Is fatalism the alternative to romanticism?

Charles Murray's forthcoming education book looks like a humdinger, as most of his have proven to be. Like the others, this one will be provocative, heterodox, and controversial. I look forward to August when we can see the whole thing. But like any astute author, he's already dribbling out portions of it to whet appetites and create buzz.

There was the trio of controversial Wall Street Journal op-eds back in January 2007. And now there's a long, tough-minded essay in The New Criterion titled "The age of educational romanticism." It's worth your time, being smart, perceptive and honest in so many ways--and yet sorely misguided in so many others.

Murray is not the first to barbecue educational romanticism. Among his distinguished forebears is E. D. Hirsch, whose terrific 1996 book, The Schools We Need--and Why We Don't Have Them, brilliantly illuminated the strange "thoughtworld" of ed schools and educators who view children's learning as a naturalistic development more akin to the random blooming of a wild flower than the product of systematic cultivation.

Note, though, that Hirsch (and Diane Ravitch, not to mention such honorable antecedents as William Bagley and Isaac Kandel) faults educational romanticism for its misguided and ultimately ineffectual beliefs about teaching and learning. Murray's critique is very different: what he terms romantic is the belief "that just about all children who are not doing well in school have the potential to do much better." In other words, rather than dismissing feckless approaches to pedagogy, Murray faults the very expectation that well-taught youngsters can learn a great deal more than they're learning today. When educational romanticism is thus defined, Murray slips into the ranks of fatalists and determinists.

This, of course, hearkens back to his most controversial earlier work, 1994's The Bell Curve, co-authored with the late Richard J. Herrnstein. That book contended that intelligence is largely inherited and immutable; that it is unevenly distributed by socio-economic class, race and other groupings; and that this puts sharp limits on efforts to equalize opportunity and assist individuals to rise above their origins. In Murray's eyes, the common denominator of the "underclass" is that its members aren't bright enough to become anything else.

Now he is applying essentially the same analysis (and some of the same evidence) to schooling per se, contending that it's not possible to boost educational achievement very far because of the innate cognitive limits of the kids themselves. The smart learn a lot, the dumb can't learn much, and, he insists, it's folly to think that policy machinations can get around these facts of life.

The No Child Left Behind Act greatly simplified his task and lent credibility to his argument because of its noble but absurd promise that all American kids will be "proficient" in reading and math by 2014. We know why politicians say things like that (if they said "eighty percent will be proficient," they would instantly and savagely be asked "which twenty percent don't you care about?"), but I've yet to meet a single educator who thinks this promise can be kept, at least not with any reasonable definition of academic proficiency. Of course, that's part of what tempts states to set low standards and cut-scores--and why the handful that have resisted that temptation deserve much credit.

This plays right into Murray's hands. "Many laws are too optimistic," he comments, "but the No Child Left Behind Act transcended optimism. It set a goal that was devoid of any contact with reality."

His essay then offers a perceptive account of "how we got to this point," tracing naïve educationist fads (above all Gardner's "multiple intelligences") and reformer fantasies (above all, the myth that once upon a time everybody learned lots more). "A mythic view of what education used to be able to accomplish, magic bullets for raising academic performance, and sloppy inferences drawn from the theory of multiple intelligences have been enablers of educational romanticism."

I don't take issue with that. Nor with his ridiculing of NCLB's stated goal. But then he reaches the wrong conclusions, judging that there's little schools might do differently that could elevate achievement for many kids. He makes much of the fact that, when NCLB was enacted, only 30 percent of U.S. students were "proficient" according to NAEP's robust definition of that term. Where he goes wrong is in suggesting that thirty percent might be the upper boundary of what's possible.

It's true that there hasn't been much upward movement in NAEP scores since NCLB's enactment. (Okay, a little in fourth grade, especially in math.) But does that mean there could never be? Are American kids so much farther down the intelligence "bell curve" than their agemates in other lands? Gary Phillips's imaginative application of NAEP's achievement levels to the 2003 TIMSS math results found "five countries with significantly more proficient mathematics students than the United States." Yes, they're all in Asia and maybe there is something special about Asian kids and math. But at NAEP's "basic" level three European countries also surpassed the U.S. in math achievement by statistically significant margins. Are our kids dumber than the Dutch? Nobody, to my knowledge, has yet done that kind of analysis with the PISA reading-literacy results, but we know that in 2003 American fifteen-year-olds scored at almost precisely the OECD average in that subject. Not too surprising. But is it a permanent, limiting condition, as Murray seems to think? Why could U.S. kids not be reading as well as, say, those of Finland, Canada, or Australia?

Yes, hundred percent proficiency is a pipedream and only romantics--and politicians--say otherwise. But America would be a very different and a far better place if fifty or seventy or eighty percent of our children were proficient in reading and math. And those are goals I believe we could attain if we did things far differently in k-12 (and pre-k) education than we're doing them today.

Murray concludes that "educational romanticism is surely teetering on the edge of collapse." He avers that it "asks too much from students at the bottom of the intellectual pile, asks the wrong things from those in the middle, and asks too little from those at the top." He may be right about those failings, especially in their current NCLB manifestation. But we should all hope that the collapse of educational romanticism, if indeed it occurs, doesn't lead us to abandon the belief that just about all our children could and should be learning a heckuva lot more than they're learning today. And it's the responsibility of grown-ups to make that happen, not to abandon the ship.

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