Higher Education Impartially Considered

Charles Murray, W.H. Brady Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and co-author of The Bell Curve (1994) had a provocative series of essays in the Wall Street Journal last week.

  • Intelligence in the Classroom: “Our ability to improve the academic accomplishment of students in the lower half of the distribution of intelligence is severely limited. … [T]he numbers used to indict the public schools are missing a crucial component. For example, in the 2005 round of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), 36% of all fourth-graders were below the NAEP’s ‘basic achievement’ score in reading. It sounds like a terrible record. But we know from the mathematics of the normal distribution that 36% of fourth-graders also have IQs lower than 95.”
  • What’s Wrong with Vocational School? “[I]t makes sense for only about 15% of the population, 25% if one stretches it, to get a college education. And yet more than 45% of recent high school graduates enroll in four-year colleges. … They are in college to improve their chances of making a good living. What they really need is vocational training. But nobody will say so, because ‘vocational training’ is second class. ‘College’ is first class.”
  • Aztecs vs. Greeks: “[T]he 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. … Our future depends crucially on how we educate the next generation of people gifted with unusually high intelligence. [Mr. Murray’s emphasis.] … 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.”

Just one thought: education of the vocational or professional kind, such as Mr. Murray recommends, is a specific investment. That is, it is irrevocable – like a power plant built next to a particular mine head.

As Mr. Murray rightly points out, a degree in English, communications, international relations, sociology, psychology, history, or even economics “certifies nothing” – it’s merely a signal for employers. While graduates in mathematics and the hard sciences are committed to careers in medicine or engineering, humanities majors are much more portable precisely because they certify nothing. Like a floating power plant, a humanities major is non-specific: the holder can leave for a more favorable market without abandoning a large sunk cost.

Perhaps some humanities majors would not invest in human capital unless it was portable. Like power plants in developing nations, these investments would never be made unless their risk could be reduced. Colleges oblige with majors that commit graduates to no particular career.

Portable human capital (e.g. the humanities), then: (i) encourages human capital investment and (ii) helps cushion and smooth economic displacement. Both effects should offset in part the waste that Mr. Murray disparages.

UPDATE: Author and journalist David Shenk argues pretty much the opposite of Mr. Murray at his new blog.


2 Responses to “Higher Education Impartially Considered”

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    […] Zeal and Activity Religion, politics, business, books, and music. « Higher Education Impartially Considered […]

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