Look at Charles Murray’s career and you’ll find that he has produced important books in each of the past four decades. This long-time fellow at the American Enterprise Institute is best known as a social scientist, from his early work Losing Ground to his 2012 book Coming Apart (which I reviewed for the Martin Center). But for a sample of his range, look at his 2004 book Human Accomplishment, which explores achievement in the arts and sciences for the past three thousand years. I also recommend Murray’s rarest book, Apollo: The Race to the Moon (co-written with Catherine Bly Cox), a 1989 look at the Apollo missions from the viewpoint of engineers that has some excellent writing.
My colleague Jacqueline Pfeffer Merrill reviewed Murray’s most recent book, By The People, for Philanthropy Daily in 2015. So I decided to read an earlier book of his, Real Education: Four Simple Truths for Bringing America’s Schools Back to Reality, published in 2008. Anyone interested in education reform will find a great deal of insight in Murray’s book.
Although it is nearly a decade old, Real Education has not dated, with one exception. Murray speculates that Google Books and similar programs would make university libraries obsolete. But limitations placed on Google as a result of copyright lawsuits make Google Books more like an index than a bookshelf substitute. Google Books often provides very good leads, but it helps you find things in a library, not act as a library substitute. In addition, few databases have entries before 1985, so if you’re looking up an article from 1984, you still need to go to the shelf and look at a bound volume.
Murray focuses on four "simple truths": 1) children have different abilities to learn, 2) realizing that half of all students are below average, 3) recognizing that most students shouldn’t be in college, and 4) re-organizing education for gifted students so that they will be better prepared to enter the labor force.
“We are unrealistic about students at every level of academic ability,” Murray writes, “asking too much from those at the bottom, asking the wrong things from those in the middle, and asking too little from those at the top.”
Murray’s first two topics are largely about IQ, the subject of his most famous book, The Bell Curve (co-written with R.J. Herrnstein). Here he is making a gentler point: that many children are below average in academic ability, and they’ll never catch up to the top achievers. The idea that the bottom half of schools will ever have academic abilities equal to the top half, much less the top ten percent, is “educational romanticism,” and the road to successfully reforming the schools has to take in that fact.
He then looks at what the purpose of college should be. He takes the view that college at its best should be a “quasi-work situation”—writing papers or completing other assignments for professors should be a prelude to finishing assignments for a boss in the office. He also wants grades to actually mean something, and wishes more professors had the toughness of legendary Harvard government professor Harvey C. Mansfield, known for generations as “Harvey C-Minus” because that is his favorite grade.
But the problem is that most humanities students prefer to think of college as a stroll rather than basic training. Murray Sperber in his painfully accurate Beer and Circus portrayed far too many college students’ lives as three days of classes, getting liquored up on Fridays, tailgating for the game on the weekend, and drying out on Mondays. That is certainly fun but hardly a way to prepare for a career.
The science and engineering majors, by contrast, don’t slack off in college and emerge from school with credentials that tell employers they have undergone useful training. Murray likes certifications, with the CPA exam his beau ideal, since someone who passes this grueling four-part exam tells an employer that he is a competent accountant. If more professions required certifications, he argues, than students would spend less time partying and more time acquiring the skills they need to have a successful career. The only people hurt by certification exams, he argues, are students in top-tier schools “who are actually coasting through their courses and would score poorly on a certification test. This is an outcome devoutly to be wished.”
Finally, Murray proposes a college curriculum for the top ten percent preparing to enter the cognitive elite. The two classes that would differ from the traditional liberal arts curriculum are a deeper study of the nature of virtue, with emphasis on understanding what “a good life” means, and more knowledge of statistics than most college humanities majors possess.
He offers one proposal for philanthropists. Someone—he suggests the Walton Family Foundation—should fund a $100 million, 15-20 year experiment where students with low IQs (in the 80-95 range) are given the best education public schools can provide so that we can see if “the best elementary education anyone knows how to provide” can help those in the lower third of academic ability do better in school than they would with less gold-plated education. Such an experiment, which probably would cost $150 million today, might settle once and for all the question about whether or not gilt-edged education methods can dramatically approve student achievement for lower-performing students, particularly in math and reading comprehension.
Murray argues that this proposal might not necessarily result in new ideas for helping low-performing students achieve. But “there is immense value just in establishing the outer limits of what can be accomplished” in ways to help less able students succeed “with the current state of knowledge.”
The goal of education, Murray concludes, should be to figure out what students are good at and then encouraging them to pursue the careers in which they are skilled “at the outermost limits of their potential. The goal applies to every child, across the entire range of every ability. There are no first-class and second-class ways to enjoy the exercise of our realized capabilities.”
 The American Enterprise Institute has been a client since 1990, most recently in 2016 when I provided research under contract to AEI for six months. I do not currently have any contracts with AEI.