The Frontal Cortex

Charles Murray

The hypocrisy is dazzling. Charles Murray (of Bell Curve fame) just wrote a book arguing that the vast majority of American college students shouldn’t actually be attending college, since they lack the cognitive ability to “deal with college-level material.” Instead, he argues that these people should become skilled laborers. (“There are very few unemployed first-rate electricians…”) He also insists that “the future of America depends on “the gifted,” or those who are genetically blessed with above-average intelligence.

I certainly don’t agree with Murray’s argument, but I understand that it’s a coherent argument. At least, it’s coherent until he starts talking presidential politics, and you suddenly realize that his partisan views completely obliterate the entire premise of his book. This short interview was conducted by Deborah Solomon:

Q: What do you make of the fact that John McCain was ranked 894 in a class of 899 when he graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy?

A: I like to think that the reason he ranked so low is that he was out drinking beer, as opposed to just unable to learn stuff.

Q: What do you think of Sarah Palin?

A: I’m in love. Truly and deeply in love.

Q: She attended five colleges in six years.

A: So what?

Q: Why is the McCain clan so eager to advertise its anti-intellectualism?

A: The last thing we need are more pointy-headed intellectuals running the government. Probably the smartest president we’ve had in terms of I.Q. in the last 50 years was Jimmy Carter, and I think he is the worst president of the last 50 years.

As Jason Kottke noted, “the cognitive dissonance inside Murray’s head must be deafening.”

Comments

  1. #1 Mozglubov
    September 29, 2008

    Wow… so, by gifted, I guess he actually meant athletically, militarily, or religiously. Speaking of John McCain, I simply don’t understand how he manages to get away with the crap he gets away with… how is the American presidential race as close as it is?

  2. #2 Mozglubov
    September 29, 2008

    Also, not to spam you, but I decided to brush up on my history of Jimmy Carter just now… I sincerely hope that fellow was not including George W. Bush in his list of “who was the worst president in the last 50 years”, and, even if he wasn’t, I really don’t understand how Carter doesn’t get more credit. From my brief reading about him, he was awesome.

  3. #3 Jason
    September 29, 2008

    Yes…Jimmy Carter was excellent. I love revisionist history. Carter was so bad people forgot about Nixon.

  4. #4 Adrienne
    September 29, 2008

    I understand that part of why Carter was considered so bad is that he very naively refused to play political games, thus greatly undermining his own influence on Capitol Hill. But even if we admit Carter was not such a great president, he still beats GWB hands-down, I think.

  5. #5 Adrienne
    September 29, 2008

    I wonder if Sarah Palin missed her true calling as an electrician.

  6. #6 decrepitoldfool
    September 29, 2008

    I work on a university campus and have a lot of contact with students. I have also known a few first-class electricians in my time. Let me assure you that dull college students would not make brilliant electricians. It just doesn’t work that way.

    I’ve also known a hotrod mechanic who was simply brilliant. But I wouldn’t have wanted him to be Veep, either.

  7. #7 Julie Stahlhut
    September 29, 2008

    Does this fellow seriously think that people who do what he considers “skilled labor” lack cognitive ability? A really good mechanic, electrician, or plumber has to be an expert troubleshooter. There are lots of carpenters and cosmetologists who run their own successful businesses.

    Of course, anyone who can make as many self-contradictory statements in a single interview as Murray can will probably not shed much light on the subject. One wonders whether he ever gets out of his home or office and actually talks to people whose jobs aren’t exactly like his.

  8. #8 David
    September 29, 2008

    Wow, that is telling. I just did an interview with Murrary here: http://neuronarrative.wordpress.com/2008/09/21/interview-with-author-charles-murray/

    I wish I’d had the Solomon interview first – it would have been interesting to follow up on some of this.

  9. #9 shannon murphy
    September 29, 2008

    wow. just…wow.

  10. #10 Anibal
    September 29, 2008

    The worst politicization of science i ever noticed.

  11. #11 RUDY!
    September 29, 2008

    I read that Solomon interview and I immediately I thought there must be some ambiguity in his statements, perhaps tone, humor, or glibness, that maybe wasn’t portrayed in the medium. I could be wrong but so could those who read it the other way.

    My own experiences as a TA convinced me long ago that many of the students enrolling in college are not prepared and that making college available to everyone has reduced expectations thereby reducing the aptitude of the gifted.

  12. #12 Brian
    September 29, 2008

    Yes, Rudy, but not prepared and not capable are two different things.

  13. #13 eddie
    September 29, 2008

    Murray’s Four Truths;

    (1) Ability Varies

    (2) Half of Children are Below Average

    (3) Too Many People Are Going to College

    (4) America’s Future Depends on How We Educate the Academically Gifted.

    As a McCain supporter, he must despise himself for this elitism.

