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Charles Murray and the Wall Street Journal: A Muddled Look at Education in the U. S.

Posted: 2007-01-25

NOTE: This essay expresses Michael Martin?s views
alone, and not those of the organization that employs him. The essay appeared on Gerald Bracey's discussion list Education Disinformation Detection and Reporting Agency (EDDRA).

Charles Murray's three Wall Street Journal essays, starting with

"Intelligence in the Classroom" on January 16, 2007, provided a muddled

look at education in the United States with suggestions that make

superficial sense but lack a deep appreciation for the reality of public

schools. See at:

Intelligence in the Classroom

What's wrong with vocational school?

Aztecs vs. Greeks

At first I began writing a logical refutation of Murray's essays, but

then one question started bothering me. Charles Murray has long been a

discredited right wing ideologue (see:


what is the point of further discrediting him?

Murray's essays are already being dismissed and discredited by others, but I think there is a crucial issue here for educators in

particular to consider. For at its root, Murray's essays fundamentally

attack the idea of education as America has always structured it, and

serves primarily to establish a new rationale for promoting vouchers. Vouchers are a bad idea for several reasons, but the primary one is that

public schools have always functioned as a unifying social institution.

Vouchers arose and have been promulgated primarily because public

schools were integrated by the 1954 Brown v. Board decision of the U.S.

Supreme Court and it is revealing that economist Milton Friedman's

seminal justification for vouchers appeared one year after the Brown


The famous educator Robert Maynard Hutchins wrote in 1972 that "The

support for the voucher plan in the country comes from those who do not

want their children compelled to associate with those of other races and

social status." For the same reason, educational leader James Bryant

Conant stated in 1970 that "The greater the proportion of our youth who

attend independent schools, the greater the threat to our democratic

unity. Therefore, to use taxpayers' money to assist such a move is, for

me, to suggest that American society use its own hands to destroy


But what has changed recently that suddenly makes vouchers, and the

attack on public schools, such a focal point for the conservative

zealots? Murray's essays fulminate over obfuscating information but then

propose that American education focus on educating an elite class of

high IQ people. The fact that Gifted Programs already exist in public

schools makes clear that Murray and the Wall Street Journal are after

something else. One question that should be obvious: why does the Wall

Street Journal devote three days of prominent editorial space to this

issue? Could it be that they see themselves and their families as this


They obviously are not interested in the fundamental American concept of

empowering the general population. The fundamental role of American

public education evolved to provide the skills that enhance the talents

of the entire population in order to enhance the entire capability of

the nation. This concept is rooted in the very intellectual beginning of

liberal democracy that occurred when Adam Smith wrote, at almost the

same time Thomas Jefferson wrote the American Declaration of

Independence, that the wealth of a nation was not really the wealth of

the king, but rather the wealth of the population. Smith's obvious point

was that it was in the King's interest to maximize the wealth of the

population in general.

This point has formed the traditional foundation for America's public

schools: it is in the economic interest of the society as a whole to

maximize the human capital of the general population through public

schools. By human capital, I mean the capability of individuals to

maximize their own pursuit of happiness within that society, the point

that our Declaration of Independence averred "That to secure these

rights, Governments are instituted among Men." And, in particular, why

we have instituted locally elected governing boards. What Murray is

saying is that we should instead devote our educational resources toward

the education of a governing elite, which in essence harkens back to a

conservative focus on the King's wealth as opposed to the liberal view

of what the preamble to the U.S. Constitution described as "to promote

the general welfare."

In his third essay, Murray fixates on intelligence as being the sine qua

non of society, stating in italics "Our future depends crucially on how

we educate the next generation of people gifted with unusually high

intelligence." He talks about the special training "to prepare an elite

to do its duty" as if that should be the main focus of public schools,

building on his first essay comment that "even a perfect education

system is not going to make much difference in the performance of

children in the lower half of the distribution" of intelligence. Murray,

and by implication the Wall Street Journal, essentially discredits the

education of half the American population. But Murray goes even farther

than just half.

Murray contends in his second essay that there is a spectrum of

intelligence and that not everyone can succeed in college. Seductively,

this refutes the critics of education who claim that everyone who

graduates from high school should demonstrate they are able to perform

college entry level work by passing a high-stakes test. But Murray's

point, emphasized in a pull quote, is that there is "a false premium on

the college degree" because too many students go to college who don't

have the intelligence to succeed.

Murray states "If you want to do well [in college] you should have an IQ

of 115 or higher." But it is NOT true that a person with a higher

measured IQ is capable of doing better in intellectual tasks than a

person with a lower measured IQ. Murray seems to concede that point in

his first essay when he says: "It's no use to say that IQ scores can be

wrong. I am not talking about scores on specific tests, but about a

student's underlying intellectual ability, g, whether or not it has been

measured with a test." Murray ignores that "g" is what testing experts

call a "latent trait" that cannot be observed directly.

