Charles Murray has written a 3 part series for the Wall Street Journal on education and intelligence differences. In the first article Murray argues that we can't think rationally about education policy and proposals to improve education without considering differences in levels of intelligence.
Education is becoming the preferred method for diagnosing and attacking a wide range problems in American life. The No Child Left Behind Act is one prominent example. Another is the recent volley of articles that blame rising income inequality on the increasing economic premium for advanced education. Crime, drugs, extramarital births, unemployment--you name the problem, and I will show you a stack of claims that education is to blame, or at least implicated.
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.
Murray argues that we can't hope to raise school test scores all that much because kids can't perform beyond their intellectual capacity. But one of the modern American myths is that each individual can achieve anything given sufficient will power and a good enough environment. That myth, which appeals to people on the political Left and Right for different reasons, is behind a many bad policies in education, welfare, workplace laws, and other areas of public policy.
Murray also notes that no researchers have ever tried to figure out what level of IQ is needed to achieve a passing score on the US government's National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests. With that information children who are scoring below their potential could be identified. Give kids an IQ test. Then give them a NAEP test. Kids that are scoring lower on NAEP than their IQ test results suggest they are capable of would be candidates for greater attention to change how and where they are taught.
Murray says there's no Golden Age of education we can return to.
The second problem with the argument that education can be vastly improved is the false assumption that educators already know how to educate everyone and that they just need to try harder--the assumption that prompted No Child Left Behind. We have never known how to educate everyone. The widely held image of a golden age of American education when teachers brooked no nonsense and all the children learned their three Rs is a myth. If we confine the discussion to children in the lower half of the intelligence distribution (education of the gifted is another story), the overall trend of the 20th century was one of slow, hard-won improvement. A detailed review of this evidence, never challenged with data, was also part of "The Bell Curve."
I call No Child Left Behind (NCLB) by a more accurate phrase: No Lie Left Behind. The law is based on false assumptions about human nature that commissars on the Left enforce by attacking and marginalizing anyone who violates their taboos about human nature. NCLB's goals are unachievable and policies formulated to achieve those goals waste resources and do wrong by children.
In his second article of the series Murray argues that too many people go to college since the percentage of those smart enough to master college material is far smaller than the percentage who go to college.
The topic yesterday was education and children in the lower half of the intelligence distribution. Today I turn to the upper half, people with IQs of 100 or higher. Today's simple truth is that far too many of them are going to four-year colleges.
Begin with those barely into the top half, those with average intelligence. To have an IQ of 100 means that a tough high-school course pushes you about as far as your academic talents will take you. If you are average in math ability, you may struggle with algebra and probably fail a calculus course. If you are average in verbal skills, you often misinterpret complex text and make errors in logic.
These are not devastating shortcomings. You are smart enough to engage in any of hundreds of occupations. You can acquire more knowledge if it is presented in a format commensurate with your intellectual skills. But a genuine college education in the arts and sciences begins where your skills leave off.
Those who lack the intellectual horsepower needed to handle college level courses are being ill-served by those who direct them toward college.
Murray thinks only 15% should go to college or at most 25%. Yet far more go and colleges exist with low standards to keep less intelligent students enrolled. In spite of the low standards many drop out anyway. Others get meaningless degrees in easy subjects.
In engineering and most of the natural sciences, the demarcation between high-school material and college-level material is brutally obvious. If you cannot handle the math, you cannot pass the courses. In the humanities and social sciences, the demarcation is fuzzier. It is possible for someone with an IQ of 100 to sit in the lectures of Economics 1, read the textbook, and write answers in an examination book. But students who cannot follow complex arguments accurately are not really learning economics. They are taking away a mishmash of half-understood information and outright misunderstandings that probably leave them under the illusion that they know something they do not. (A depressing research literature documents one's inability to recognize one's own incompetence.) Traditionally and properly understood, a four-year college education teaches advanced analytic skills and information at a level that exceeds the intellectual capacity of most people.
There is no magic point at which a genuine college-level education becomes an option, but anything below an IQ of 110 is problematic. If you want to do well, you should have an IQ of 115 or higher. Put another way, it makes sense for only about 15% of the population, 25% if one stretches it, to get a college education. And yet more than 45% of recent high school graduates enroll in four-year colleges. Adjust that percentage to account for high-school dropouts, and more than 40% of all persons in their late teens are trying to go to a four-year college--enough people to absorb everyone down through an IQ of 104.
Since races with lower average IQs (whites average 100) are among those trying to get into colleges and since many colleges give racial preferences to lower IQ races the result is that many with IQs even below 100 enroll in college. This wastes their time and a lot of money, both theirs and money from taxpayers. Also, the people who spend time trying to teach them would make better contributions to the economy and to society in other lines of work.