    Oh, sorry. No. As a bullshitter, he’s at home in his bullshit.

  14. #14 RUDY!
    September 29, 2008

    Brian, unless I am missing some connotation, preparedness and capability are not so different, if not hand in hand. I should state that I hold the belief that all people start with the same mental potential and it is largely the environment and nurturing that is stifling the potential.

  15. #15 RUDY!
    September 29, 2008

    Mmm, now I see the connotation capable is loaded with. Still, too many people do go to college and it should be a topic of conversation.

  16. #16 KeithM
    September 29, 2008

    Murray apparently has never actually talked to a real tradesperson. The idea that a journeyman mechanic, or electrician, or pipefitter, is intellectually inferior to the average, oh, let’s say psychology student just for the hell of it, is hysterical.

    I think he’s falling into the trap that because the academic-like things they do are pretty simple (the normal math involved in carpentry, for instance, is pretty basic), he thinks the whole thing must be.

  17. #17 Tony Jeremiah
    September 29, 2008

    Charles Murray (of Bell Curve fame) just wrote a book arguing that the vast majority of American college students shouldn’t actually be attending college, since they lack the cognitive ability to “deal with college-level material.”

    This hypothesis doesn’t even appear to pass a surface validity test. If it is true that most American college students shouldn’t be attending college because they lack the cognitive ability to deal with college level material, then assuming the NCES completion rates are a reliable indicator of this hypothesis, the vast majority of students should not be graduating from college (college completion rates range from 53-90%). If the vast majority are graduating from college, the alternative hypothesis has less to do with student intelligent, and more to do with a lax education system.

    he argues that these people should become skilled laborers. (“There are very few unemployed first-rate electricians…”) He also insists that “the future of America depends on “the gifted,” or those who are genetically blessed with above-average intelligence.

    Right. Because everyone knows it takes no brain power to fix the blinking light on old VCRs and other mechanically-related gadgets.

  18. #18 Celeste
    September 29, 2008

    Tony: As a college student and a daughter of two professors, I do think that less people should be attending university. You have to consider that there are many teachers that are forced to dumb down their syllabi for students who cannot grasp the concept of writing a thesis. Or referencing sources. Or using punctuation. Professors with otherwise high standards are forced to pass less-than mediocre, unmotivated students. From what I’ve seen, stupid students .cause. a lax education system. And for the sanity of professors everywhere, I wish college was only for students who genuinely want to learn, instead of just “the thing to do once you get out of high school.”

  19. #19 Mitch
    September 29, 2008

    Celeste:

    Not “less people”, fewer people.

  20. #20 Celeste
    September 29, 2008

    Mitch: Good call. I blame all the unmotivated students in my English class for reducing my teacher’s standards for acceptable grammar. ;)

  21. #21 Tony Jeremiah
    September 29, 2008

    As a college student and a daughter of two professors, I do think that less people should be attending university.

    As an educational psychologist and university instructor, I would probably be a hypocrite if I started with the assumption that only a few select people have the capacity to learn.

    You have to consider that there are many teachers that are forced to dumb down their syllabi for students who cannot grasp the concept of writing a thesis. Or referencing sources. Or using punctuation.

    I happen to work with students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds, and I don’t dumb things down. Rather, I teach my courses in a highly structured way (what most would refer to as modular learning). I have high expectations for my students, and the usual outcome in my courses, is that students either do really well or fail miserably (with the majority showing the former result).

    Professors with otherwise high standards are forced to pass less-than mediocre, unmotivated students

    Student motivation and intelligence are separate but interacting factors; they are not one and the same. See High IQ not as good for you as you thought on CogDaily. I imagine the issue here concerns an inflexible teaching format.

    From what I’ve seen, stupid students .cause. a lax education system.

    Educators were once students too. No?

    And for the sanity of professors everywhere, I wish college was only for students who genuinely want to learn, instead of just “the thing to do once you get out of high school.”

    This is where we agree (for the most part). If there is no motivation to learn within the traditional education system, one should really not be taking up a seat that could hold a more motivated person. Where we appear to disagree, are assumptions concerning the source of individual differences in learning capacity– intelligence, motivation, or a combination of the two?

  22. #22 David
    September 30, 2008

    This is a great chat, but I’m curious – has anyone commenting here read the book? It’s a quick read, about 170 pages, and in my opinion worth a couple of hours. While I do think Murray comes down on one side of a not-so-easily parsed issue, his argument addresses several critical lapses in education that in turn are affecting nearly every sector of society. I came away from reading the book thinking that even if you dismiss significant parts of his argument, you’re still left with big questions that will have to be addressed in some way. They are inescapable.

