Charles Murray, the controversial conservative social scientist, has turned his fire on the belief that almost anyone can excel academically. But his latest book is hastily written, largely unconvincing and possibly immoralby Geoff Mulgan / January 17, 2009 / Leave a comment
The world of education has been divided into two camps for at least a century. In one camp there are the optimists who look at young people and see millions of potential composers, surgeons, or business leaders whose talent is waiting to be unlocked. In the other camp there are the pessimists who look at the same young people and see a largely dull mass among whom only a small minority will ever have the talent to excel. For the first group the big problem is low aspirations; for the second, it’s that, if anything, young people’s aspirations are too high.
Over the last 50 years the optimists have won most of the big battles. Their argument that widening educational opportunity wasn’t just a moral imperative but also good for economic efficiency and social mobility, prevailed over the pessimists’ view that widening access to education would merely dumb down the system. So school leaving ages have crept up, and will rise to 18 in Britain by the middle of the next decade. The proportion going to university has also jumped, from barely 3 per cent to over 40 per cent in Britain and much more in some countries (over 70 per cent in South Korea). Education has become one of the few things that politicians believe everyone needs more of.
American political scientist Charles Murray, however, in his new book Real Education (Crown Forum) sees an attachment to “education, education, education” as little more than a romantic fantasy. His latest jeremiad sets out a modern version of the pessimists’ case in typically provocative style.
Murray is certainly a man with form. His book Losing Ground, published in 1984, argued that America’s “great society” social policies of the 1960s had been not only futile, but also created a permanent underclass. Enormously influential on the American right, it provided perhaps the most important intellectual case for cutting back social programmes. A decade later Murray’s ideas on race, class and IQ in The Bell Curve, co-authored with psychologist Richard Herrnstein, proved equally explosive.
Murray has a knack for publicity, but few of his bolder claims have stood up well to analysis. All efforts to find a stable underclass, hostile to work and traditional values, have proved futile. Statisticians, meanwhile, have refuted many of his apparently scientific claims on IQ. But Murray has been smart in raising difficult questions, canny in luring his…