Monday, January 29, 2007

Charles Murray needs an education

I was reading Dallas Blog, a Dallas-based local group blog dedicated to all things Dallas, but whose opinion pieces often delve into matters not specific to Dallas. This post links to an opinion column published in the Wall Street Journal by Charles Murray, who co-wrote the infamous "The Bell Curve".

Today he's back with more of the same. Well, he hasn't really gone anywhere, but I don't usually pay attention to pseudo-scientific blowhards, especially when their pseudo-science is tailored for the benefit of their political views. The only reason I do so now is that his claims have become too egregious to ignore. This is the gist of it: too many people are going to college, and our culture encourages too many people to go to college. The pseudo-scientific claim to support this is that only people with exceedingly high IQs can actually learn anything useful in college. Of course, what's useful is defined entirely by what Murray seems to feel is useful, such as engineering or mathematics degrees while scorning liberal arts: "But a bachelor's degree in a field such as sociology, psychology, economics, history or literature certifies nothing." Strangely enough, Murray himself graduated with a history degree. To be fair, he's not saying the education doesn't actually teach you anything, he's just saying the diploma means less than the paper it's printed on. It's true that with engineers specifically, a diploma is also a certification. If you earn it, your future employer be assured you can do it, at least theoretically.

Murray's first column is dedicated to telling readers once again that education is only useful to a certain extent for that half of the population which is of below average intelligence. As he says in that column:

One word is missing from these discussions: intelligence. Hardly anyone will admit it, but education's role in causing or solving any problem cannot be evaluated without considering the underlying intellectual ability of the people being educated. Today and over the next two days, I will put the case for three simple truths about the mediating role of intelligence that should bear on the way we think about education and the nation's future.

Today's simple truth: Half of all children are below average in intelligence. We do not live in Lake Wobegon.
With a simple statement like that he obscures and denies the truth. At first you might be tempted to agree that intelligence has something to do with the value of education, if education is more valuable for those who have the intelligence to use it. But let's examine his claims. "Half of all children are below average in intelligence." This statement may be true, but let me demonstrate that it means nothing. Take a class of one hundred kids. Fifty of them have an IQ of 99. Fifty of them have an IQ of 101. The "average" (known in statistics as the mean) is 100. Half the class is below average, half above. Does this predict that half of the kids will be any better off in life than the other half? Absolutely not. Even by Murray's own logic, all of them ought to fare about the same in life. To extend this to the larger argument, there may very well be a distribution curve (the Bell curve) where half the kids are below and half above. But 90% of them are going to be within such a close range of each other that it won't matter if they're above or below some arbitrary point. Besides which, Murray is using the hidden assumption that the mean IQ is below the break point at which a college education is beneficial to the recipient. There's absolutely no science to back this claim, which I say means it's absolutely fraudulent and intending to deceive readers (although many of them probably believe the same thing and wish to see their own beliefs reinforced more than being told anything new).

Furthermore, Murray makes the explicit claim that grades in school are directly related to native intelligence, and that this is the most important factor, rather than quality of teaching, stability of home life, importance of education in the home, availability of quality food, etc, etc. The problem with this claim is that he has no more science to go on here than anywhere else. While studies have been done with all kinds of results, no study has pinpointed intelligence as being the main predictor of grades. Morgan Spurlock made such a convincing case for the importance of high-quality food in schools that many systems have gone in the direction of having all-natural foods that are low in fat and sugar. At least one school claims that it leads to higher grades. Hey Murray, maybe college would be useful to more kids if you'd push funding for programs to ensure that kids eat well every day.

Murray makes many erroneous claims linking intelligence to educational achievement.

For example, in the 2005 round of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), 36% of all fourth-graders were below the NAEP's "basic achievement" score in reading. It sounds like a terrible record. But we know from the mathematics of the normal distribution that 36% of fourth-graders also have IQs lower than 95.
And yet there was no general testing of 4th-grade IQs because schools don't usually do IQ testing. So where was he getting this info? Furthermore, even if it was true that 36% have IQs lower than 95 and that 36% were below average, he's done nothing to prove a link between the two. What percentage of the 36% that scored low lives in underprivileged conditions or in homes where their parents do not make it a priority to read to them?

Murray attempts to make the point that lower IQ leads to lower educational achievement. However, this point only serves to make the larger point, which is that lower educational achievement among the underprivileged is only related to their being underprivileged in that both are caused by their inherently lower IQ.

