kitchen table math, the sequel: the conspiracy theory

Thursday, January 18, 2007

the conspiracy theory

Opinion Journal - Aztecs vs. Greeks: Those with superior intelligence need to learn to be wise, by Charles Murray

Is it just me, or has Charles Murray gone off the deep end?

He starts off innocently enough by stating the obvious.
Combine these groups, and the top 10% of the intelligence distribution has a huge influence on whether our economy is vital or stagnant, our culture healthy or sick, our institutions secure or endangered. Of the simple truths about intelligence and its relationship to education, this is the most important and least acknowledged: Our future depends crucially on how we educate the next generation of people gifted with unusually high intelligence.

It might be unpopular, but it's probably true. Not only does our system suck at educating the lowest performers, they also undereducate our average and top performers as well.

But he should have stopped here. Instead he rambles on a bit about how being gifted is a "gift", like high IQ people are some sort of superheros, the saviors of the world. They must acknowledge their awesomeness and use it to guide the lesser mortals.

What really took the cake though is when he started talking about some sort of high IQ cabal that runs our government.
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. If that sounds too much like Plato's Guardians, consider this distinction. As William F. Buckley rightly instructs us, it is better to be governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston phone book than by the faculty of Harvard University. But we have that option only in the choice of our elected officials. In all other respects, the government, economy and culture are run by a cognitive elite that we do not choose. That is the reality, and we are powerless to change it. All we can do is try to educate the elite to be conscious of, and prepared to meet, its obligations. For years, we have not even thought about the nature of that task. It is time we did. (emphasis mine)

It reminded me of some Orwellian novel. If the average would just accept the leadership of the chosen ones, all would be well in the world.

(Cross posted at the usual place)

11 comments:

SteveH said...

"It reminded me of some Orwellian novel. If the average would just accept the leadership of the chosen ones, all would be well in the world."

I agree. Who is in charge here? The individual, or some elite group? I find that those at both extreme (and not so extreme) ends of the political spectrum feel that they know what's best for all.

We can't trust parents to make decisions about educating their kids. They might screw it up. We need ed schools to really screw it up properly.

LynnG said...

It strikes me that Charles Murray has assumed congruence between the highly intellectually gifted and the power elite. Anyone that has ever worked in a Federal Agency can tell you that those making the decisions (the deciders if you will) are rarely intellectually gifted. (sigh) Would that they were.

But that's really obcuring the point, as you noted, Catherine.

We do a lousy job of educating our smart kids. We have administrators that continue to say, The cream rises to the top; or there is value in having every child go through the curriculum at the same pace. Enrichment or differentiation or whatever you want to call it, is just more stuff related to what the whole class is doing.

There is a huge disincentive to accelerate gifted kids through the material in NCLB. The schools need those kids taking grade level state tests to bring up the scores.

Catherine Johnson said...

We have administrators that continue to say, The cream rises to the top

that's a great way of putting it

I'm going to start using that expression (hadn't thought of it in this context)

I love aphorisms, and I think there's always truth in them.

But in this case the term "rises" is misleading.

I've thought about this a lot here in Irvington, where we have Darwinian gatekeeping and possibly, now, a practice of favoring the children of fundraising parents with slots in Honors classes. (I have no idea whether this is true; I know that parents widely believe it to be true.)

How does the cream rise to the top here?

In some cases children are so obviously & naturally brainy that there's simply no question.

I strongly suspect this is true for naturally brainy girls and for naturally brainy boys who were born earlier in their year. (I'll have to find the research on the older kids in each class always doing better & post - )

So how do the other kids "rise"?

It's an interesting question (to me!).....and I suspect that part of the answer is having "pushy parents," pushy defined broadly as parents who won't take no for an answer....

Catherine Johnson said...

I haven't read Murray's article yet, but I did notice a line saying that the top 10% are running things and writing all the books.

I instantly thought, "God, those smart people are dumb."

You can't spend your entire life around universities without feeling that William Buckley got that thing about the Boston phone book right.

LynnG said...

"Those smart people are dumb!" I love it.

Ok, there is cream; and then there is cream.

Here, we have a bunch of really smart brainy kids that do well and get good grades and stand out on their own.

But then you have these really difficult brainy kids that are clearly brainy, but come with so much baggage that without the pushy parent, or the incredibly competent teacher, these kids are really at risk.

Someone out there has a statistic on really bright brainy kids that drop out of high school. I don't think anyone has ever gotten down to researching the whys on that one. There are lots of theories -- they are bored is a big one. But there's also a close connection between extreme braininess and mental illness. We need look no further than John Nash.

When the cream gets stuck along the way, schools have really shown themselves to have no idea what to do about it.

MTheads said...

Murray didn't say that our leadership positions are limited to only those with IQs in the top 10%. Nor did he suggest that we make high IQs mandatory for certain jobs. He's making the point that it occurs naturally.

He also doesn't say that those with higher IQs make better decisions, or are better people, or make fewer mistakes. Many people in the blogosphere seem to have taken offense at the idea that some people are smarter than others.