  23. #23 Vladimir Gritsenko
    October 2, 2008

    It seems that Murray’s political views is a case of “outside the lab” syndrome (it’s not his political views that undermine his research, but rather his reluctance to let his own research influence his political views). Recall that Newton dabbled in mysticism and even predicted the end of the world by 2060, yet it would be foolish to damn his other work on this basis.

    So Murray’s work should be evaluated with good, old fashioned science, not political correctness or other biases of our age.

  24. #24 Troy Camplin
    October 3, 2008

    I’m with Murray on there being far too many people in college, to the extent that it dumbs down the student population and severely interferes with learning. The result: I was actually told by the chair of a department that “The best and brightest will just have to be bored.” The most unethical thing I ever heard a teacher utter.

    Now, there actually isn’t necessarily any dissonance in Murray with his support for McCain and Palin. If you know the full story of McCain, you know that he was low in his class because of his personality at the time, not due to intelligence. And being a college-hopper doesn’t mean you’re not smart, either.

    I had this discussion with someone recently, and that person insisted that Obama was a vastly superior human being to Palin because he went to Harvard and she went to 6 colleges. I observed that quite a few petty dictators in the world went to either Harvard or Yale, so that didn’t indicate much regarding one’s superiority as a human being. Also, considering how many Marxists they turn out, it doesn’t say much for the relationship between being educated at the best schools and being connected to reality. Finally, the last two Mexican Presidents were Harvard-educated, and its economy (let along corrupt government) is nothing to try to emulate.

    High IQ is often associated with highly creative ideas. That is good in the arts and even in the sciences, but when it comes to governance, too often that creativity has led to attempts at creating on earth those fantasy worlds that don’t necessarily have any relationship to reality. When that happens, we get things like the mass slaughters associated with Marxist governments. Unfortunately, we typically see that the higher the IQ of someone in government, the less likely their ideas are to be connected to reality. This is very dangerous in government. So, too, is thinking through the nuances of something long after you should have acted — another feature of high IQ types.

  25. #25 tom golstch
    October 3, 2008

    murray is somehow implying that electricians are stupid? I guess that means people in the computer industry are also stupid and would be wasting time in a liberal arts school?
    Good God!! I used to allow some tolerance for the blind statistics, he was so happy to promulgate, but this crap with sarah palin puts this halfwit in a totally new light.
    Murray seems to be the least well equipped to be talking about intelligence.

  26. #26 Troy Camplin
    October 3, 2008

    Computer designers have to have a high IQ. Computer repairmen do not. The same is true of electricians, plumbers, etc. And when we are talking about not having a high IQ, we are talking about a time when colleges had an average IQ of 135 when they now have an average of 105. It seems to me that the lower average should be for electricians, not college students. Murray’s point is that the Left have stigmatized jobs like electricians and auto repairmen, suggesting that such jobs are not the kinds of jobs people should be considering — this is the idea behind the push for more and more people to go to college.

  27. #27 Donna B.
    October 5, 2008

    Isn’t all this discussion really beside the point? What do we gain from education? Skills, good. The ability to think and figure things out for ourselves, better. The ability to recognize the difference between the two, superb.

    College taught me nothing I could not have learned on my own, but the presence of labs, equipment, and teachers made it so much easier.

    Trade schools are valuable. Want to learn how to drive a truck? We’ll teach you. They teach what they say will teach. Colleges and universities, not so much. I’m not sure what their goals are, though I think it used to be teaching one how to think and learn on their own.

    This has been replaced with basic mechanical skills training, which should not be elevated to the status of learning how to think. The two are compatible, and the ability to think is enhanced by knowing a skill. But it’s not necessary to have a skill to be a thinker and learner.

    Though it might be necessary to earn a living :-)

  28. #28 bgc
    October 5, 2008

    The thing is, Charles Murray is an intellectual titan of our age – as you would realize if you read and pondered his books.

    It is more than likely that your ideas about the coherence of Murray’s philosophy arise because you don’t understand Murray – either because you haven’t engaged with his thinking, or because…

    Murray is extremely smart, vastly well-informed, tough-minded and independent-spirited to a degree beyond all but a handful of intellectuals, and is someone who has substantively influenced large scale public policy in the USA. It is a rare combination.

    On the other hand, his intellectual coherence can be dismissed on the basis of a sound-bite.

    Now let me think – is this kind of evaluation shallow or deep, glib or evidence of a greater depth of resource than Murrays? Not a tough question, really…

  29. #29 Tony Jeremiah
    October 5, 2008

    @Donna B:

    Isn’t all this discussion really beside the point? What do we gain from education? Skills, good. The ability to think and figure things out for ourselves, better. The ability to recognize the difference between the two, superb.

    If we are talking about a traditional brick-and-mortar education, thinking and figuring things out for oneself are the skills presumably acquired with a university education. So technically, there shouldn’t be a difference between the two. However, there are different skill levels associated with thought (e.g., Bloom’s Taxonomy that can be influenced by the manner in which educators teach.

