In her opening-night speech at the Democratic National Convention, Michelle Obama announced that her husband wouldn’t rest until every child in American received a “world class” college education. Promises, promises. And Michelle didn’t go into specifics about how exactly Barack would make this come about. (It would certainly entail an increase in federally subsidized loans). But one thing that’s fascinating about Michelle’s line is that it hardly represents a “far left” position in the contemporary political debate. It’s likely George W. Bush and John McCain will say something similar next week at the GOP convention. And it’s actually quite hard to imagine anyone taking up the other side, arguing openly that enough people go to college already or that too many are involved in higher education.
Well, somebody is doing just this. His name is Charles Murray.
There’s probably no more reviled social scientist–perhaps no more reviled American writer–than Murray. This hostility has little to do with his work on economics and welfare policy, and more with the notorious book he co-authored 14 years ago, The Bell Curve, in which he took up the old “nature vs. nurture” debate and firmly came down on the side of nature. In the process, Murray brought into questions many of the basic assumptions of modern education, including that “every child can be anything he or she wants to be if only the schools do their job properly”–what he now calls “educational Romanticism.” The Bell Curve quickly sparked much criticism–some of it legitimate, some not.
That Murray would now be arguing that fewer people should be going to college would seem to lend credence to his harshest critics’ depiction of him as an elitist, racist, pessimist, and general merchant of doom and gloom.
Well, Murray is none of these things. And even those who share Michelle Obama’s vision of universal higher ed should take a look at Murray’s reasoning for his controversial claims, put forth in his new book and a recent article in the Wall Street Journal.
First off: What is this vaunted BA anyhow? It’s true that without one, it’s nigh impossible to get a high-paying job, or even get in the door for a job interview. But then, does this mean that most employers think it necessary that all workers have spent four years of their lives in some Arcadian locale, played a little beer pong, dressed themselves in eco-friendly clothing, and taken a course on the construction of gender in Milton? Of course not. The BA serves as a kind certification that one was bright enough to “get in” and diligent enough not to flunk out. Not bad. But then for most people, is this college experience really more valuable than working for a couple of years as a manager at a small grocery or doing an apprenticeship with a master electrician? Probably not.
Until about 30 years ago, it was perfectly normal for highly successful people to lack a BA–Harry Truman and Frank Lloyd Wright being two examples among many. But now, with more and more being pushed into higher ed, anyone who didn’t graduate from college gets a rap as being stupid or lazy. And thus more and more are willing to take on debt, large loans, and generally waste four years on an educational venture that in itself might not be too valuable.
Murray’s proposals for greater emphasis on skill-certification exams and apprenticeships seems to me the makings of system that’s much better suited to average Americans–and much more practical than forcing everyone to attend a bunch of “organic chem” lectures while on a hangover.
In the past year, we’ve seen how the notion that everyone should own a home (and that the government should subsidize the whole project) has had rather bad unintended consequences and created a lot of pain for middle-class families. Political programs in which more and more Americans are pushed into taking on loans and wasting time would seem to have implications that are no less harmful. And there’s nothing elitist or deterministic about pointing out that.