Real Education

One of the best books I have read recently on education is Charles Murray's Real Education. Murray lays out four principles that ought to be clear, but very much are not, and lie at the root of the problems in education. I try in my own small way to publicize what Murray has said, in hopes that we can all spend our efforts more productively. Here are Murray's Four Principles:

  1. Ability varies
  2. Half the children are below average
  3. Too many people are going to college
  4. America's future depends on how we educate the academically gifted

It is a pretty short book, This book really subsumes almost anything else you might want to know about education in America, because many other problems are really subsets of what Murray is talking about. One example of this is The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing by Alfie Kohn. I liked the book, but it could have been vastly improved by taking into account principles 1 and 2. I suspect that the massive amounts of homework many kids are assigned is an attempt to equalize academic achievement. I also suspect that it completely backfires, since the more able kids probably have a better shot at actually completing all that homework.

A book on education that did not fall under Murray's aegis is The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn by Diane Ravitch. This book is all about what kinds of books and stories are deemed "acceptable" for public schoolchildren. It explains why the stories I had to read where so mind-numbingly boring, and also why so many of my teachers selected individual books instead of using the textbooks provided. Textbook publishers have extensive lists of subjects and words that might, possibly, conceivably, be considered offensive, and stories are commissioned to avoid those topics, and to include every possible type and kind of person. The kind of people who will write stories like this are generally not very good, and they are laboring under such strictures that they probably couldn't write an interesting story if they wanted to. To get an idea of how this works, just know that the two biggest textbook markets in the United States are Texas and California, and the textbook publishers want to sell the same books in each state. Thus they have to make a book that is incapable of raising the ire of special interest groups in two states that are complete political opposites. The best way to do this is to make stories that are completely ridiculous and boring, because if you don't say anything only curmudgeons like myself complain.

All things considered, American schools really aren't that bad. There is always room for improvement, but a great deal of sound and fury is created by failing to take principle 1 into consideration. Everytime one of the international tests such as TIMSS rolls around, there is much wailing and gnashing of teeth, but the truth is we always do just fine, especially when you consider that the countries that place highest usually don't bother try to send marginal students into a college prep track (which is where the testing takes place), and also don't try to educate large, underperforming minority groups the way the United States does. Hence, I'm not worried.

The bigger problem is probably principle 4. Murray notes that we teach children how to be nice, but not how to be good. This is especially acute for the gifted, who in in a meritocratic society will tend to rise to positions of leadership. We ought to all remember that it was the best and brighest minds who devised the financial arrangements that created a massive real estate bubble that was completely forseeable. Murray suggests that we ought to be able to figure something out, since the ethical content of most major religions and philosophies is largely identical (a fact also noted by C. S. Lewis in the The Abolition of Man ). However, I think Murray will find that this is resisted even more strongly by the existing elite than principles 1 and 2, because many people secretly believe 1 and 2 already. The reason for this is simple; even Buddhist ethics make just about all of us look really bad.

Further compounding this difficulty is the manner of teaching ethics is completely broken in the academic world. There are at least four methods of teaching ethics (primarily in the university), but only one of them even has a hope of success. First, you might discuss scenarios and attempt to reason through them (the infamous lifeboat ethics courses). This is good because it focuses on the true purpose of ethics, deciding what to do, but can be jumbled and ad hoc. Second, you can discuss the great figures of ethical theory. One can learn a lot of content in a systematic manner this way, but left unanswered is the question of which thinker is best. Third, you can look at types of ethical systems, but again this leaves the question of which system is best. Fourth, you can learn one system, from a teacher who not only knows the system, but wishes to persuade the students to adopt it.

The fourth is the one I think will work the best. The reason is that ethics is not something you know, it is something you do. All the knowledge in the world is useless unless you are prepared to do the right thing when the time comes.  One must train the will and emotions as much as, or even more than the mind. However, this is also the most controversial, because it violates the great rule of academia that no beliefs are superior to any others. I suspect that very few people really believe this, but it allows for a great deal of personal freedom, so in the academic world everyone plays along.

This may be a temporary problem, given the fact that modernity is drawing to a close, but for the present, I do not forsee the effective teaching of ethics in public schools. However, if we keep in mind principles 1 and 2, education would make a lot more sense.