Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Smart Reforms?

The always interesting Charles Murray’s next book will be on education reform. He published a piece on the subject in the Wall Street Journal last week, and has another piece on the New York Post today.

Discussions - 5 Comments

Two points of agreement. One, as an undergrad I hated my education courses. I understood then that they would never do anything for my teaching ability nor do anything to get me hired before Joe Schmo graduate of community college. Today I have numerous college students who observe my public school classroom and learn more by being there than learning Dewey or Mazlow. Second, as a public school teacher I can say that NCLB has in fact left a good percentage of advanced students behind. Why not go back to a form of tracking? Stronger students would learn alongside their peers while weaker students could study a lesser curriculum and still not be left behind. I was always a much stonger history and english student than math and science. I understood that my future would never center on rocket science or splitting the atom. I have students every year who express tremendous interest in vocational training but their parents shoo them away because for some reason it is beneath them. If I were made czar of American education I would cut public education at 10th grade and have those students pursue some sort of a voactional track for one year maybe two. We might be suprised at how much stonger our educational system might be and happier its graduates.

Charles Murray makes so much sense on education it is almost scary. He is speaking the truth to power, one might say, given the vested interest of thousands of men and women in the current college-biased environment. I taught in a small-town community college for over 30 years and I saw many students who would have been--justifiably--happier learning a useful occupation instead of suffering through what they did not enjoy and were not very good at. This was no secret except to the dullest teachers and administrators, and not a few students. But everyone's paycheck depends on their complaisance.The rest of this story is that teachers are expected to get their charges through baccalaureate-level courses anyway, which only serves to bastardize the curriculum and rob the students who could truly benefit from college teaching and learning. If there is a more clear example of insanity--doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results--I am not aware of it.

Of course, this is actually nothing new. These were the stories of 50 years ago of our public schools generally. It was bad enough making attendance mandatory through high school. The social pressure to attend college is almost the equivalent, just as Murray maintains. One big irony is the fascination many educators have with self esteem: but how can you generate that feeling in a student's soul if he is forced or browbeaten into studying what he has no interest in?


Some letters in the Wall Street Journal following the publication of Murray's piece were predictable in their sentiments, viz., that students benefit from a liberal arts education. But, as Aristotle long ago would have insisted, "Yes, such study is good for some people but not for all."

Thomas Jefferson in his "Notes on the State of Virginia" (Yes, I know it was written over 200 years ago, but so was the Declaration of Indendence)proposed that every child be educated to the third grade, and that filtering processes (tracking?) be used thereafter, with only a few going on to college. Nothing in my experience, or that matter, in our nation's experience, has disproven the soundness of his judgment. We need capable people in all sorts of fields; we don't need a nation full of liberal arts majors. We don't need a nation full of plumbers either. We need our citizens to take up careers where they do themselves and their fellow citizens (not to mention their families) the most good. This could save the liberal arts from stupefying irrelevance and sterility, while making more people happier with their lives.

Teaching intro to political science at a community college becomes an exercise in simply defining the three branches of government. Some students are bored--this is obviously beneath them, whereas most are baffled--they've never realized that there was something called law and government. The few succeed, and so do the many--since the course must be reduced down in intellectual content.

That being said, all who show up do learn something beyond simple memorization. It is hard to assess that learning because it addresses questions of judgment that point to everyday issues. It's a way to approach teaching political science that looks to a few key short texts that every "schoolboy" used to know. No doubt, most leave baffled, but they claim on their course evaluations that they were required to think in the course. They may never have to think again on their technical jobs--but then again...

Learning about questions of judgement can be of assistance if the student has a decent moral formation, and that's not a bad thing to provide. Will any of these students move on to become famous political scientists? Probably not. Even the best are more interested in science. But can such learning provide them with a way to think about their own lives and their own good? Perhaps. In class, it is always emphasized that one goal of education whould be to figure out what you are good at or what you enjoy--and usually the two become one. How will Murray's agenda provide who is good at what with his standardized tests?

Although I agree with his assessment regarding the sentimental rhetoric behind the soft bigotry of low expectations. It seems as if NC Left Behind is a post millenarian (or is it pre-millenarian?) educational text written by Tim LaHaye. And since such apocalyptic expectations are attached to a Bachelor's degree, I think that Murray is trying to slay more than a dragon.

John,

Point well taken. My students learned a lot more than the three branches of government. My goal was seldom to form political scientists but mostly to encourage good citizenship. That alone might make liberal education for the many, defensible. But that assumes that the "culture" of the colleges is favorable to citizenship, which it is not. Multiculturalism, diversity and tolerance as they are stridently understood, are inimical to good citizenship. I can't prove that the mass marketing of a college degree is ultimately responsible for undermining good citizenship; but I find the pursuit of maximum earning opportunities, with only a nod at liberal learning, hard to square with good citizenship, let alone moral virtue.

All students need to think about their own lives and their own good, but a favorable climate is indispensable. Few colleges provide such a climate today.

I was kidding with my three branches of government comment (although I wonder sometimes!).

I agree that most colleges don't provide a favorable "culture" for the formation of citizenship. Nonetheless, I find most of my students have religious convictions, even if largely unexamined. This tends to counteract some of the negative antics of college campuses, but if the classroom only provides them with Howard Zinn, Michael Parenti, Noam Chomsky, et al. as ways for self-examination--then it's not good. Students either get "corrupted" or they stridently react to "political correctness." Any facility for reason or judgment seems to go out the window. Partisanship remains, but in a way that is potentially dangerous to a good education or to good citizenship.

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