Perpetuating -- and expanding -- the damage?
(How about a simple solution?)

Tom Anderson (who writes for the Inquirer's quirky little conservative competitor, The Bulletin) covered a talk by Charles Murray about his latest book, Real Education: Four Simple Truths for Bringing America's Schools Back to Reality. The four truths are these:

The first of his four truths, likely to be unappealing across the political spectrum, is just two words: Abilities vary. Put another way, the great pipe-dream of contemporary academia, and of course politics as well, is that no child can be left behind. Mr. Murray proposes that many children - probably most - will always be left behind, not because of an uncaring citizenship or educational environment, but simply because they were not born with intelligence, cognitive abilities and IQs of a level sufficient to make them competitive in modern intelligence-driven societies.

The second truth is that of those potential students whose abilities vary so much, the decided majority of them are not just average, but demonstrably below average. Mr. Murray pointed out that most college-educated folks, like his audience at I.S.I., have a practical unawareness of the size of the undergifted group because they have never meaningfully socialized with them, and tend to project their own relatively higher intelligence on the population in general. In addition, Mr. Murray argues that there is simply no evidence, scientific of otherwise, that low intelligence can be measurably heightened by any amount of education.

The third truth, and an appropriate corollary of the first two, is that far too many youngsters are going to college, forced to do so by parents and a society which puts an inordinate value on a Bachelor of Arts degree, to the serious detriment of everyone, not excluding the students who do not belong in college. Mr. Murray takes as an example a youngster who has the natural gifts, imagination and curiosities, of an electrician, a carpenter or a musician. Their parents are very likely to discourage the fulfillment of such inclinations, and encourage on the contrary that increasingly universal BA degree on the totally misguided assumption that somehow ir is superior to being an auto mechanic. They argue that most college graduates make more money than most automobile mechanics, but what they fail to recognize is that the top 10 or 20 percent of trades folk earn as much or more than the bottom 20 percent of college-graduated corporate managers.

The fourth truth is that as a result of profound social changes which occurred during the last century, our society is governed not just by an elite of the intellectually gifted, but by the top 10 percent of that group. Mr. Murray therefore argues that colleges have a radically moral responsibility to fashion their coursework with the unblinking purpose to present that elite with the most challenging and uncompromising curricula. Out should go flower-arranging, queer studies and "liberated women of the late middle ages," and back in should come the old core curricula of languages, mathematics, philosophy, literature and science.

I agree that the nonsense courses in things like ethnic studies should be scrapped, but I'd note that "mick" courses are nothing new. The greater danger, IMO, comes from the radical assault on the old core from within. History and English are being undermined by post-modernist "theory," and even basic sciences are under assault.

While these post-modernist assaults ensure that students learn less and less about the subjects, they are not really perceived as dumbing-down in the conventional sense. That's because they're packaged as highly sophisticated, intellectually-challenging, and are carefully designed to flatter mediocre but compliant students into believing they are now true intellectuals who have mastered what is erroneously called "critical thinking." (As Elizabeth Scalia demonstrated, it's quite the opposite.) So, while the net effect is a dumbing down, I think the process is so covert that it really ought to be called "dumbing down in drag."

When this systematic attack on the university education is coupled with a climate where "everyone has to go to college" I find myself wondering whether in addition to massive dumbing-down, there's also a "dumbing-up." If primary and secondary schools are underperforming (which they are), then simple economics would dictate that colleges cater to what is, after all, their market. Unfortunately, the result is that uneducated kids can end up attending colleges which "teach" them that what they should have learned is worthless anyway, and that they're now incredibly cool -- intellectuals, even -- to reject it. This makes about as much sense as taking a talentless kid who can't paint, putting him in art school, then telling him his stick figures are just as valuable as the Dutch Masters. Sure, the art college could issue him a diploma, but would anyone buy his paintings?

I don't know how well the art analogy holds educationally, but in economic terms, colleges don't seem to be doing much better. According to Arnold Kling, colleges are now graduating students who barely earn $25,000 a year:

My wife's pet peeve is colleges that charge $50,000 a year and wind up graduating students who take jobs for $25,000 a year, if that much. My pet peeve is the nonprofit virus that college spreads.
(Via Glenn Reynolds.)