    College taught me nothing I could not have learned on my own, but the presence of labs, equipment, and teachers made it so much easier.

    I’m guessing this is the source of the comment concerning the differentiation between skills and figuring out things for oneself?

    Trade schools are valuable. Want to learn how to drive a truck? We’ll teach you. They teach what they say will teach.

    I’m guessing you would classify this as a skill. More specifically, it is a motor skill. Based on Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences (which from looking at the book review, Murray apparently mentions in his book), would be bodily-kinesthetic intelligence. The same type of intelligence that would be required by dancers and musicians (whom you would most likely find in fine arts programs at most post-secondary institutions).

    Colleges and universities, not so much. I’m not sure what their goals are, though I think it used to be teaching one how to think and learn on their own.

    Here, the type of intelligence Murray is making his blanket statement that too many people are attending college is likely verbal-linguistic and logical-mathematical. These forms of intelligence are the ones required in traditional (academic) courses such as math and science.

    This has been replaced with basic mechanical skills training, which should not be elevated to the status of learning how to think.

    They are different forms of intelligence. It requires a personal judgement to declare one is better than another. As an example, surgeons require “mechanical” skills. In fact, one study showed that surgeons who spent more time playing video games in youth, actually had better manual dexterity (i.e., they were more skilled surgeons).

    So between a video game player (or truck driver) and Charles Murray, who would you gamble on in terms of someone performing surgery on you?

    The two are compatible, and the ability to think is enhanced by knowing a skill. But it’s not necessary to have a skill to be a thinker and learner.

    Ok. So now imagine a surgeon that can think quickly but has limited manual dexterity; or, a surgeon that has slower thought processes but superior manual dexterity. Who would you pick to perform surgery on you?

    Though it might be necessary to earn a living

    It should be suprising that many people do go to college and rack up debt. In many instances, it does seem that skilled laborers get paid as much (if not more) than teachers or academics. So academics (such as myself), must have to really like what we’re doing.

    BTW: The majority of students returning to post-secondary institutions in the last decade are women. So technically, Murray’s comments are implicitly directed at women. So that raises a whole new can of worms concerning the intelligence of women, its relationship to the intelligence of skilled laborers, and, the stereotype of which gender is usually associated with skilled labor.

    @bgc

    The entire nature of your commentary is based on an argument structure known as appeal to authority, which is a known logic fallacy. If I were to use this as the basis of a counterargument against your argument, I could quote Albert Einstein (who one could argue, has similar clout), who said: “It is nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of instruction have not yet stifled the holy curiosity of inquiry”.

  30. #30 Anton
    October 7, 2008

    bgc: You are 100% correct. Murray is certainly one of the most brilliant thinkers of our time. I loved the interview quoted disparagingly here. Wish I had made the same comments. As a college professor at a major US university for over 30 years, I am convinced that Murray underestimates the problem. The strawmen erected by many commenters here are demolished in his gem of a book.

  31. #31 Anton
    October 7, 2008

    bgc: You are 100% correct. Murray is certainly one of the most brilliant thinkers of our time. I loved the interview quoted disparagingly here. Wish I had made the same comments. As a college professor at a major US university for over 30 years, I am convinced that Murray underestimates the problem. The strawmen erected by many commenters here are demolished in his gem of a book.

  32. #32 Tony Jeremiah
    October 8, 2008

    As a college professor at a major US university for over 30 years, I am convinced that Murray underestimates the problem.

    Grade inflation

  33. #33 s饘e
    October 25, 2008

    thanks.

  34. #34 komik videolar
    November 18, 2009

    Mmm, now I see the connotation capable is loaded with. Still, too many people do go to college and it should be a topic of conversation.

  35. #35 prefabrik ev fiyatlar覺
    August 13, 2010

    s a college professor at a major US university for over 30 years, I am convinced that Murray underestimates the problem.

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  37. #37 konteyner
    September 12, 2010

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    Q: What do you make of the fact that John McCain was ranked 894 in a class of 899 when he graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy?

    A: I like to think t

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  41. #41 guzel sozler
    January 14, 2011

    500 hours, let alone 5,000 hours, get pretty tough to estimate accurately without spending a lot of time on the estimate

  42. #42 otel rehberi
    February 15, 2011

    he hypocrisy is dazzling. Charles Murray (of Bell Curve fame) just wrote a book arguing that the vast majority of American college students shouldn’t actually be attending college, since they lack the cognitive ability to “deal with college-level material.

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    February 23, 2011

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  46. a few first-class electricians in my time. Let me assure you that dull college students would not make brilliant electricians. It just doesn’t work that way.

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  60. #60 su deposu
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