Last year, Ohio Governor John Kasich signed into law containing something known as the Third Grade Reading Guarantee. This effectively means that schools cannot promote students to the Fourth Grade unless they demonstrate a minimum level of reading ability—in essence, students are guaranteed to leave the Third Grade able to read. Political scientist Charles Murray would say this is preposterous.
Current thinking on education centers around the idea that all children are intelligent in some way and should succeed in school and in life. This much is evident in programs with names like the Third Grade Reading Guarantee and No Child Left Behind. Such programs instill the notion that all children can and should perform at high levels in school. Beyond that, there is a tandem notion that more children should go to college.
Back to Murray: Again, he would say these beliefs are preposterous, or (more accurately) unrealistic. In a 2008 book entitled Real Education: Four Simple Truths for Bringing America’s Schools Back to Reality, Murray sought to demonstrate that: 1) “ability varies and it varies a lot”; 2) “half of the children are below average”; 3) “Too Many People Are Going to College”; and 4) letting the gifted succeed is vital to the future of the nation. In fact, all of these are either paraphrases or the exact titles of four of the book’s chapters.
The first two assertions might strike some as insensitive, but Murray makes a strong case. He cites the Seven Intelligences (also commonly expanded to nine), or categories of ability. Murray states that all of these are not equal: for instance, a musical prodigy might not as able as a logical-mathematical prodigy in, say, an electrical engineering course of study. In fact, a musical prodigy might be below average in every other area, translating to sub-par grades in school and lower income later in life. So, as insensitive as it might seem, not everyone is able, for varying reasons, to make the grade in school, despite programs designed to achieve this very utopian goal.
As far as averages go, it is mathematically true that about half of us are below average—after all, how do you get the average? Moreover, one who is way above average musically or bodily-kinesthetically might be woefully below average interpersonally or otherwise. This has real-world ramification when it comes to primary and secondary education and income later on.
Murray’s third point might cause some discord, as well. We are told that everyone needs to go to college, but Murray states that the modern, well-rounded college education is obsolete. For many—or most—jobs, a college education is entirely unnecessary. Murray also states, “No more than 20 percent of students have that [college] level of academic ability.” Lastly, he contends that our society’s focus on college degrees is actually divisive, inadvertently ostracizing the overwhelming majority of people who are not college graduates.
Finally, Murray contends that, whether we like or not, our society is governed by an elite—and these folks are, indeed, very able and intelligent. In general, this elite is comprised of the most successful people from around the country. Murray believes we, as a nation, should “try to educate members of the elite to be conscious of, and prepared to meet, the obligations that go with the roles they play.” In other words, “Since [the elite] include the people who will end up running the country, it is time for the educational system to start holding their feet to the fire.”
Overall, Murray paints a stark contrast to the modern vision of education. His is frank, realistic, and accepts stratification. Compare this with the current egalitarian, utopian vision. While he does not propose his own system, per se, he does lay the groundwork for “letting change happen,” and the first order of business is being honest about the data.
So for all their good intentions, programs like the Third Grade Reading Guarantee and No Child Left Behind are little more than unrealistic, wasteful efforts to achieve the unachievable, at least in Murray’s view. And, of course, they are good politics, too.