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Robb: Society, economy place ‘false premium’ on college degree

Charles Murray is one of America’s most original thinkers. That’s in part because he seems immune to the self-censorship the political culture often engenders.

Murray first burst onto the scene (at least in wonk circles) with his 1984 book, “Losing Ground.” In it, he speculated about what would happen if social programs designed to help the poor were abolished. His conclusion was that society and the poor would both probably be better off.

Last week, in a series of essays in the Wall Street Journal, he addressed the function of education in society. His perspective offers a bracing counterpoint to the approach increasingly dominating education reform discussions and proposals, such as those advanced by Gov. Janet Napolitano’s P-20 Council.

According to the council, Arizona schools should prepare all students for college, irrespective of whether they plan to attend or not.

According to Murray, such sentiments fail to account for the practical limitations of the distribution of innate cognitive ability.

For example, Murray contends that a person with average math abilities will struggle with algebra. Yet Napolitano wants algebra taught in eighth grade and recently told a Tucson business audience that, “I’m not entirely kidding when I say you shouldn’t be able to get a driver’s license unless you’ve passed algebra.”

As Murray points out, feeling the necessity to state the obvious in this discussion, half of all people are of below-average intelligence. A college-prep track for everyone will not truly serve their needs.

According to Murray, too many people in the United States are already going to college. He estimates that to truly comprehend what should be college-level material requires an IQ in at least the top quarter and preferably the top 15 percent.

Today, colleges have a lot of students who aren’t intellectually equipped for the work or aren’t really interested in it. So, colleges create courses and programs to accommodate them.

This is hardly economically efficient or the best way to develop human potential. It exists because of what Murray calls the “false premium” the economy places on a college degree and social expectations. He expects efficient markets to deflate the false premium over time, as more economical and effective ways of training most people for work emerge.

The argument is made on behalf of the college-track-for-everyone approach that the jobs of the future will require it. But that’s not so, and will never be so. Economies do not produce jobs that cannot be filled.

There’s a natural tendency to flinch at basing so much on IQ distributions and analyses. It rubs against the American egalitarian spirit and the admiration felt toward those who, by dint of effort and will, go beyond their natural abilities.

However, you can reject the IQ-is-destiny notion and still find worth in Murray’s basic insight: What can be taught is limited by what can be learned. And what can be learned differs among children.

I always cringe when I hear someone saying to children that they can be anything they want to be. In all but the rarest circumstances, that’s not true.

Growing up consists of reconciling and balancing interests and abilities. Choosing a field of work involves balancing interests, abilities and financial needs and desires. For most people, life is a series of compromises, adjustments and accommodations.

There is much that needs to be improved in the American education system.

Inner-city schools need to do a better job of imparting basic literacy and numeracy, and offering college-bound pathways to children with the ability and motivation. The achievement level of America students needs to improve. And secondary schools need better qualified math and science teachers.

These are tough things to achieve. The task in reforming American education to do what it can do, however, is made more difficult by asking it to do what it cannot.

Robert Robb, an Arizona Republic columnist, writes about public policy and politics in Arizona. E-mail: robert.robb@arizonarepublic.com.

Citizen Online Archive, 2006-2009

This archive contains all the stories that appeared on the Tucson Citizen's website from mid-2006 to June 1, 2009.

In 2010, a power surge fried a server that contained all of videos linked to dozens of stories in this archive. Also, a server that contained all of the databases for dozens of stories was accidentally erased, so all of those links are broken as well. However, all of the text and photos that accompanied some stories have been preserved.

For all of the stories that were archived by the Tucson Citizen newspaper's library in a digital archive between 1993 and 2009, go to Morgue Part 2

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