Real Education: Book Review

Posted on January 30, 2013 by


real educationReal Education by Charles Murray (224 pages) outlines 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 amongst 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 am also inclined to 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 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.

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 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 multicultural society where all paths are 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 something that we have discussed before here at TC : Using certification to undermine the BA.

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.