The College Paradox: Not Everyone Gains By Higher Education

The next book by Bell Curve co-author Charles MurrayReal Education: Four Simple Truths for Bringing American Schools Back to Reality, will be published in August. Murray previewed a chapter entitled The Age of Educational Romanticism in the May 2008 issue of The New Criterion:

"Educational romanticism consists of the belief that just about all children who are not doing well in school have the potential to do much better. Correlatively, educational romantics believe that the academic achievement of children is determined mainly by the opportunities they receive; that innate intellectual limits (if they exist at all) play a minor role; and that the current K-12 schools have huge room for improvement."

Having sent my kids to quite a few different schools, I'd say there is a fair amount of room for improvement. In a future article, I'll outline some ideas I have that haven't gotten much publicity.

Nonetheless, Murray identifies the central problem undermining educational reform— the educrats' pervasive contempt for reality:

"In public discourse, the leading symptom of educational romanticism is silence on the role of intellectual limits even when the topic screams for their discussion. Try to think of the last time you encountered a news story that mentioned low intellectual ability as the reason why some students do not perform at grade level. I doubt if you can."

This sounds accurate but depressing. Tom Wolfe, however, blurbs Murray's Real Education:

"Charles Murray is one professional contrarian who cannot be written off–not since his first book, Losing Ground, led to a complete restructuring of America's welfare system. At first Real Education, with its plan for identifying 'the elite,' may strike you as an elaboration of his hotly contested views on IQ. But suddenly–swock!–he pops a gasper: a practical plan for literally reproducing, re-creating, a new generation of Jeffersons, Adamses, Franklins, and Hamiltons, educated, drilled, steeped, marinated in those worthies' concern for the Good and Virtuous with a capital V–nothing less than an elite of Founding Great-great-great-great-great Grandchildren."

Murray sent me a copy of his book, but has asked me not to reveal his secret plan until August. So I can't spill the beans.

But, clearly, Real Education will be an important work for anybody genuinely concerned with school reform.

I want to take this opportunity to suggest a paradoxical reason why educational romanticism has become so pervasive in America in recent decades. In contrast to most of the rest of the industrialized world, we've demonized "tracking" students by ability and nearly abolished vocational education, insisting that everybody be on the college prep track.

In contrast, our European and Asian economic rivals have largely resisted the urge to junk tracking The rest of the world understands what America's educational leaders refuse to admit publicly: with teens with two digit IQs, failure is always an option. We insist that every student stick around until age 18 doing academic work that many despise. Hence, millions just stop coming to school. Over the last four decades, the high school dropout rate in America has increased from about 1/5th to 1/4th, according to Nobel laureate economist James Heckman.

The amount of money that Japan, for instance, invests in training high school students for skilled blue-collar careers is astonishing by today's paltry American standards.

You may recall the tragic collision off Hawaii in 2001 between a U.S. Navy submarine and a 191-foot Japanese fishing vessel, the Ehime Maru, which killed nine Japanese. This became a sizable international incident in part because the U.S. government didn't immediately grasp how upsetting this accident was to the Japanese public. After all, Americans assumed, everybody knows that ocean fishing is a dangerous business.

What we didn't get: this 500-ton trawler, for which the Navy eventually paid $9 million in compensation, was a floating classroom, part of Japan's elaborate system of vocational education. To contemporary Americans, it was almost inconceivable that a country would spend so much on their non-academic kids. Yet the Ehime Maru, according to Wikipedia, was "on a planned 74-day voyage to train high school students who were interested in pursuing careers as professional fishermen." Four of the dead were high school kids.

I suspect there's a paradoxical and thus overlooked reason why run-of-the-mill American K-12 public schools are now so debilitated by educational romanticism: the enormous triumph of our ultra-elitist name brand universities.

On the global market, only England's Oxford and Cambridge can compete in glamour with America's Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, MIT and on and on. When fanatically ambitious South Koreans, for example, scan the world for the most prestigious colleges, their gaze usually falls on America's Ivy League.

America's most storied universities publicly espouse leftist egalitarianism. But that's just a politically correct smokescreen to distract from their status as the winners in a brutal competition with other colleges for the highest IQ students and professors.

This conundrum of the celebrated universities' leftist verbiage masking a steep pyramid of Social Darwinian elitism makes it particularly hard to recognize what has gone wrong with American educational theory.

It's easier to see what's happened when you compare the American education system to the continental European system.

American colleges weren't always the top dogs. The modern university was largely invented in Germany. At the beginning of the last century, the world's leading universities were mostly German, such as the University of Göttingen, which had hosted such professors and students as Gauss, Schopenhauer, Metternich, Riemann, Bismarck, Heine, and both Humboldts. Today, though, the highest-ranking German college on The Times [of London] Higher Education Top 100 list is Heidelberg way down at 60th.

(And this British list, by the way, is biased against Yank colleges—Stanford, the engine of Silicon Valley, only comes in 19th, seven slots behind McGill, which is, I gather, somewhere in Canada. Yet, despite the anti-Americanism, The Times' rankings are still dominated by American schools.)

Why are German colleges now so weak? They have yet to recover from expelling their Jews in 1933, and from the post-WWII emasculation of their traditional elitism in the name of egalitarianism. Entrance standards and tuition are kept low, and students frequently hang around aimlessly for a decade.

