Charles Murray and Progressive Education-Part 3

Tom Wood

Charles Murray and Progressive Education - Part 1

Charles Murray and Progressive Education - Part 2

 

Upholding liberal education and the B.A. degree

As Ravitch shows, the traditional conservative view of education placed great importance on the mental and intellectual (i.e., academic) development of students. In this effort, the classical tradition emphasized the importance of liberal learning and the liberal arts curriculum, including the systematic study of language, literature, science, math, history, arts, and foreign languages. The aim was to get students to think and reason well by absorbing and mastering the material and content of the traditional liberal arts. The goal was not the impossible one of teaching students everything they would need to know in life to navigate in the world. What it could do, traditional educators believed, was teach students how to acquire, preserve, and communicate the knowledge that they needed. Once they had mastered the conventionalities of learning, they could learn the rest on their own.

This view of the value of liberal education was particularly associated in the 19th century with Charles William Eliot, president of Harvard University from 1869 to 1909. Although he later capitulated to the overwhelming political and cultural strength of the progressive education movement of his time (at least so far as pre-collegiate public education was concerned), in his early career Eliot was one of the greatest champions in American education for the view that the aim of education, higher and lower, is to develop "mental discipline"—what today is called "critical thinking skills"—and that liberal education had an essential role in fostering that mental discipline.

For Eliot, the aim of education was to improve the intelligence of individuals— a view that immediately set him apart from the IQ researchers and progressive educators of the day, who did not believe that this was possible. The actual subject matter was less important for Eliot than employing anything whatever that could develop clear thinking. Eliot didn’t think that all curricular materials were equivalent or equally good for this purpose. Some, he thought, were inherently rich and therefore particularly suitable for liberal education. But it was the opportunity that a curriculum offered to develop critical thinking skills that were important to Eliot, not the subject matter itself.

Although Eliot is best known for having served as president of Harvard for forty years, he was also deeply concerned with pre-collegiate education. He served as the chair of the Committee of Ten, a group of influential educators (mostly from colleges and universities) that recommended in 1892 the standardization of the American high school curriculum. It called for a strong academic curriculum for all students in all four years of high school, and opposed focusing on manual education for the less able students in order to prepare them for the duties of life in the industrial workforce.

Though the progressives regarded him as naïve, Eliot believed that certain principles were paramount whether in kindergarten or college: "to think straight and clear; compare and infer; to make an accurate record; to remember; to express our thoughts with precision; and to hold fast to lofty ideals." Solid, serious liberal education was not to be limited to the college bound. In fact, men like Eliot believed that it was particularly important to have a strong academic curriculum in the middle schools and and high schools, because for most students secondary school education was the last chance they would have to be exposed to academic subject matters.

Fortunately, the recommendations of the Committee of Ten in 1892, although they were derided by progressive educators of the time as the work of “college men,” were enormously influential. Partly in response to the Committee's recommendations, public high schools began to emulate the exclusive private academies, and increasingly offered subjects like English, math, history, government, and even Latin, Greek, and foreign languages, as a regular part of the curriculum. By the early 1900s (when high school education was not yet universal in America), most high schools had strong academic curricula. One high school that Ravitch mentions—in the farming community of Nineveh, Indiana (circa 1904)— which Ravitch believes was not atypical, had twenty two pupils and taught Latin (including two books of Caesar and three of Virgil), mathematics, English literature, history, geology, physics, rhetoric, geography, and civil government.

Since Murray believes that “real” liberal education at the college level is beyond the capacity of most students, he thinks that the place to expose most students to liberal education is high school. But the claim that the overwhelming majority of students can get all their liberal education in K-12 is deeply flawed. Partly as a result of the efforts of the progressive educators of the past, the high school curriculum has already been diluted—progressives would say “broadened”—by the addition of vocational and technical education courses for the less academically gifted. These courses now comprise a very significant portion of the curriculum for many high school students, especially those who have no plans to go on to college.

Clearly, high schools are already failing to provide an adequate liberal education to their students. Is Murray in favor of reducing or eliminating the vocational and technical curriculum of American high schools in order to beef up the academic, liberal arts curriculum there? He does not say so. Nor is it hard to imagine why, since the very same arguments for not insisting on an intellectually and academically challenging curriculum for less academically gifted students who go on to college can be applied equally well to less academically gifted students in high school. They will not, according to Murray, have jobs for which they will be benefited in any way by a challenging intellectual curriculum, and forcing such a curriculum on them will only serve to diminish their self-esteem and increase their dropout rates. Murray’s arguments are so sweeping and general that they undermine the cause of liberal education, not just at the college level, but across the board.

