Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Charles Murray On Elitism

Charles Murray seems to be describing himself in this editorial, as a reasonably intelligent person who has absolutely no grounding in being a good citizen.
A large proportion of gifted children are born to parents who value their children's talent and do their best to see that it is realized. Most gifted children without such parents are recognized by someone somewhere along the educational line and pointed toward college. No evidence indicates that the nation has many children with IQs above 120 who are not given an opportunity for higher education. The university system has also become efficient in shipping large numbers of the most talented high-school graduates to the most prestigious schools. The allocation of this human capital can be criticized--it would probably be better for the nation if more of the gifted went into the sciences and fewer into the law. But if the issue is amount of education, then the nation is doing fine with its next generation of gifted children.
But of course, the issue is not the amount of education. What would be shocking if this weren't Murray speaking is that he appears completely ignorant of the importance of early education in the maths and sciences to foster the skills of children gifted in those disciplines and to lay the foundation for their pursuing careers in those fields. Chasing the almighty dollar is part of the equation, certainly, but the lack of support for gifted education in public schools affects how many kids end up pursuing careers in the hard sciences.

Moreover, Murray apparently doesn't know that high school dropout rates for gifted kids are no lower than average. Now, Murray may delude himself that that's a good thing - pretending that Google will hire college (and perhaps high school) dropouts if they're smart enough - but the rest of us live in the real world. The price of ignoring the needs of gifted children goes beyond their picking the wrong major at college.
The problem with the education of the gifted involves not their professional training, but their training as citizens.
What does this tell us about Murray and his peer group when he was in school? It suggests that they were very full of themselves, scornful of those less intelligent than they were, and perhaps oblivious to those more intelligent than they. The gifted kids I knew growing up, and my school system used a cutoff significantly above the 120 IQ Murray would apply, were very socially aware. Now, some of them may have had ideas for resolving social problems that would seem bizarre to most other people, but such is the result of high intelligence crossed with limited life experience.
We live in an age when it is unfashionable to talk about the special responsibility of being gifted, because to do so acknowledges inequality of ability, which is elitist, and inequality of responsibilities, which is also elitist. And so children who know they are smarter than the other kids tend, in a most human reaction, to think of themselves as superior to them.
Again, going back to my own experiences, a lot of the gifted kids I knew had the opposite problem - lots of self-doubt, low self-esteem, a feeling of social isolation. Granted, some were gregarious and confident. But this mass of smart narcissists that Murray imagines simply didn't exist. That's not to say that I didn't know some kids like Murray describes, and they probably did have IQ's in the 120+ range, but with few exceptions they weren't smart enough to qualify as "gifted" under the criteria applied by my school system.

It's funny to hear Murray talk of "elitism" as if it's a good thing, because he of course attributes failures of social policy in the post-Civil Rights era to "elite white guilt". That, apparently, is elitism leading to egalitarianism - which to Murray is bad. What Murray seems to be endorsing is elitism leading to self-aggrandizement. So what Murray wants from public schools is not a program of gifted education that will nurture young scientists, mathematicians, and writers, but more of a 19th century British public school model, ("public school" in that context refers to what we call "private schools"), apparently with a similar sense of entitlement to rule:
All of the above are antithetical to the mindset that prevails in today's schools at every level. The gifted should not be taught to be nonjudgmental; they need to learn how to make accurate judgments. They should not be taught to be equally respectful of Aztecs and Greeks; they should focus on the best that has come before them, which will mean a light dose of Aztecs and a heavy one of Greeks. The primary purpose of their education should not be to let the little darlings express themselves, but to give them the tools and the intellectual discipline for expressing themselves as adults.

In short, I am calling for a revival of the classical definition of a liberal education, serving its classic purpose: to prepare an elite to do its duty.
Given the way Murray seems to describe his younger self and his narcissistic peers, it's hard to see what impact this proposed "civics for the smart" class would have had on them. On the other hand, when you read his clumsy thoughts, it's pretty easy to see how a more rigorous academic education may have helped him produce better analyses (although, sad as it may be, without the racist overtones and glaring errors, Murray's readership would probably decline). For example, here Murray speaks of trying to significantly improve the English language skills of a child of average intelligence:
It is not within his power to learn to follow an exposition written beyond a limited level of complexity, any more than it is within my power to follow a proof in the American Journal of Mathematics. In both cases, the problem is not that we have not been taught enough, but that we are not smart enough.
Here, in describing gifted children, he again appears to be describing himself:
Many high-IQ students, especially those who avoid serious science and math, go from kindergarten through an advanced degree without ever having a teacher who is dissatisfied with their best work and without ever taking a course that forces them to say to themselves, "I can't do this."
Apparently Murray "knows" he isn't smart enough for complex math because he has never tried.

Coming from Murray, this is almost laughable:
The gifted must assimilate the details of grammar and syntax and the details of logical fallacies not because they will need them to communicate in daily life, but because these are indispensable for precise thinking at an advanced level.
And in his quest to impose rigorous civics training on smart kids such that they "know what it means to be good", he is happy to have the next generation follow his lead and skip difficult math and science classes that might also provide a "setting in which their feet can be held to the fire".


  1. I had issues with this article, too. I got the sense that he seemed to have a political agenda because he was so explicit in how gifted kids should be educated. (I have a very high IQ son who was abhor classical education.) I was also disappointed that someone who is supposed to be so knowledgeable about intelligence doesn't realize that only about half of gifted kids are ever recognized.

    I enjoyed reading your thoughts.

  2. Ooops...that's supposed to read "who would abhor". Guess I got too excited there.

  3. "No evidence indicates that the nation has many children with IQs above 120 who are not given an opportunity for higher education."

    Huh, now we are proving negative statements by arguing a lack of evidence?

    I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that "no evidence indicates" that we are "finding all of the T&G students that we are missing (seems kind of definitional) and steering them toward college."


  4. Supporting evidence is referenced here: