The declining significance of Charles Murray

January 17, 2007

Charles Murray is at it again, arguing in the Wall St. Journal that native intelligence plays a greater role than anyone admits in distributing educational outcomes.

What is interesting, in my view, is how little traction Murray’s claims get today. Murray was once at the forefront of social policy, arguing that welfare creates a culture of dependency. His arguments laid the foundation for the rejection of welfare in the 1980s and 1990s. And his arguments about education and intelligence have a long historical pedigree. For centuries we based education policy on the assumption that some people were just smarter than others, and therefore deserved more resources and opportunity. Murray’s claims about native intelligence (and their correlation with race) have, for most of our nation’s history, been explicity or implicitly accepted by most people. But today Murray is increasingly viewed as somewhere between wrong and just plain wacky. As Whitney Tilson writes in his periodic e-mail, Murray is wrong because:

The key is what happens AFTER birth. There are countless factors that determine where a child ends up (both intellectually and otherwise) and it would be unfair to place the entire burden on schools, but my observation over many, many years and seeing dozens of highly successful schools is that a great school, filled with great teachers, can make an ENORMOUS difference.

Tilson’s arguments, not Murray’s, are the ones that hold policy center-stage today. And the importance of that fact should not be overlooked. Because as long as Murray’s view held sway we could simply write off the “less intelligent.”

I have some differences with Tilson. For example, I would place more emphasis (he places some, I would place more) on what goes on around schools, in homes and communities, to support kids academic and overall health and growth. But that said, I agree completely about the role that schools can play in promoting achievement. So let’s take a moment and celebrate the declining signficance of Charles Murray.


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