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

Publication Date: 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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