Phi Beta Cons

Re: Real Education

The American Prospect has a belated review. As the first two paragraphs indicate, the writer can’t really keep his reasons for hating Charles Murray straight:

A quarter-century ago, a then-obscure social scientist named Charles Murray hit upon a surefire formula for creating a best-seller: 1) Pick a controversial topic like welfare (Losing Ground) or IQ (The Bell Curve). 2) Make an outrageous claim, adopting a tone of sweet reason and using (often misusing) elaborate social-science tools to impress the statistically unschooled. 3) Give those at the top of the heap license to believe they got there because of merit. 4) Await the brouhaha. 5) Watch the book climb to the top of the best-seller list.

In Real Education, Murray turns the spotlight on higher education. He’s up to his familiar tricks: This time the provocation is that too many people go to college. Murray loves to make broad-brush, simple-sounding claims — welfare causes dependency, intelligence is inherited — and Real Education offers four of these “simple truths.”

OK, so does the evil, evil libertarian thinker believe that “those at the top of the heap” “got there because of merit,” or that “intelligence is inherited”? To the extent anyone believes one, he cannot believe the other — unless he equates intelligence with merit. From what I can tell from reading much of Murray’s work, he has a very nuanced view of these topics: Intelligence is in part inherited, and intelligence plays a large role as to where we end up in life, but there’s still room for hard work to make a difference. I don’t see how this is sinister, untrue, or a “broad-brush, simple-sounding claim.”

Then, the writer repeatedly accuses Murray of statistical malpractice without citing examples. Except maybe for this one:

“No more than 20 percent” of students can do college-level work, says Murray, and “10 percent is a more reliable estimate.” Putting aside the faulty statistical analysis that leads Murray to that dour conclusion, this “truth” is rebutted by the fact that about 35 percent of young adults, not 10 percent, have a bachelor’s degree.

As anyone who actually read the book knows, Murray knows full well that lots of people can get degrees in today’s system. His point is that today’s system is too lax, and passes people through without truly teaching them.

Then, the reviewer completely ignores half of Murray’s point about how too many people are going to college — Murray says that fewer people should go to traditional colleges, but more should go into training programs, and mid-level jobs should respect that training the way many will now only respect a BA. Bearing in mind the second half, it’s not a counterargument to point out that college is right now a good investment even for people of average ability.


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