The Bell Curve Under a Different Cover

By Watson Scott Swail, President and CEO, Educational Policy Institute

In yesterday’s USA Today, Mary Beth Marklein interviews The Bell Curve author Charles Murray about his new book, Real Education: Four Simple Truths for Brining America’s Schools Back to Reality. Murray, in typical fashion, is set to cause an uproar across higher education, especially at open admissions schools, about the role and place of higher education.

Murray’s central thesis is that higher education has been watered down over the years, and now serves students who “have no business being there.” I’m devoting this week’s commentary to a discussion of Murray’s comments for two reasons: first, to offer additional insight on some of the points he gets right; and second, to illustrate what an elitist ass he apparently still is.

Murray gets several things right in his comments, but he is analyzing a system that can’t be broken down and reworked, and his thesis is only helpful if we can reinvent the entire system. We can tinker with higher education, but we can’t replace the system. Similarly, we can’t throw out secondary education, but can continue to incrementally improve it. Let’s look at Murray’s comments point by point.

The author says that the BA has become a requirement for the job market and that the BA often has “absolutely nothing to do with what the job requires.” A true statement in both senses. We grossly over value the BA and use it as a filter. I do it all the time. And I find that students are not necessarily gaining the skills they need in the job market through higher education; they get them through on-the-job training in many cases. We most certainly have to do a better job of defining what a BA and a college education is about and why we need it. I often argue that if we did a better job of secondary education, many BA students wouldn’t actually need the BA. But our economy is as much built on perception than actual skill sets.

Murray also says that the BA has been watered down and is “supposed to stand for a classic liberal education.” Maybe it did when Murray went to undergraduate school eons ago at the most elite institutions (Murray is a self-made “Harvard Man”), but that isn’t how most of us would define a BA now. I have a BA in Education; it wasn’t about getting a “classic liberal education,” it was about learning what I needed to know about being a teacher. We can argue if that is appropriate (I think it is), but a liberal arts education is not what I was after.

Additionally, Murray uses the example that a BA should be about understanding some “tough texts” (no argument). He says “ Well, there are lots of kids who are never going got be able to read Aristotle’s Ethics and understand it.” True point, but his use of that particular example only illustrates the extremist viewpoint he maintains. He’s got me, here. If I had to read Aristotle’s Ethics, I would have dropped out. I had better things to do with my time. I guess I shouldn’t have gone to college. I also guess that’s why I haven’t amounted to much in my life.

Murray then suggests that there is too much focus on retention and graduation rates. Yes and no. If we completely subscribe to Murray’s thesis that we shouldn’t let many students into higher education, then he’s right. But that assumption suggests we make our institutions of higher education ultra-elite, and only let in students who have a ‘suitable’ secondary education, which, of course, would effectively eliminate about 75 percent of current higher education students from postsecondary study.

The reality is that we do let in 15 million students each year, and yes, many are not adequately prepared for higher education. But it is what it is, and thus we must look at retention and graduation rates. If our system is such that we let in a broad cross-section of students, then we have a moral and legal obligation to do what we can to help those students succeed.

Murray claims that the reaction to his book has been very positive. He claims that “Almost all (the responses) were positive. Professors and teachers were saying ‘Thank God someone is finally saying this.’ “ Chuck, you need to start hanging around a different crowd. Sure, there are many professors who subscribe to this thesis, but these are people of the same ilk as Murray. Are students coming to higher education underprepared? Yes. Should we do something about it? Yes. But shutting the door isn’t the best policy. Think of the thousands of people who went to college, including me, and became positive contributors to our society.

The quality issue in higher education is a serious issue, and Murray’s comments, taken in context, do provide some reasonable discussion points. However, as remarked, his argument is only useful in a philosophical sense because we can’t restructure the system as he sees it. It is politically impossible to do. On one side we have educational elites who want to increase the admissions policies and raise the standards of higher education. On the other you have proponents of open admissions and providing educational opportunity. Both are right, to a point. Where they meet in the middle is what we call American Higher Education. We have a mixed bag that isn’t perfect, but it does what it does. One must clearly understand that this enormous system is just that: a system of higher education which has a life of its own. To think we can inflict rational new policies on a system of 4,000 schools (over 12,000 if we include proprietary institutions) to move toward a more rigorous educational experience for students is naïve at best. We can’t.

What we need to do is continue these dialogues to try and work toward a better, more seamless, system of secondary and postsecondary education—one that includes the trades—and link this with the global workforce. This we do not do very well, and the pressures on public subsidies to higher education and on corporate budgets will require that we build a better mousetrap.

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