Sunday, September 21, 2008

for whom the bell curve tolls

In this week's education-themed New York Times Magazine, columnist Deborah Solomon interviewed Charles Murray, the author of a new book suggesting that college is a waste of time for most Americans, who aren't smart enough to understand what they're learning.

You might remember Murray as the author of the controversial book, The Bell Curve, back in 1994. To recap, The Bell Curve purports to use statistical data to explain that people who score low on intelligence tests (who tend to be minorities) do so because of inherent, genetic differences. Today, many people who study the determinants of intelligence agree that the results of the studies used by Murray and his co-author Richard Herrnstein were seriously flawed. In particular, a number of new scientific studies, which made sure to use the proper controls, have shown that one's upbringing plays much more of a role in determining how much a person's inherited intellectual abilities can express themselves.

Back to the interview. First off, I just disagree with Murray about the premise of his book. People go to college for many reasons. No, you might not remember or truly understand all the lectures you hear, but you can say the exact same thing about any level of schooling. But more importantly, college is far more than just a place to become educated cerebrally. It's a place where many young Americans can meet people of different backgrounds outside of their home-town circle; explore various academic areas without worrying about whether or not they're going to get fired for doing a bad job; and have maturing experiences that simply don't exist outside of the college setting.

But aside from that, the most teeth-gnashing of Murray's responses came after Solomon asked him a couple of questions related to the upcoming election. First, there was:

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.

Okay, so to explain away McCain's ineptitude at scholarly pursuits, you say he was just "out drinking beer," but for other people you argue that they aren't measuring up because of genetic inferiority? Hmmm. Then, my favorite question of the day:

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?

So the man who endorses a policy of social darwinism for our education system can't see the hypocrisy of endorsing someone to be our Vice President who—for whatever reason—can't even make it through college on the first or even second try? Wow.

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