After The Bell Curve, I didn't think of Murray as an author I would seek out again. I just didn't pay any attention to what he was up to. Then someone mentioned his book Real Education on a website I hang out at, saying that they were surprised by it after expecting to hate it. Since I have a reflex that causes me to seek out and read any book a person mentions in my hearing (this could be exploited to great humorous effect by loved ones, it occurs to me), I put it on my list and eventually got a copy from the library.
I also didn't expect to write more about Murray after yesterday's post on The Bell Curve, but I find myself thinking about it this morning, and the only way to get that out of my brain is to write it down.
Real Education is Murray's attempt to outline the solution to our educational problems. His subtitle is "Four Simple Truths For Bringing American's Schools Back to Reality," and his four simple truths are that children have different abilities; that half of all children are below average; that too many young people go to college, and that our future depends on the gifted.
Under the rubric of the first three of those, he takes progressive education to task for its naive belief that all children, under the right circumstances, can achieve in a certain way, academically. He draws on Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences, identifies the ones that best correlate with academic success, and says that our academic system attempts to force all kids to achieve in the ways that kids with that particular academic bent can do. This is a waste of resources, and it is self-esteem destroying for children who spent 13 years being pounded into a square hole.
He includes what was, for me, a very striking image: he asks his readers who were not good at gym class to remember what it was like to be in a class where you were constantly asked to do things you couldn't do, at least not well; to know that you couldn't do them and be expected to do them anyway; to receive low grades even though you were achieving at your best level.
OK, he says, that sucked for you. But gym class was never held up as the class that defined your school success. Once you suffered through the required credit hours, you were free to fill your schedule with classes that were a better fit.
But imagine you are a child for whom the standard ways of teaching and learning in schools are just as bad a fit. You're not only trapped in a great many more classes that are the psychic equivalent of that horrible gym class, and for a lot more years, but you're told that your future success in life depends on you being good in these classes; that you could succeed in them if you just applied yourself; and so on. He wants these kids, who are smart and able but just not necessarily smart and able in that particular way, to get a better deal.
He wants educators to let go of an idealized vision where all children are above average, where all children just need the right supports to succeed academically, where a four-year college degree is the path to success for everyone. I don't think he's necessarily wrong about that. (I don't have the energy to go into his alternative vision for post-secondary education, which would allow for multiple paths, more two or three-year programs, more credentialling exams, rather than forcing everyone through a four-year baccalaureate model that was only ever a good fit for a certain small subset of people, but I found it intriguing).
On the other hand, this is a much smaller, more focused book than The Bell Curve, and so it's easier to see what Murray decides to overlook. When he talks about multiple educational models for different kids, and an educational setting where one model isn't exalted over another, where the kid being excellently prepared for the skilled trade he's gifted at is not stigmatized versus the kid on the AP college fast track, you can almost see him holding his hands up beside his face like blinders chanting "La la la tracking I don't see it; la la la social class doesn't exist."
This great leap over the realities of how social class plays out both in our current system and in his idealized replacement system was especially glaring to me because at about the same time I read Literacy With an Attitude: Educating Working-Class Children in their Own Self-Interest, which describes the ways that education can be different for kids of different social classes even in the same classroom, with the same teacher.
One thing that stuck out to me from that book was its discussion of different styles of speech, and different ways of relating to adults and authority, which kids have adopted even before entering school. Researchers observing first-grade classrooms were able to observe how these different styles led, as time passed, to, for instance, reading-group assignments that tracked closely to children's social class, and in which teachers related to children differently, and sent them very different non-verbal messages about their place in the classroom and their abilities.
For instance, in the "A" reading group, children were allowed to group loosely, outside the teacher's reach, and given simple verbal instructions like "Get your book and open it to page 7." The group at the other end of the spectrum were often physically led to their reading group; books were placed in their hands and opened for them; they were seated so that the teacher was within physical reach of every child; much more of the teacher's speech during the group was about behavior than with the higher-level groups. Teachers, if they even noticed they were doing this, would have said they were responding to the reality of each group's abilities. But by halfway through the year, middle-class kids who had ended up in lower groups had been moved up, and working-class kids who started in higher groups had been moved down. Middle-class kids learned to read; they also learned that they were allowed a certain level of autonomy, that they could be trusted, that what they had to say was of interest to adults. The working-class kids learned--from the very same teacher--that they needed to be guided to do certain tasks, that behaving a certain way was more important than the content of the lesson, and so on.
Murray doesn't seem to want to really wrestle with these kinds of issues in Real Education, perhaps because he believes that, by and large, by being sorted into social classes children have already been sorted by intelligence. But I reject that notion.
I am sympathetic with some of his criticisms. I grew up with a brother, for instance, whom nobody could think was anything but very very smart, but for whom academics was a bad fit. Gary might say something different about this, but from my view, his transition to young adulthood was much harder than it had to be in part because of the assumption that a four-year academic degree was the only path to take. I would embrace a system that could have better identified my brother's enormous strengths and gifts, and without stigma, helped guide him to make the most of them. (While at the same time doing a better job of not putting very academically gifted kids like me on such a pedestal that it was, for me at least, damaging in a different way.)
But I don't think Murray's solutions, especially at the K-12 level, wrestle sufficiently with these realities.
And don't even get me started on Reality #4, which basically says that we should do a better job of identifying those who have certain kinds of gifts, and instead of neglecting them as we do now, intensively train them for leadership. Here, he invokes reality: he says that our leaders always have, and always will, come from the highest tiers of whatever it is that is measured by IQ, and we should recognize this and do a better job of preparing them for their leadership roles.
OK, maybe, because that might include the old-fashioned notions of stewardship, servant leadership, ethics, which our leaders certainly seem to lack.
On the other hand, this was, for me, Murray at his most distasteful. Philosopher-Kings, hello? I wanted to hold the book at arms length and say "ewwww." I'm pretty sure I skimmed, and tossed the book into my library bag to be returned with perhaps more than usual vehemence.
I like Murray's questions: How do we recognize the different abilities of different children? How do we nurture and guide them to the best use of those abilities? How do we de-stigmatize the less academic gifts, so that spending 13 years in our school systems doesn't leave so many kids feeling like failures?
I like his willingness to take progressive educators to task for naivete and utopianism.
But I am more interested in other people's solutions to these problems.