Murray’s denigration of liberal education isn’t limited to academically less capable students. He wishes to see it undermined, not only for those college-going students he regards as incapable of benefiting from it, but also for many—perhaps most—of those who are able to benefit from it. He would like to see high-profile testing services like the Educational Testing Service develop hundreds of certification exams for specific occupations. He hopes that the B.A. degree will be undermined by such exams. Not only would such exams make it possible for the academically ungifted to avoid liberal education at the college level, it would make it possible for those who are intellectually able but who are uninterested in an academic curriculum to opt out of liberal education as well. He looks forward to the day when all graduates will enter the job market with credentials rather than degrees, and when increasing numbers of even his academic elite no longer bother to earn a B.A.

Murray mentions two models for this kind of alternative to the B.A.: the national CPA exam, and Cornell University’s School of Hotel Management, which has an undergraduate program. He recommends the CPA exam approach as a replacement for two-thirds of the bachelor’s degrees that are currently conferred: journalism, criminal justice, social work, public administration, and all the separate majors under the headings of business, computer science, engineering, engineering technology, and education. He believes that in most of these fields, the necessary work can be completed in two to three years. Students who complete four years, he anticipates, could take more liberal arts courses, but it is more likely, given his own views about education, that they would take more advanced courses in their specialty instead—including many M.A. level courses in their chosen field. If this were to happen, higher education as we know it would be squeezed from two directions. It would be squeezed from below because less capable students would drop out and either go into the job market directly or enroll in vocationally and professionally oriented post-secondary educational programs. It would be squeezed from above, because more and more academically able students would abandon liberal education and opt for vocationally oriented coursework. More and more of the specialized training that now takes place in professional schools—social welfare, public administration, criminology, hotel management, accounting, education etc.—would invade the college curriculum, crowding out whatever remains of the liberal arts. Liberal education would be effectively gutted, and higher education as we know it would be extinguished. I imagine that as far as Murray is concerned, this would be a good thing.


All of this futuristic educational theorizing is based on the claim, which he nowhere supports with any evidence, that credentialing or certification is what businesses actually want, and that they have to rely on the weak credentialing signals conveyed by the B.A. degree because they don’t have something better to rely on. This seems to me to misrepresent what business is actually looking for. As Murray points out, a growing post-secondary system has already developed that provides training for jobs requiring a relatively narrow skill set in a large number of fields. We do not have to wait for such a system to develop certification for these jobs: certifications already exist, and employers can and do use them. But as I pointed out in a previous posting, this is not what employers actually say they need and want the most:

 Recently some critics—many of them conservative or libertarian—have begun to question the value of higher education. Some of these critics, like Charles Murray, have even suggested that college is a waste of time for those who are best suited for it. Such critics have been especially critical of the liberal arts degree, as being particularly useless for careers in business, or indeed for any job in the “real world”—which for many of these critics means particularly careers in the world of business.

 

Although I have looked hard, I have not found anything yet to support such criticism and skepticism, either in terms of what business leaders and successful entrepreneurs have said about the importance of a college education or in terms of their own educational backgrounds.

 

Almost without exception, America’s top business leaders and entrepreneurs appear to believe strongly in the importance of education, including higher education, and are alarmed at the poor job that K-12 and American colleges are doing. They are putting money and energy into PR and lobbying efforts to get states and the federal government to increase funding for higher education, and these efforts appear to be motivated by a healthy dose of self-interest. If American businesses cannot get sufficient numbers of employees who can think, write, and speak well, and who have the requisite critical thinking skills, they will have to spend the time and money educating employees themselves. Obviously, they would prefer to have taxpayers, students, and parents carry this burden.

As I pointed out in the same posting, credentialing for relatively narrow skills sets does not appear to be what is actually rewarded in the market place, either. There is clear evidence that the B.A. degree outperforms even the B.B.A. in the business world.

 

The basic, underlying affinity between the educational views of Murray and the progressives

 

For all the historical differences between Murray and the progressives, the basic affinity between them lies in an insufficient appreciation of the ability of liberal education to develop cognitive and intellectual skills: in making students smarter, and in helping them to organize and make sense of the world. In his skepticism on this point, or at least in his failure to acknowledge the value of liberal education in developing cognitive skills, Murray is the heir of the progressives and the behavioral educational psychologists of an earlier era.

 

Murray does have ideas about how college education can be reformed and improved. He condemns grade inflation, and the consumer mentality that makes grade inflation possible and even inevitable. Murray believes that college shouldn’t be watered down for his elite students. College must be hard and must be challenging. He insists that the elite students need to be exposed to material that even the brightest of them cannot master—but only, apparently, because they are destined to be America’s leaders, and leaders need some humility.

