For the past three days the Wall Street Journal has published a series of op-ed pieces by Charles Murray in which he calls for a reconfiguration of the educational system in the United States. His main points as I see them are: there should be no stigma for not going to college (Bill Gates and Steve Jobs didn’t graduate and many high paying crafts and trades do not require a college degree), a smaller percentage of the population should go to college (more like 20-25% instead of the present approx 40%) because many who go to college don’t really have the IQ for it, and the educational system should identify gifted kids and teach them not only intellectual skills but also character issues as well. Here is a quote from his third piece:
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.
The encouragement of wisdom requires a special kind of education. It requires first of all recognition of one’s own intellectual limits and fallibilities — in a word, humility. This is perhaps the most conspicuously missing part of today’s education of the gifted. Many high-IQ students, especially those who avoid serious science and math, go from kindergarten through an advanced degree without ever having a teacher who is dissatisfied with their best work and without ever taking a course that forces them to say to themselves, “I can’t do this.” Humility requires that the gifted learn what it feels like to hit an intellectual wall, just as all of their less talented peers do, and that can come only from a curriculum and pedagogy designed especially for them. That level of demand cannot fairly be imposed on a classroom that includes children who do not have the ability to respond. The gifted need to have some classes with each other not to be coddled, but because that is the only setting in which their feet can be held to the fire.
The encouragement of wisdom requires mastery of analytical building blocks. The gifted must assimilate the details of grammar and syntax and the details of logical fallacies not because they will need them to communicate in daily life, but because these are indispensable for precise thinking at an advanced level.
The encouragement of wisdom requires being steeped in the study of ethics, starting with Aristotle and Confucius. It is not enough that gifted children learn to be nice. They must know what it means to be good.
The encouragement of wisdom requires an advanced knowledge of history. Never has the aphorism about the fate of those who ignore history been more true.
All of the above are antithetical to the mindset that prevails in today’s schools at every level. 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.
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The goals that should shape the evolution of American education are cross-cutting and occasionally seem contradictory. Yesterday, I argued the merits of having a large group of high-IQ people who do not bother to go to college; today, I argue the merits of special education for the gifted. The two positions are not in the end incompatible, but there is much more to be said, as on all the issues I have raised.
The aim here is not to complete an argument but to begin a discussion; not to present policy prescriptions, but to plead for greater realism in our outlook on education. Accept that some children will be left behind other children because of intellectual limitations, and think about what kind of education will give them the greatest chance for a fulfilling life nonetheless. Stop telling children that they need to go to college to be successful, and take advantage of the other, often better ways in which people can develop their talents. Acknowledge the existence and importance of high intellectual ability, and think about how best to nurture the children who possess it.
Murray’s writing will doubtlessly produce an emotional discussion, but on one hand, we should be having a discussion on how to best educate the next generation. However, I do have a couple points I would like to mention.
Why do we always begin the wisdom training with the Greeks? The Sumerians have their own wisdom literature as well as the Akkadian corpus. The Mesopotamian traditions used this wisdom literature in part to train those of high intellectual caliber, the scribes. Also, I think one of the greatest features in American style education is the fact that anyone who wants to go to college can pretty much find a way to do it. This doesn’t mean that they will be able to get into their top-pick school or that it won’t be hard to get the finances together to pay for college, but their chance of going to college will not be determined by their performance on a test–it will be determined by their own desire.
I think this is a huge advantage. Sure, some people will go to college and find out that its not their thing, but at least they have the opportunity to try. This is not the case in other educational systems and American citizens should not take this for granted.
What do you think about Murray’s argument? Is he on track or mistaken? How would you change the educational system for the better?