Murray argues the lower IQ kids who head to college would be far better served by vocational training to teach specific job skills. But lots of people head to college because a college degree is used by employers as a proxy for higher intelligence.
Government policy contributes to the problem by making college scholarships and loans too easy to get, but its role is ancillary. The demand for college is market-driven, because a college degree does, in fact, open up access to jobs that are closed to people without one. The fault lies in the false premium that our culture has put on a college degree.
For a few occupations, a college degree still certifies a qualification. For example, employers appropriately treat a bachelor's degree in engineering as a requirement for hiring engineers. But a bachelor's degree in a field such as sociology, psychology, economics, history or literature certifies nothing. It is a screening device for employers. The college you got into says a lot about your ability, and that you stuck it out for four years says something about your perseverance. But the degree itself does not qualify the graduate for anything. There are better, faster and more efficient ways for young people to acquire credentials to provide to employers.
We could eliminate the need for college degrees as (only roughly accurate) measures of intelligence if employers were allowed to directly test for IQ.
Murray observes the 2 year junior colleges adapting themselves to their real markets and offering vocational training. He also sees a trend in technology toward electronic delivery of courses coupled with a big decline in the demand for brick-and-mortar colleges and universities. I agree and want to see this trend accelerate.
Advances in technology are making the brick-and-mortar facility increasingly irrelevant. Research resources on the Internet will soon make the college library unnecessary. Lecture courses taught by first-rate professors are already available on CDs and DVDs for many subjects, and online methods to make courses interactive between professors and students are evolving. Advances in computer simulation are expanding the technical skills that can be taught without having to gather students together in a laboratory or shop. These and other developments are all still near the bottom of steep growth curves. The cost of effective training will fall for everyone who is willing to give up the trappings of a campus. As the cost of college continues to rise, the choice to give up those trappings will become easier.
College costs far too much and takes too much time. It is impractical. You have to show up at lectures for a course on 2 or 3 times a week at fixed times. Got something else to do? Too bad. Find the times of all your needed courses so spread out that you have no day to work all day at a job? The colleges are not set and organized for your convenience. Want to watch all the lectures in a couple of days when you have the time? Sorry, they aren't recorded. You've got to spend months to watch a semester's worth of lectures for a course even though all all the lectures for a single course only add up to 15 or 20 hours.
In his final essay of the series, Aztecs vs. Greeks, Murray argues for the resurrection of the classical education based upon Greek thinkers.
In professions screened for IQ by educational requirements--medicine, engineering, law, the sciences and academia--the great majority of people must, by the nature of the selection process, have IQs over 120. Evidence about who enters occupations where the screening is not directly linked to IQ indicates that people with IQs of 120 or higher also occupy large proportions of positions in the upper reaches of corporate America and the senior ranks of government. People in the top 10% of intelligence produce most of the books and newspaper articles we read and the television programs and movies we watch. They are the people in the laboratories and at workstations who invent our new pharmaceuticals, computer chips, software and every other form of advanced technology.
Combine these groups, and the top 10% of the intelligence distribution has a huge influence on whether our economy is vital or stagnant, our culture healthy or sick, our institutions secure or endangered. Of the simple truths about intelligence and its relationship to education, this is the most important and least acknowledged: Our future depends crucially on how we educate the next generation of people gifted with unusually high intelligence.
Our future depends far more on how many people in the next generation have IQs at 120 or higher. Currently immigration policy is decreasing the proportion that are above 120. That draws higher IQ people away from creative design work to serve lower IQ people. Also, smarter people are having fewer kids and having kids later than dumber people.
Murray says little educational spending is targetted at the smart people who can do the most with it.
How assiduously does our federal government work to see that this precious raw material is properly developed? In 2006, the Department of Education spent about $84 billion. The only program to improve the education of the gifted got $9.6 million, one-hundredth of 1% of expenditures. In the 2007 budget, President Bush zeroed it out.
Murray points out that smarter people are better able to compensate for deficiencies in educational systems and in other factors in the environment. True enough. But still, smart people waste a lot of time getting educations that could be gotten faster and with more customization for their wants and needs.
Murray sees a bigger problem in the education of smart people in terms of citizenship training.
The problem with the education of the gifted involves not their professional training, but their training as citizens.
We live in an age when it is unfashionable to talk about the special responsibility of being gifted, because to do so acknowledges inequality of ability, which is elitist, and inequality of responsibilities, which is also elitist. And so children who know they are smarter than the other kids tend, in a most human reaction, to think of themselves as superior to them. Because giftedness is not to be talked about, no one tells high-IQ children explicitly, forcefully and repeatedly that their intellectual talent is a gift. That they are not superior human beings, but lucky ones. That the gift brings with it obligations to be worthy of it. That among those obligations, the most important and most difficult is to aim not just at academic accomplishment, but at wisdom.