The once-great universities of France, such as the ancient University of Paris (Sorbonne), were similarly wrecked by adopting leftist admissions policies in response to the May 1968 student protests. The AP reported on Nicolas Sarkozy's hopes of Americanizing French higher education:

"The Sorbonne, France's most renowned university, has no cafeteria, no student newspaper, no varsity sports and no desk-side plugs for laptop users. It also costs next-to-nothing to attend, and admission is open to everyone who has finished high school."

Today, no French college makes the world top 25 and only the tiny École Normale Supérieure and the small École Polytechnique, from which the French ruling class are recruited, are in the top 100.

In contrast to the dismal damage done to European higher education by post-WWII leftism, perhaps the only great American college ruined in the name of egalitarianism was City College of New York, where the neoconservatives of the 1970s had been the Trotskyites of the 1930s. Nine future Nobel Laureates graduated from CCNY between 1933 and 1950. Sadly, as Wikipedia reports:

"During a 1969 takeover of South campus, under threat of a race riot, African American and Puerto Rican activists and their white allies demanded, among other policy changes, that City College implement an aggressive affirmative action program … The administration of CCNY at first balked at the demands, but instead, came up with an open admissions or open-access program … Beginning in 1970, the program opened doors to college to many who would not otherwise have been able to attend college, but came at the cost of City College's academic standing and New York City's fiscal health."

But, despite the leftism endemic in American higher education, practically every other famous college, such as Berkeley, home to the most notorious protests of the 1960s, had the good sense not to practice what they preached.

Rather than follow CCNY's disastrous route, they made the cheaper choice of paying off minorities with affirmative action. Simultaneously, and paradoxically, they became even more IQ elitist in choosing mainstream applicants. Today, Berkeley gets ten applications for every spot in its freshman class. The typical Berkeley freshman has a high school GPA of 4.25 on a 0 to 4 scale (an A in an Advanced Placement course counts as a 5), with an SAT score at the 94th percentile among test takers.

The top American universities now have such colossal wealth that Jim Manzi blogged at The American Scene:

"Viewed purely in terms of economics, Harvard is really a $40 billion tax-free hedge fund with a very large marketing and PR arm called Harvard University that has the job of raising the investment capital and protecting the fund's preferential tax treatment."

The prestige of Harvard and the other apex predators at the lofty pinnacle of the American educational pyramid means that the vast K-12 bottom has been infected with Harvard's values (such as abstraction and abstruseness) and rhetoric (equality uber alles)…but not, alas, Harvard's brains. Most of the K-12 educators, much less their students, aren't smart enough to get the joke. They don't understand that the IQ elitists of America are pulling the wool over their eyes when they rattle on about their purported liberal beliefs about how everybody should go to college.

They don't understand it's all a big pyramid scheme. The Harvard professors' graduate students become the UCLA professors whose graduate students become the Cal State LA professors whose students become the schoolteachers who browbeat their more gullible pupils into believing that everybody should go to college, no matter how obvious a waste of money and time it will turn out to be.

Students with below average IQs are just the cannon fodder that keeps the system churning along for the professors.

In contrast, the Europeans have kept lower education less egalitarian, and thus more effective. The shameful mediocrity of modern European higher education seems to have helped prevent the leftism espoused by European universities from infecting the rest of the educational system. While everybody wants to be Harvard Jr., nobody is excited about emulating poor old Göttingen.

In most of Germany, for example, children are still tracked, based on parents' and teachers' assessment of their academic potential, into different types of schools beginning with fifth grade. The lower kinds of schools lead to vocational training and rigorous apprenticeships. The high-quality blue-collar work force created by this system contributes mightily to the famed precision of the country's machine tools and BMWs.

Yet, to an American K-12 educator, indoctrinated in the assumption that the purpose of life is to get into Harvard, this German system seems inhumanly cruel:

"How can you permanently crush a 10-year-old's self-esteem, indeed, his very reason for existence, by telling him that he isn't smart enough to graduate from college? How can any child survive the ignominy of hearing that he will soon be able to put his books aside and start learning from master craftsmen how to build mighty machines? What kind of boy could tolerate being told that while the smarter children will be spending another decade or two huddled in the library, he will be getting paid to make Porsches?"

The German system is analogous to the famous two-track system used by most militaries: commissioned officers and enlisted. Militaries have long experience with keeping up the esprit de corps of career enlistees.

Try asking a U.S. Marine Corps sergeant with a chest full of medals how he can look himself in the mirror in the morning knowing that he'll never be on the officer track because he's not a college graduate. After he laughs in your face, he might inform you that he has better things to do with his life than spend it strapped to a desk, typing away like some poor bastard of an officer.

And, in fact, officers do spend much of their time writing. The ability to compose, say, a manual for the enlisted men on the use of a new tactic or weapon can be a key skill for candidates for officer rank.

There is one sharp difference, however, between officers and academics when it comes to writing. Academics are rewarded for making concepts as highbrow as possible.

In contrast, while every military has its jargon, officers are encouraged to make their writing as simple for enlisted men to understand as possible. Military writing, like military training, is less about status competition and more about getting the job done.

Ultimately, the American military sees "education" as being for the officers and "training" for the enlistees.

This philosophical distinction is one reason why the military is better at teaching people of average intelligence than is our vast and wasteful education industry.