Charles Murray is one of the great thinkers of our time. And he has made a helpful contribution on the subject of education with his book Real Education: Four Simple Truths for Bringing America’s Schools Back to Reality.
Murray’s book is simple. He has four main points that are also the names of the first four chapters—(1) "Ability Varies;" (2) "Half of the Children are Below Average;" (3) "Too Many People Are Going to College;" (4) "America’s Future Depends on How We Educate the Academically Gifted." The book then closes with a fifth chapter on how to bring about change.
Murray’s main point is that Americans have been influenced by “educational romanticism.” Murray defines this as “the lie that every child can be anything he or she wants to be” (p. 11). In other words, people today are unrealistic. They ignore the reality that not all children can be educated at a high level.
Murray’s points are really indisputable—but we need to come to grips with them. Not everyone likes hearing that many kids are not academically gifted, especially if it’s your kid. No one wants to believe that his or her child is below average in intellectual ability. But if average is 50%, then half the population is below average. This is not an insult. It’s just reality.
Denial of the facts ends up hurting the children. We should not have the same expectations for weaker students as we do for more gifted students. It doesn’t make sense to put weaker students in the same classes with more gifted students, and it doesn’t make sense to just demand more from the weaker students. Sure, some students are lazy. But many are just not good academically. As Murray says, “Continuing to insist that the child can do better if the child and teachers try harder requires some sort of objective basis, not blind faith” (p. 49).
Schools Can’t Fix Everything
Educators and the media give the idea that we just need better schools, which is usually accompanied by the demand for more money. However, this too flies in the face of the facts. Murray cites the Coleman Report of 1966, which was intended to assess the effects of inequality of opportunity on students. As Murray explains, the Coleman Report found:
The quality of schools explains almost nothing about differences in academic achievement. Measures such as the credentials of the teachers, the curriculum, the extensiveness and newness of the facilities, money spent per student—none of these things that people assumed were important in explaining educational achievement were important in fact. Family background was far and away the most important factor in determining student achievement (p. 59).
Surprise, surprise. Family is the greatest factor for student achievement. Whether it’s the genes they inherit from their parents or the quality of parenting ability, it doesn’t really matter. The point is that family is the most important factor in education. This means schools can’t fix everything.
It is not the job of schools to make sure every student achieves a high level. This is simply not possible. As Murray says, “It is time to recognize that even the best schools under the best conditions cannot overcome the limits on achievement set by limits on academic ability” (p. 66).
Instead of respecting all students and acknowledging that they have different levels of ability, our modern educational system harms students by demanding a level they are incapable of. Murray’s conclusion is on point—“Educational romanticism has imposed immeasurable costs on children and their futures. It pursues unattainable egalitarian ideals of educational achievement at the expense of attainable egalitarian ideals of personal dignity” (p. 66). That is such an important point. Our society is obsessed with everyone achieving equal performance (which is impossible), when they should really be concerned about everyone achieving a level of moral excellence.
Too Many People Are Going to College
This diversity in ability means weaker students should not be going to college. As Murray shows, college is supposed to be for the top students. Yet sadly, colleges have lowered their standards in so many ways that almost everyone can attend. A college degree has now become what a high school degree used to be—except that college is expensive and unnecessary for many jobs. Thus Murray says, “Too many people are going to college.”
Colleges are supposed to provide an in-depth liberal arts education for top students, which Murray identifies as the top 10% to 20%. Now this does not mean average students should not learn history, science, literature, art, and music. Murray says, “They do need to know . . . So let’s teach it to them, but let’s not wait for college to do it” (p. 81).
That’s right. We should be teaching liberal arts in middle school and high school (though our schools rarely do anymore). College should be a time for a deeper and more challenging liberal arts education. Unfortunately, even this is not happening anymore—“Hardly any colleges require the demanding survey courses that are the foundation of a liberal education” (p. 86). Few universities even require the Western civilization courses that are necessary for a genuine liberal arts education. The elective system has destroyed the liberal arts. That a high percentage of Americans attend college means we have a highly "schooled" population. However, schooling should not be confused with education.
It is also that case that many good jobs do not require a college degree. Everyone today is told to get a degree, even though it is not beneficial for all. For example, if you can reach the top of your field in something like construction, you will make a lot more money than getting a college degree and working an average business job.
Murray’s fourth chapter is about educating the academically gifted. These are the future leaders of America, and they need to be educated well. Murray is correct in saying that such persons need a strong grounding in history and liberal arts in general. He is even correct in saying that they need to be taught to think about virtue and what it means to be good. Amen. I think everyone needs to be taught this, and it should be part of every educational level.
Unfortunately, Murray is in error in his assessment that it does not matter what ethical system one employs. He is dabbling in pluralism when he says, “The great ethical systems of the world are in such remarkable agreement on the core issues that, practically speaking, any of them will do” (p. 122). Any of them will do? Really? He goes on:
It makes no practical difference whether a student comes out of a school that has done a good job of teaching Aristotelian virtue or Confucian virtue; or moving away from the secular, whether it has done a good job of teaching Buddhist virtue, Christian virtue, Judaic virtue, Islamic virtue, or Hindu virtue. Each of these traditions has historical baggage that we may worry about, but the core meaning of virtue in all of the traditions, effectively transmitted, will produce people who are virtuous in similar ways (pp. 123-124).
While I appreciate Murray’s point that education is moral, his pluralistic solution is pure nonsense. Sure there are some agreements between Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Aristotelianism. But central to Christian virtue is that everything is to be done in honor of the triune God of Scripture (Matthew 22:37). According to Christianity, there is no genuine good or virtue without honoring Christ.
Aristotle, Plato, and Buddha teach godless ethical systems that undermine the very foundation for Christian ethics. While a variety of ethical systems agree on some important points (do not murder, steal, lie, etc.), they do not agree on many practical issues (abortion, marriage, divorce, etc.). And there are terrible “ethical systems” that Murray conveniently leaves out, such as atheistic nihilism.
So while Murray seems to think that just any old ethical system will do for forming “virtuous” citizens, he overlooks the point that some of the ethical systems he lists, such as Christianity, reject this very claim. One cannot substitute such godless “virtue” for Christian virtue—which is why we need Christian education. Murray rightfully sees the need for virtue in education, but he ends up endorsing poor substitutes for Christian truth.
Outside of Murray’s slip into pluralism, Real Education really is a fine book. It is refreshing to see a realistic assessment of the educational climate of our day. Murray’s last chapter includes some good recommendations for change, with none better than his praise for freedom in education. He says, “The school-choice movement is the most important force for good in American K–12 education . . . The reason private schools, charter schools, and home-schooling are desirable is their ability to create a better education in ways that do not show up in reading and math scores” (p. 153). All we can say to that is amen.