Friday, January 02, 2009


I found it increasingly puzzling during the recent election cycle that the conservative talking heads demonized intellectuals. A case in point is William Bennett dismissing fellow conservative commentator George Will as an intellectual, and by implication, having nothing useful to say. Connie Schultz [wiki] wrote a short piece about it.

Yesterday a friend sent me a link to Should the Obama Generation Drop Out?, a New York Times article from conservative think-tank The American Enterprise Institute [wiki] The irony of an organization of intellectuals criticizing intellectual life is fairly obvious, but the article actually manages to be pernicious as well as schizophrenic.

The author, Charles Murray [wiki], is of the opinion that higher education beyond a two-year degree is beyond the abilities of most Americans, and that such a degree--especially a liberal arts degree--would be lost on them anyway. In his words:
A large majority of young people do not have the intellectual ability to do genuine college-level work. [...] The core disciplines taught at a true college level are tough, requiring high levels of linguistic and logical-mathematical ability. Those abilities are no more malleable than athletic or musical talent.
After more than 20 years in the classroom, I tend to agree that there are some students in college who shouldn't be there. But the bald assertion that academic ability is not changeable seems not to be supported by the facts. Mr. Murray and his co-author Richard Herrnstein didn't even spell out this dramatic hypothesis in The Bell Curve. The development of expertise is strongly linked to how much time one spends developing it, which is in turn linked to how interested one is in gaining such expertise. I wrote about this some time ago here. Under the assumption that talent is innate and immutable, should we then conclude that countries that score higher on achievement tests naturally have a pool of more talented citizens?

It's interesting that Mr. Murray makes exception for children of wealthy parents:

The residential college leading to a bachelor’s degree at the end of four years works fine for the children of parents who have plenty of money.
Mr. Murray leaves unexplained why we should waste capacity on rich kids who lack talent. Or is it that children of well-to-do families are inherently more talented than others, and hence should be represented proportionally at a higher level? Overall, the argument sounds to me like aristocratic elitism. This is highlighted even more when considering another of his points:
My beef is not with liberal education, but with the use of the degree as a job qualification.

For most of the nation’s youths, making the bachelor’s degree a job qualification means demanding a credential that is beyond their reach.
But who is it that makes a BS or BA a job qualification? There's certainly no law against hiring graduates with less education, and such candidates would be priced comparatively cheaper. So why would a corporation seek out over-qualified employees and pay them unnecessarily high wages? If there is anything like an efficient market for talent (something you'd think the American Enterprise Institute would take on faith), then such a mispricing couldn't last for long. Rather, corporate America would quickly realize that a four year degree isn't worth the cost, and would change hiring practices accordingly. You can't have it both ways: either the degree is worth it, or somehow the employers are deluded.

There plenty wrong with the current educational system, and real complaints to be addressed. But silly anti-intellectualism and (ironic) elitism of the wealthy isn't very helpful.

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