 

Although Murray believes that liberal education can make his elite students wiser and more ethnical leaders, it seems it cannot make them any smarter. But that doesn’t matter, according to Murray, since on his view they are already smart. They were born smart, essentially. All that schooling can do is make these smart people wiser and hopefully more ethical.

 

An interesting example of this can be found in the section of the book entitled “The Elite Is Already Smart: It Needs to Be Wise.” (This is one of Murray’s “four simple truths for bringing America’s schools back to reality.”) The following are subsections to this section: “Rigor in Verbal Expression,” “Rigor in Forming Judgments,” “Rigor in Thinking About Virtue and the Good,” and “Humility.” Under “Rigor in Forming Judgments,” Murray includes three teachable skills: the application of logic to a problem, the evaluation of data, and pattern recognition (the ability to see the relevance of other non-identical situations).

 

It is entirely appropriate to subsume “Rigor in Thinking About Virtue and the Good” and “Humility” under “the need to be wise,” but it is odd to find rigor in verbal expression and rigor in forming judgments there, because these are cognitive skills, and it would be more suitable to categorize them as such, and to place them under the rubric of intelligence rather than wisdom. These skills don’t belong in a section entitled “The elite is already smart, it needs to be wise,” because a person is actually smarter if she has these skills. Developing these skills is part of the aim of liberal education, as opposed to vocational education or programs leading to certification in specific fields. They are the kinds of skills that business and the market place want the most. They are also the skills that are tested by NAEP and by the CLA. They are crucial skills for all students, not only the most academically gifted ones. And as I have also argued, there is no reason to think that only a minority of students who go to college can hope to develop such skills there.

 

Others might read Real Education differently. If so, I ask them whether a different reading of Murray doesn't require reading something into the text that is not there—even for Murray's elite class. Is there, for example, any unequivocal endorsement in Real Education of the intellectual and cognitive importance of liberal education (as opposed to the mere transmission of cultural values) that can compare with the following passage from Ravitch's Left Back?

 

Today, as the schools compete for children's time and attention with television, movies, the Internet, and other mass media, those who run them must know what schools alone can do. The schools must reassert their primary responsibility for the development of young people's intelligence and character. Schools must do far more than teach children "how to learn" and "how to look things up"; they must teach them what knowledge has most value, how to use that knowledge, how to organize what they know, how to understand the relationship between past and present, how to tell the difference between accurate information and propaganda, and how to turn information into understanding. If youngsters are set free from serious studies, unencumbered by the significant ideas and controversies of American and world history, untouched by the great poets and novelists of the world, unaware of the workings of science, they will turn to other sources for information and stimulation. Children today swim in a sea of images shaped by the popular culture, electronic media, and commercial advertising. Everything becomes trivia, everything is packaged to fit the terms of celebrity and sensationalism, famous for a minute or two, then gone.

 

If we are to have a chance of reclaiming our schools as centers of learning, we must understand how they came to be the way they are. At the opening of the twenty-first century, Americans find themselves in search of traditions that nourish and ideas that make sense of a world that is changing swiftly. One of the great virtues of the academic tradition is that it organizes human knowledge and makes it comprehensible to the learner. It aims to make a chaotic world coherent. It gives intellectual strength to those who want to understand social experience and the nature of the physical world. Despite sustained efforts to diminish it, the academic tradition survives; it survives because knowledge builds on knowledge, and we cannot dispense with the systematic study of human knowledge without risking mass ignorance. It survives because it retains the power to enlighten and liberate those who seek knowledge. Now, as parents, educators, policy makers, and other citizens seek high standards, it is time to renew the academic tradition for the children of the twenty-first century.

 

Traditional, conservative philosophies of education emphasized the transmission of values and intellectual training, as against behavioral and progressive theories of education, which did not. Murray is clearly within the conservative cultural tradition with respect to the transmission of values, but he is essentially silent about the value of the intellectual training involved in the traditional liberal arts curriculum. As it is, he disparages the liberal arts and the value of the B.A. in Real Education without providing any evidence that it is has no value. If he were forced to deal with hard evidence, he would be forced to deal with the findings about the Collegiate Learning Assessment mentioned above. He would also have to defend drawing the line about who can benefit college where he does, for the evidence is that all students who are now in college can benefit from the experience. Perhaps he would then be forced by actual empirical evidence to join forces with those of us who believe that liberal education is important, and that it needs to be reformed, strengthened, and saved, rather than scaled back, rationed, or trashed.

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