In statistics we have a crucial concept of Type One Errors and Type Two

Errors that are inextricably linked like yin and yang. A Type One error

is a false positive: you Include someone who should be Excluded. Think

of your SPAM filter: a false positive means your spam filter deletes an

important email as spam. A Type Two error is a false negative: you

exclude someone who should be included. In this case, your spam filter

lets through some spam to your inbox. The inextricable link is that if

you try to minimize one type of error, you ipso facto increase the

chance of the other error.

This is fundamentally what liberal and conservative education mean: you

can be conservative and accept that many people will not have their

innate talents enhanced to their full potential by public education, or

you can be liberal and accept that some of those who receive public

education will not fulfill their full potential. Normally this would be

a simple political choice. In Murray's second essay he claims that "it

makes sense for only about 15% of the population, 25% if one stretches

it, to get a college education. And yet more than 40% of all persons in

their late teens are trying to go to a four year college." But that may

be necessary to get the maximum yield from our educational system.

Thus in American education, we have chosen to make a Type One Error, and

give more people the opportunity to succeed in college, in order to

minimize the chance of a Type Two Error that excludes people who might

be successful. This represents a fundamental philosophy underlying

American public schools in accordance with the precepts derived from

Adam Smith, from our Declaration of Independence, and stated eloquently

in the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution: empowering the general

population is crucial to enhancing the wealth of the nation. Murray is

essentially arguing against that choice, and when conservatives decry

the decline in test scores that occurs when you make Type One Errors,

they are essentially opposing it also.

But what if this is not simply a political choice. My first thought was

that Murray is forgetting the old legend of the kingdom that was lost

for the want of a nail. When I was in the U.S. Marines, I worked in

aviation, where the fighter pilot is the elite of intelligence,

initiative and ability. One arrogant pilot mistreated the crew that

maintained his aircraft and one day as he taxied out to the runway,

there on the edge of the tarmac was his crew, each with his hat over his

heart. The pilot quickly realized that all of his talent and

intelligence and initiative and drive was worth zero if that plane did

not function correctly.

The elite that Murray extols are going to need the modern versions of

the horseshoe nails in each of the complex sectors of modern society,

right down to the janitors and ditch diggers. Otherwise his governing

elite will be shrieking "A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!" You

would think that point would be obvious.

Public schools are charged with educating the entire populace in a

manner that destroys Murray's concept of a bell curve. The statistical

term is called skew. Public schools are designed to create a skewed

distribution because we try to prevent the lower tail of the

distribution through remedial and special instruction and we try to

enhance the upper tail by gifted and other programs. As a consequence,

the better your education system, the more skewed the distribution will

become, and IPSO FACTO the more students will score below average (what

I have modestly called "Martin's Paradox" at http://www.azsba.org/paradox.htm.

But what if this increasing excellence in the education system that

resulted in more students scoring below average could be utilized to

argue for only educating an elite? What if this statistical fluke was

hidden by the common practice of standardizing tests so that the average

was always set to some predetermined value and therefore the only

observable result was that more and more students scored below average?

You could declare "war" on the public schools secure in the knowledge

that anything they did to improve the situation would only make it look


Gerald Bracey recently wrote a book or two whose titles claimed there was, in

fact, a "war" on public schools, but there has seemingly been a lack of

logical motive to explain this "war." From Berliner and Biddle's book

The Manufactured Crisis to this very listserv [EDDRA], those who work in

public education have been struggling against a blizzard of

disinformation that blames America's public schools for virtually every

ill that bedevils American society. Yet, except for the zealots of the

conservative right wing, American public schools represent an

unparalleled example of success for any public institution. What could

be the motive for this vicious attack on an institution that is

fundamental to the American ideal of empowering the individuals that

enhance the wealth and power of the nation?

In the past I have argued that this is the motive: for those who claim

that "government is the problem not the solution" to society's ills, the

public schools have been the Devil's Tower to disprove this claim. Thus

fundamentally it is necessary for those who would discredit government

to discredit its most successful example: the American public schools.

But Murray's essays and their featured position in the Wall Street

Journal lead me to extend that argument a step further. There is another

motive that makes perfect sense. After all, the success of the public

schools has demonstrably meant that the general population has enhanced

its wealth and power, and ipso facto the wealth and power of the United


However, multinational corporate leaders, those for whom the Wall Street

Journal primarily is printed, do not identify themselves with a nation

for whom they have any interest in promoting the general welfare. The

simple fact of the matter is that a multinational corporate elite lack

the premise that their situation depends on the success of the society

in any particular nation. This has become clear in the "outsourcing"

debate, where the wealth and purchasing power of local employees has no

relevance. Simply put, the impoverishment of the general population is

not relevant to multinational corporate leaders who feel they are now

capable of abandoning the general population in every country worldwide

in favor of creating an elite among their families that exploits the

general population worldwide.

