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Charles Murray on Education and the Importance of Having ’g’

Because I am either a chronic underachiever or because I simply do not have enough ’g,’ I have absolutely no interest in re-opening the can of worms that Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve opened in 1994. But being over-prudent has never been one of my setbacks either, so here it is. His Opinion Journal essay today and the promise of more to come in the next few days on the subject, is certainly worthy of serious consideration by those who think they have enough ’g’ to handle it. My sense (I won’t call it a view, having not studied the subject in any serious way) is that there is probably some merit to it.

My experience working at my kids’ kindergarten for two years, seems to confirm my sense of the thing. This school is a very intense, almost one-to-one teaching experience. But no matter what you do with some kids, you get little back. It is hard to say why that is. It appears that some have nothing going on inside their minds--as if they were asleep mentally. One doesn’t know if that is because the kid is still immature or if the kid just hasn’t got it. Still others are so advanced that they pay you no mind at all because you and the idea of learning bores them. There are other kids who run circles around you and dazzle you with brilliance. Most are just work-a-day plodders like my kids and myself. To be sure, you can get better results with this individualized kind of teaching--but I’m not even so sure about that as I used to be. So much depends on the wisdom and the experience of the teacher.

I used to have a history teacher in high school who had the reputation of being difficult. On the other hand, he told us that we could all get an "A" in his class if we really wanted it. I don’t think he really believed what he was saying in the strictest sense, but it was a noble lie. He said it with so much passion, anyway, that I believed him. And because I believed him, I did get an "A." I knew a few students who worked as hard (or harder) as I did and could still only get "Bs." But I suppose they might only have achieved a C or D if they hadn’t tried so hard to get the "A." Of course, the grades don’t really mean anything in the scheme of life, I know. But the lesson of learning to believe you are capable of more than you think you are is indispensable. That is almost always true. Perhaps the most we can hope for from education is that it do its level best to inspire each kid to give his best.

Discussions - 9 Comments

I am a foster parent. I have had around two hundred children live with me, of many ages. While there are a variety of ways for it to happen, some children are more intelligent, and some are less intelligent. There are children who will read Caesar in the original and solve differential equations before other children consistently make verb and subject agree in number and do long division, and this is not something that can be changed by a different curriculum in schools of education.

My high school physics teacher told us that owing to the way mathematics builds on itself, anyone with an intact brain could learn calculus eventually; it was just that lots of people wouldn’t live that long.

I was a history teacher who told the students the same thing. "I’ll give you the stupid "A"; now let’s do some real learning here and not worry about the grade." Seems to have worked.

Julie, today’s Murray article is also very good. It addresses the issue of what percentage of the population ought to be in college, given intelligence. If dain’s 27% that he cites below is correct, then too many people are in college. My community college has many vocational programs, and many of my students belong in those, most definitely.

Murray addresses the need for skilled craftsmen - mostly jobs that men perform. Their jobs cannot be outsourced to India.

Murray is both right and wrong. The biggest distortion in his article is the sense that he gives that half of the population is "far" below average. Instead, as the normal curve demonstrates, nearly 70% of us are with one standard deviation (15-16 pts) on either side of the average. 95% of us are within 30 points (that includes the very smart, as well as the very not-so-smart.) So, it is a distortion to give us the idea that 1/2 of the children in schools are problematic.

Where he is right, and I wish he had hit this point harder, is in all of the millions that schools are spending on "learning styles." I have colleagues and friends who swear by that crap, and it is just that: crap. Gardener’s multiple intelligences, and the subsequent learning style myth is being used to cloak the g problem of which Murray speaks. They are no more valid tham is astrology, and parents, teachers, and students have been sold a huge bill of goods.

Finally, towards the extreme end of the curve, Murray is right. All the NCLB testing, and all the good will, and all the unique-special-learning style business is not going to legitimately elevate the intelligence (and therefore the performance) of a seriously low-intelligence person.

I LOVE what Ed the Roman’s physics teacher said! That is perfect! I suppose that’s why I’ve been in no hurry to learn calculus--death will overcome me first!

I cannot speak to Fung’s objections to Murray’s piece as I don’t know or understand the statistics here. But you sound so reasonable here, Fung, that it is hard to disagree with you. Also, it seems to defy your old friend "common sense" to suggest that 1/2 of the population is intellectually problematic!

I do tend to agree with your general pronouncements about the futility of "learning style" programs. Whatever there is of truth or help in these well-meaning but, apparently, under-productive efforts--does not justify the millions of dollars thrown at them. It looks like guilt money to me--that is, teachers and education professionals feel guilty for not being able to reach a certain segment of their student population and so they decide that there must be a "learning" difference and get government to fund a new program to address it. Instead, in these cases, parents and teachers need to work together to do their best to figure out what is going on with the student who is not achieving. If anything is to be done to help such a child beyond the basics of what one can reasonably expect from a school, shouldn’t that be the responsibility of the parent?

Julie: "If anything is to be done to help such a child beyond the basics of what one can reasonably expect from a school, shouldn’t that be the responsibility of the parent? "

Sure, though we should remember that for all kids, and especially for the selected population of students in trouble, the chances that the kids are significantly more intelligent than their parents is fairly small. If the problem stems from low intelligence, then the parents may not be the best source of help and support.

Does the commentary in this post remind anyone else of C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Proposes a Toast?

Fung: I did say if. I think Murray’s larger and more important point is that some people are beyond help in this arena. The good news is that in our country, if they are industrious and decent, there is no reason why their lives cannot be as fulfilling and useful to them and their loved ones as any other human being’s life might be.

I think Murray’s thesis may have some validity to it.

In my personal experience, I had an easier time learning AP Psychology than the other students in the class--e.g., I wouldn’t study--or work--as much as the other students, yet I would constantly best them in terms of grades/test scores (I was the only 5 in that class that I know of). I guess having higher "g" does make academics somewhat easier, and maybe you get more leeway in being lazy and still productive.

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