And, of course, human intelligence and abilities are complex, complex enough that we can only draw general conclusions. We could never precisely know who will be a success at what or even why. But we can acknowledge that it might be better if we, as a society, learned to value careers and paths other than just those identified as intellectually rigorous. This way, we can stop pushing most children through the same college-bound paths and let them pick equally rewarding careers currently not valued as highly.

SteveH said...

mtheads -

I'm glad you can translate, because Murray can't seem to express himself without a lot of baggage.


Actually this is from his conclusion:

"Stop telling children that they need to go to college to be successful, and take advantage of the other, often better ways in which people can develop their talents. Acknowledge the existence and importance of high intellectual ability, and think about how best to nurture the children who possess it."

This is just, so, icky!

The reason kids want to go to college is that the piece of paper pays off. Parents and kids do not imagine this or make this up. Many parents have experienced this first hand for many decades. Kids and parents don't go into hock for tens of thousands of dollars for only sentimental reasons.

Some jobs really require college knowledge and skills. Many do not. When demand exceeds supply, many employers use that piece of paper as a filter. Is this fair? No. Is this best for the company? No. Is it easy for them to do? Yup! Having the persistance to get a degree shows something. It may not be much, but that's what companies do.

This is not a problem with valuing certain careers. It's a very pragmatic reaction to a very real problem, viz., that companies who hire employees expect to see that piece of paper. If demand exceeds supply, then the need for that piece of paper magically disappears. Many people got into the computer industry years ago without any degree in computers.


"This way, we can stop pushing most children through the same college-bound paths and let them pick equally rewarding careers currently not valued as highly."

Meaning, they don't pay as well.

MTheads said...

Steveh

Murray makes the point in one of his parts that many jobs that do not require a four year degree--such as auto mechanic or master craftsman--do indeed make good money. Many jobs that require degrees are not particularly well paying—teachers, insurance adjusters, social work, human resources, managers, etc.

But you are right, white collar jobs tend to be competitive. Murray implies that people compete for these jobs because 1) they got that expensive diploma and assume white collar equals respectable job, and 2) they're not qualified for, nor are they even knowledgeable of, other options in well-paying trades. And they’ve been led to believe that that is what above average people do.

While most of us recoil at the thought of labeling people based on their intelligence, we are sure quick to make sure our children do those things that will distinguish them from the “average”—get a degree and be a white-collar worker.

SteveH said...

" we are sure quick to make sure our children do those things that will distinguish them from the “average”—get a degree and be a white-collar worker."

I disagree. There are a lot of people out there who aren't "we". And, when it comes to good paying jobs, people aren't stupid for long. Whether white collar or blue collar, people will gravitate to any good-paying job that requires less effort, skill, and education. They just don't care about image. Money matters, not image. If you want to really get to the point, money is image and money is about supply and demand.

This is not a "we" problem. "We" can't go to a job interview and tell the employer that a college degree is not required, even though that might be true. I think that college is a big waste for a lot of people (they would probably agree), but they aren't the ones making the rules. We have some great technical/vocational schools in our area that are very highly regarded. They also provide college degrees. Many kids still go to the community college. Why? It's easier than the technical school.

Tracy said...

Our future depends crucially on how we educate the next generation of people gifted with unusually high intelligence.

Actually, quite possibly not.

Think about it. Soviet Union, a place so full of smart people that chess was a popular spectator sport. Successful? No.

In all other respects, the government, economy and culture are run by a cognitive elite that we do not choose.

Nope. Well, maybe the government is. A market economy is not run by anyone (that's why it works). The culture is also a great messy area with no one running it.

We live in an age when it is unfashionable to talk about the special responsibility of being gifted ... That the gift brings with it obligations to be worthy of it. That among those obligations, the most important and most difficult is to aim not just at academic accomplishment, but at wisdom.

Oh, so the other 90% of the population can just dump the wisdom stuff?

That'd be a smart move - not.

"Oh, who do I marry? Ah well, I'm in the bottom 90% of the IQ distribution, so no need to think about that one - I'll just marry the first guy with a charming smile".

"Oh, I've got an email saying that this guy will give me $10 million if I help him with a transaction. Gosh, I am so lucky."

"Hmmm, who will I vote for? I know, I'll vote for the (insert political party here) party because my Daddy did."

Certainly Mr Murray needs a course in logical thinking. And economics. And ethics.

linda seebach said...

LynnG said, "Someone out there has a statistic on really bright brainy kids that drop out of high school."
Yes indeed, someone does. Charles Murray, in fact; for children in the top 10 percent, it's around 1 percent. (It's in a long paper he wrote for AEI.)

She also said, "But there's also a close connection between extreme braininess and mental illness. We need look no further than John Nash."
Not so. As the aphorism has it, data is not the plural of anecdote.
That you know, because of a popular book and movie, that extreme braininess and mental illness co-occur in a single individual tells you nothing about whether there exists a "close connection" between these two characteristics.
In fact, there is a connection -- she should have said "correlation" -- but it goes in the other direction. People who score lower on IQ tests are more, not less, likely to manifest signs of mental impairments.
I know, it doesn't seem fair. But nature is not fair.