this connection, Murray looks to America’s past, writing that, “[a] century ago, these students would happily have gone to work after high school,” but that the requirements ushered in with the Information Age are pushing non-academically minded people into the academy, creating dissonance between vocationally-minded students and the academy’s high-minded quest to take its students on “a leisurely journey to well-roundedness.” Where the popular call from educators and legislators alike has been that all students have the ability to achieve, Murray simply argues that this is false, goading the cheerleaders to give voice to a different reality, because “[a] large majority of young people do not have the intellectual ability to do genuine college-level work.” He cites ambiguous data that only 10-20% of American high school seniors read at a level that allows them to negotiate college work, while stating that “[n]o improvements in primary or secondary education will do more than tweak those percentages.”
His arguments are not new. Medford Evans and George R. Clark, writing in Harper’s Magazine in 1944, discuss “Liberal Education Versus Vocational Training” (page 60): “In every society where there is a ruling class there is one kind of education for rulers and another for the ruled. Vocational training, which confines itself to teaching skills, tends to limit the individual’s interest in general social problems and to discourage intelligent participation in political life. As such, it is the ideal education for the servants of the ruling class. It is sharply distinguished from a vital program of liberal education such as that which provides a broad general training for rulers … The real issue is a political rather than an academic one: how widely available should liberal education be? There is no more radical and democratic idea afloat in educational circles today than that of providing liberal education for everyone.” Clearly, there has not been much ideological change in 64 years.
What is at the crux of Murray’s article, however, is both ability and desire. His assumption is that there are two types of students who will not excel in higher education: those who lack ability, the ones he labels “not smart enough to deal with college level material,” and those who lack desire, viewing the higher education’s requirements as “bothersome time-wasters.” Many educators will take him to task regarding the first group, as the goal of teaching is to guide students to understanding. Even the No Child Left Behind legislation is predicated on the idea that all students have the ability to excel given appropriate conditions and support. Murray’s argument of appropriateness, however, differs. While he supports continuing efforts to provide vocational education for segments of the population who would much prefer to obtain employment than open their minds to worlds that are essentially closed to them under current conditions, defining this type of education as appropriate for them, he also maintains that “keeping the bachelor’s degree as the measure of job preparedness, as the minimal requirement to get your foot in the door for vast numbers of jobs that don’t really require a B.A. or B.S.” is not appropriate. Interestingly, the same argument is being used to challenge new higher math standards for high school students established in the aftermath of NCLB, where some question the practicality of requiring upper level math skills for all students and fear students’ inability to achieve the standard will only result in frustration and an increased dropout rate.
Murray’s solution to the bachelor’s degree as primary entrance to employment is to “substitute certification tests, which would provide evidence that the applicant has acquired the skills the employer needs.” He likens the idea to the apprentice system of old, where students can learn on the job, build their skills, and then become masters in their trades. Admittedly, this proposal “would not eliminate the role of innate ability — the most gifted applicants would still have an edge … [but] they would put everyone under the same spotlight.” He closes with a proposed mantra for the new Obama administration: “It’s what you can do that should count when you apply for a job, not where you learned it.”
I’m curious how he would propose rebuilding the current Pre K – 12 system to accommodate students who would rather focus on specific job skills as opposed to academic enlightenment. After all, isn’t the idea of a liberal education predicated on the idea that it teaches students how to think, how to problem solve, in preparation to tackle any task required of them? Does Murray propose we divide our society further by funneling a majority of the population into trade schools, forever barring them from achieving the endless possibilities promised to them in the elusive American dream? Is he a self-titled benevolent dictator who recognizes the existing system and seeks to establish greater efficiency without deluding the masses? Will a person’s zip code, then, determine position and possibility?
Or is he a realist who goes out on a limb to label the America that has always existed and has no possibility of ever changing, recognizing that there is much room in the chorus, but precious few openings for lead roles?