Plumbers and electricians make far more than that; I've known auto mechanics who make $100,000 a year.

More disturbing is Kling's argument that non-profits represent a growing business trend:

I thought that their goal of working for non-profits reflected misplaced idealism. Instead, it apparently represents catching the wave of business trends.
"Business for people and not for profit?"

Ugh. I'd hate to think this represents a trend towards increased state control (via a merger of the public and private sectors through "non-profit" subsidization) over the business sector.

I like Kling's conclusion about working for money:

Generally speaking, it's morally safer to work for money than to work for a cause. People who are fanatical about causes do much more damage.
Well, if they're a product of a very damaged educational system (a system that puts Oprah ahead of Milton), why should it surprise anyone if they're trained to work for causes that do more damage?

They're the damage that damage produced.

But rather than merely complain in a blog post, I thought I'd offer a solution. In lieu of devoting four years and over $100,000 to learn how to sound critical of what was never learned, I have a simple money-saving idea. The entire Great Books of the Western World series "retails for US$1,195" (Amazon offers the entire set for only $995.00 including shipping) and can be found used for much less. (It's the entire Western canon, which does not change, so used is just as useful as new.) If a student devoted a full four years to a serious reading and studying of the Great Books, I'd be willing to bet he'd end up being better educated than your typical liberal arts graduate.

I realize that the self-discipline involved might be difficult for the average student. So why not form private "home colleges" with tests and even grades? Enterprising students could even organize online.

Hey kids! Save money while saving Western Civilization!

posted by Eric on 07.08.08 at 11:25 AM


or, to quote Good Will Hunting:

"...150 grand on a ______ education you could have got for a dollar fifty in late charges at the public library!"

A very enlightening post.

Jolly Green   ·  July 8, 2008 12:40 PM

There is value to self-instruction. My grandfather's family was so poor (Depression Era) that he never attended college. Instead, he read avidly and he is one of the most informed critical thinkers I have ever met.

By contrast, I attended Harvard. And while I chuckle at the Good Will Hunting quote, I have to disagree with its veracity. Good teaching and instruction is necessary for many people to be successful. Certainly our colleges and universities are not perfect and there is a wide variance in quality across the board. But the institution itself is not the problem - its the execution and the inconsistency.

Erica   ·  July 8, 2008 1:06 PM

Fascinating topic.
First, even being an auto technician is getting to be like working on rockets now. The days of the mechanic-guy who has a garage are disappearing. Where this trend ends may have great consequences.
Second, your idea of homestudy is already taking hold. College is going online, and homeschoolers are increasingly taking at least some classes by computer. Geeks in any endeavor are networking long before college and outside the lab or formal work group. The walls of the school are being broken down whether people want that or not.

Thirdly, while I agree with Murray about the nature of the problem - too many people working on educational material that is not especially useful to them and that they are not suited for - his solutions seem to be at best an initial direction to try.

Fourth, a caution: remember that it was the intelligent class of 19th-20th C Europe - elite males who were trained in the Western canon - who brought us marxism and fascism as well as the general theory of relativity. Darwin, clearly a scientific thinker of a high order and a precise observer, nonetheless had social opinions that were without scientific foundation. Restricting college to the elites just brings in a different set of problems.

Assistant Village Idiot   ·  July 8, 2008 2:43 PM

The grandparents of today's youth were much more successful than the current generation in acquiring reading, math, and reasoning skills. So discussion of the variation in native gifts does not explain our current situation.

It's about attitude - not just postmodern deconstruction, but the cult of self-esteem and anti-intellectualism, and the sloth and insulation from reality that come with prosperity.

Ben-David   ·  July 8, 2008 3:42 PM

College... well, I should have a degree in something by now. I've got more than 20 hours over the requirement, but I've not got enough in any one "discipline" to count as a major.

Why can't one graduate with six minors?

Donna B.   ·  July 9, 2008 12:19 AM

College... well, I should have a degree in something by now. I've got more than 20 hours over the requirement, but I've not got enough in any one "discipline" to count as a major.

Why can't one graduate with six minors?
Then become the basketball player who graduates w a degree in General Studies.

Gringo   ·  July 9, 2008 10:30 AM

Sanity is optional.

Beck   ·  July 19, 2008 8:53 PM

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