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. Refusing to come to grips with that reality has produced policies that have been ineffectual at best and damaging at worst.
Now Murray does not here say that he means Blacks and Hispanics (the two largest groups of underprivileged Americans) are inherently inferior. He has, however, made this claim before and it can be assumed that he hasn't changed his mind on the subject. Murray is mostly talking about minorities (but to be fair we'll assume he is talking about some whites) who a larger percentage of will be less successful in school. Murray basically is saying that education is wasted on most minorities, who, furthermore, should not be encouraged to attempt higher education but rather become professional tradesmen such as plumbers and carpenters. He supports this assertion with "facts" like this:

The spread of wealth at the top of American society has created an explosive increase in the demand for craftsmen. Finding a good lawyer or physician is easy. Finding a good carpenter, painter, electrician, plumber, glazier, mason--the list goes on and on--is difficult, and it is a seller's market. Journeymen craftsmen routinely make incomes in the top half of the income distribution while master craftsmen can make six figures. They have work even in a soft economy. Their jobs cannot be outsourced to India. And the craftsman's job provides wonderful intrinsic rewards that come from mastery of a challenging skill that produces tangible results. How many white-collar jobs provide nearly as much satisfaction?

He might be right about the "explosive increase" in the demand for craftsmen. But I don't know where he's getting his statistics from. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics,

Among all occupations in the economy, computer and healthcare occupations are expected to grow the fastest over the projection period (Chart 7). In fact, healthcare occupations make up 12 of the 20 fastest growing occupations, while computer occupations account for 5 out of the 20 fastest growing occupations in the economy. In addition to high growth rates, these 17 computer and healthcare occupations combined will add more than 1.8 million new jobs. High growth rates among computer and healthcare occupations reflect projected rapid growth in the computer and data processing and health services industries.

This points up another problem with Murray's hypothesis: he equates vocational work with low intelligence. Good mechanics understand complex machinery; this is not a task for the simple-minded. Perhaps Murray thinks that having a high IQ enables you to learn any task, but no matter how smart Murray is, I think I'd rather take my car to the mechanic on the corner than to him. And it's true that those mechanics can't debate politics with Murray. That's not because they're stupid, it's because they're the product of our public schools and they didn't go on to college. Murray seems to be taking this lesson backwards: because they learned a vocation they're not smart enough to have gotten a college education. The truth is, they were probably in that class of people destined not to go to college, thus they got a vocational education in order to at least make more money than they could slinging hamburgers.

Murray is such a fan of vocational occupations; well, why isn't he pushing the idea of being a nurse or a programmer? Sure, programming gets outsourced, but that's because there aren't enough programmers available that wages get depressed. Why not push healthcare occupations though? If vocations don't require as much intelligence as professions, then take all those kids who are "wasted" in our educational system and make nurses of them! And yet Murray is telling us they should be the people who lay carpet for you.

Now I'm sure many mechanics, plumbers, carpenters etc. make plenty of money, but I'm also fairly sure that a network administrator who makes $100k a year (plus benefits) probably has it easier than a mechanic (the vast majority of which make nowhere near that kind of money) who works on cars in a garage in any weather. Working on cars usually requires some physical effort and discomfort. Sitting in an office chair, the admin only has to worry about getting a stiff back and carpal tunnel, not sweating to death when it's 105 out and burning his hands on the engine block. As for his assertion that "Finding a good carpenter, painter, electrician, plumber, glazier, mason--the list goes on and on--is difficult", well, he may say so but as Xanthippas said, you can find them pretty easy in the phonebook.

There's more of Murray's argument that I could demonstrate the falsity or stupidity of, but I'm going to finish up with this: Murray completely ignores the idea that education is supposed to turn people into anything but more valuable employees. Having smart employees is good, to be sure, but more importantly our educational system is responsible for turning out good citizens. We need our people to not only know enough that they can find a job, but that they can take part in the politics of our nation and be part of the decision-making. I bet Murray thinks that people with low IQs don't vote anyway, thus there's no need to inform them. Maybe he's never thought that maybe so many people don't vote for the very good reason that their vote won't matter in our electoral system (think of the millions of wasted Democratic votes in Texas). Maybe many people don't vote precisely because they are uninformed, and they don't know who to vote for or why. I'm sure a lot of people are going to scoff at the idea that school is also to teach people to be better citizens, but if it's failing at that mission, it's not because it's not supposed to have that mission in the first place.


Xanthippas said...

I had an awesome comment to this, but lost it in the confusion over which ID I'm supposed to log in with from now on. Anyway, it was great, but didn't have much more to offer than this post already does.

El Guerco Terco said...

Very good post. Intelligence and educational achievement are totally different constructs. As you said, educational achievement is totally dependent on the schooling you receieve and not all receive it equally. In fact, when a child in Texas is to be labeled as learning disabled, for example, a lack of adequate educational opportunity must be cleared out before such a decision can be made. Unfortunately, this only requires the person making that decision to subjectively answer if he or she believes that the student has been giving that opportunity. School systems are definitely flawed in this regard but the theory behind ruling out inadequate educational opportunity prior to labeling a student LD is sound.

In addition, intelligence level has been theorized to remain constant through life and only changes in old age when it declines due to dementia, disease and other general aspects of growing older.