I have to disagree with Murray here. In one sense smarter people are superior. They can understand more. They can see patterns and chains of cause and effect that are completely incomprehensible to the majority.
I think the bigger problem with smart people in terms of citizenship obligations is that they are not incentized properly to make better contributions to making the society as a whole function well. One reason for this is that in a democracy there's little incentive for a person to become informed enough to vote wisely. A smart person will gain far more by working at their career.
But another factor that reduces the contributions of smart people is the grant of voting power to the masses. People who simply can't understand issues vote for who will lead us. We get leaders who are not held properly accountable because many people can't recognize which decisions by leaders are mistakes or which statements by leaders are deceptions. This further reduces the return on investment for smart people who study issues and closely scrutinize candidates. Their votes will get cancelled out by votes of dummies for candidates who cater to their demands.
But Murray makes a very reasonable point: We are going to be governed by a cognitive elite. So educate that elite to know how to govern wisely.
The gifted should not be taught to be nonjudgmental; they need to learn how to make accurate judgments. They should not be taught to be equally respectful of Aztecs and Greeks; they should focus on the best that has come before them, which will mean a light dose of Aztecs and a heavy one of Greeks. 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.
In short, I am calling for a revival of the classical definition of a liberal education, serving its classic purpose: to prepare an elite to do its duty. If that sounds too much like Plato's Guardians, consider this distinction. As William F. Buckley rightly instructs us, it is better to be governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston phone book than by the faculty of Harvard University. But we have that option only in the choice of our elected officials. In all other respects, the government, economy and culture are run by a cognitive elite that we do not choose. That is the reality, and we are powerless to change it. All we can do is try to educate the elite to be conscious of, and prepared to meet, its obligations. For years, we have not even thought about the nature of that task. It is time we did.
I question whether at this point an education for wise governance should be centered around the Greeks. We are finally developing a biologically informed understanding of human nature. We can understand humanity better by the biological thinkers (e.g. Pierre L. van den Berghe, Frank Miele, William D. Hamilton) and by reading the findings of the neuroscientists than by reading the Greeks. The Greeks still hold some value. But the classical thinkers built their theories on too limited a base of scientific knowledge.
But upon re-reading I think Murray is calling more for an education that achieves the goal of preparing citizens by training them in analytical thinking than a revival of the classical curriculum.
The bigger problem today in academia is that the teaching of the Greeks has been displaced by assorted fads in humanities nonsense rather than scientific knowledge of the human condition. The knowledge now available from empirical fields such as psychometrics (which is taboo), genetics, neurobiology, and genetic anthropology can teach humans more about humanity than the ancient Greek thinkers can. But the blank slaters have turned their backs on anything that stands in the way of their believing in the supremacy of environment.
Update: Murray's argument that we can lift up the lower IQ by giving them vocational training in high paying trades seems bogus to me. First of all, even if more people could be trained in skilled manual labor trades the effect would be to drive down wages in those trades. So what are these wages? He speaks of people earning six figure salaries. I figure if they exist they are rare. Master plumbers with high skills and lots of experience average $22 per hour and most plumbers make less. Some plumbers with 20 or more years experience make $25 per hour. That's where they top out. Eventually their bodies age and it becomes difficult for them to keep doing that sort of work. A similar pattern is seen for electricians. Chicago and other high union cities have higher wages for these occupations. But that just demonstrates that it takes the presence of a union to turn these occupations into higher wage jobs. There's no big unmet need for skilled manual laborers.
Bricklayers peak at $26 per hour at 10 to 19 years of experience. That's hard work and 50 year olds can't do it as fast as 35 year olds. Roofers peak at $20 per hour. These are peaks. At younger ages they make less. Eventually they become too old to work at hard manual labor. Carpenters make less than plumbers and electricians and in unionized Chicago and Boston carpenters earn $25 per hour. In other areas they earn considerably less. Again, where are these six figures craftsmen? They may exist. But only for specialty work that does not exist in large quantities.
The demand for lower IQ manual laborers is going to continue to decline. Robots will do more work. Components will last longer. Maintenance will become more automated and diagnosis of equipment failures done remotely. Greater use of prefabrication in factories will continue to reduce the need for work site skilled labor. Wealth increasingly comes from smarter minds. Relative proportions of lower and higher intelligence minds largely determine how much wealth each country has.
|Share |||By Randall Parker at 2007 January 21 07:43 PM Education|