This also explains the virulent opposition by conservatives to general

taxation that supports the general welfare, and why major U.S.

corporations utilize off-shore banks to shelter income from the taxes

supporting the general fund of the federal government. Those serve as a

demonstrable object lesson about their lack of commitment to the

American populace. This disconnect between multinational corporations

and "nation states" is not just my fantasy. Although they did not

address the issue from an education perspective, Viven A. Schmidt wrote

about it in 1995 stating "In this essay I argue that however beneficial

it may be for global prosperity and business, the jury is still out

regarding its effects on global democracy and government generally." at

http://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/schmidt.htm and more recently Vexen

Crabtree wrote in the UK about how supranational governments were now

needed to control multinational corporations at

http://www.vexen.co.uk/countries/multinationals.html. I'm sure there are

others, those just were easily googled.

Thus I suggest that the point of Murray and the Wall Street Journal is

to abandon the philosophy of educating the general population through

public schools in favor of a philosophy that would concentrate education

on an elite. This provides them an additional rationale for using

vouchers to break the link between public schools and the general

population. This also explains why there is a concomitant conservative

effort to remove elected governing boards from controlling the public

schools. It is necessary to move the decision making power about public

schools to the elite. This also explains why there is such an entire

disconnect between the conservative view of education and that of

professional educators.

Consider, for example, that when educators talk about child-centered

efforts to match skills to talents, instead of the one-size-fits-all of

the conservatives, there are paroxysms of outrage as Murray decries "The

primary purpose of their education should not be to let the little

darlings express themselves but to give them the tools and the

intellectual discipline for expressing themselves as adults." But we

no-longer live in an age when a small set of tools would serve everyone,

unless you are talking about a minimally adequate education for all but

the elite.

If the goal of society is to maximize the success of all the individuals

within that society, then we must focus first on developing curricula

that match skills to the diversity of innate talents. Because all

children are born with different combinations of cognitive and physical

talents, some combinations are suited to certain skill sets better than

others, and the most successful education technique that will "give them

the tools" they will need as adults is to "let the little darlings

express themselves" within a constructivist curricular structure

because, a crucial role of schools is having children explore themselves

to find their innate talents through play and academic exploration.

The entire logic of the education profession rests on the premise that

maximizing the individual talents of its students enhances the welfare

of the entire population. This is the main rationale for public schools

being a general obligation of society to be supported by taxes. But this

makes no sense to those who have no commitment to the welfare of the

entire population. Educators have presumed this premise, which we must

now concede does not exist in the conservative philosophy. In the past,

it was a matter of degree, so the premise was sound, but in a

multinational world it makes no sense at all, thus a "war" against

public schools. The wealth of the general population of any particular

nation, to a multinational corporation, is irrelevant. People to them

are fungible.

Murray concludes his first essay with what I thought was a gross logical

blunder: Murray wrote "My point is just this: It is true that many

social and economic problems are disproportionately found among people

with little education, but the culprit for their educational deficit is

often low intelligence." Thus his logic was that low intelligence

results in educational deficits that result in social and economic

problems, and we have no way to change innate intelligence.

Murray's main premise then rests entirely on his ignorance of a large

mass of medical research about childhood lead poisoning among low-income

children that "just kills their brains" as one expert put it. Even

low-level lead poisoning is known to reduce IQs by five to ten points

but its symptoms also include learning disabilities, misbehavior,

aggression, violence, and drug abuse. Thus "the culprit" for both "their

educational deficit" and "low intelligence" is lead poisoning. And lead

poisoning IS something we can change.

I have argued that expending efforts to eliminate lead poisoning would

both reduce "low intelligence" within the population and decrease "their

educational deficit," along with the educational deficits of students in

the schools they disrupt, thereby reducing "many social and economic

problems" facing society. This was premised on the concept that

enhancing the capabilities of individuals in society simultaneously

enhances the wealth of the nation. But Murray's main premise is

essentially that we are going to abandon these people anyway, so we can

ignore them. Murray's focus on educating an elite, and dismissing over

half the population as being irrelevant, fits the logic of abandoning

the general population because in a multinational world there is no

allegiance to the wealth of a particular nation.

Modern educators have struggled during recent times in the face of

abhorrent ignorance about what public schools do, and what they do well.

People mock educators over their claims that education must be made

interesting, that education should be "child-centered," that there are

different "intelligences," and that every student should be challenged

at that student's individual level of ability.

Public school teachers have evolved so rapidly in the last quarter

century that their level of professionalism and ability is often missed

by those who went through the schools in their youth. In their struggles

to modernize there are often debates and experiments and philosophies

which envision the way to evolve in different ways. So it should not be

a surprise that Murray doesn't have a clue about how modern schools


But I have to ask the one question that has haunted me. Not simply "why

would the Wall Street Journal devote three days of prominent editorial

space to this issue?" The question that haunts me is, what if Charles

Murray, whose professional career has entirely been manipulated by

conservative foundations, wasn't exactly clueless, but we were?

Michael T. Martin

Research Analyst

Arizona School Boards Association

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