Real Education by Charles Murray

Real Education: Four Simple Truths for Bringing America’s Schools Back to Reality

by Charles Murray

Recommendation: read (buy here).

Real Education

The word median is statistical: it is the point at which 50% of the observations of a thing are smaller and 50% larger. For example, according to the CIA Factbook, the median age of U.S. citizens is 37 years; thus, half the population is younger than 37, half older. Sometimes, as in Murray’s case, and in this review, the median is synonymous with average (sometimes the later implies numerical mean; the median and numerical mean are often nearly or practically equal).

We accept that some people naturally excel at sports and that others, no matter the purity of their souls, are utterly uncoordinated. For any athletic ability, half will perform below average and half above average; but the guys on the corner who play pick-up ball are not as good, and very likely will never be as good, as Michael Jordan. We also acknowledge that musical talent will shine in a few and that others will have ears of stone and will be unable to carry a simple tune. Again, half will be above average musically and half below; but the gentleman working for tips down at Joe’s Bar is unlikely to blossom into the next Vladimir Horowitz.

Everybody also knows, but not everybody admits, though most agree that you can’t say so, that some people are more intelligent than others, and some are dumber. However intelligence is measured—IQ testing is one way; imperfect, but reasonable—it will always be true that half of all people tested will measure below average; that is, half will score less than the median. This is a mathematical law and it is immutable. No amount of legislation, good will, hang wringing, cries of “——ism!”, or votes cast can ever change it.1

Very well: some are smarter than others, and while half the people are above average intelligence (and, necessarily, half below), few who successfully complete the newspaper’s Sudoku puzzle will go on, or could go on, to become particle physicists.

These facts comprise two of Murray’s simple truths: ability varies, and half of all kids are below average. Add to these the premises that college should be difficult and that universities should not be in the business (or in business) of training students for a trade, plus that this country’s welfare is important, it follows that too many people are going to college and that the future of this country depends on how we educate the academically gifted. These are Murray’s third and fourth simple truths. They are simple, too; but lack of complexity does not imply lack of importance, as we shall see.

Ability varies

There are different kinds of abilities—athletic, music, social, and the more academic linguistic and logico-mathematical skills. Murray details Howard Gardner’s fine gradations of human facility, and while these are interesting, Murray’s thesis does not hinge on these ability-boundaries being precise or well defined, nor is it important that there is substantial overlap between the classes, a correlation which in any case is not complete: we all know the jock who can thread through a throng of touch tackles but whose mind is not “teeming with a lot o’ news” about the hypotenuse.

It is true that each person exhibits different aptitudes for each ability, but the “truth that people may possess many different abilities is unthinkingly transmuted into an untruth: that everyone is good at something.” Because somebody is bad a math does not mean that they will sing or golf well. There is no such thing as a “compensation” of talent. Lacking ability in one area is just that: a lack of talent. Further, because abilities correlate, below average performance in one area usually—but not always—means below average performance in another. As mentioned, athletic talent is only weakly correlated with the more academic skills. Even so, there is a differentiation in intellectualism between, say, quarterbacks and linesman (The NFL routinely gives IQ tests; minimum scores are required for some positions).

Half of everybody is below average

Our dodging half back might be brought, by rote, to recall Pythagoras’s gem, but no amount of effort will bring him to the point where he is able to grasp differentiating a sine function, or why he would want to. And this is true for most kids who are below average: strenuous effort can help, but everybody has a ceiling.

Now for some flattery: in Stephen Goldberg’s Fads and Fallacies in the Social Sciences he surmises that anybody who reads his book is not “mentally intimate” with anybody with an IQ less than 100 (the arbitrarily set average). Murray similarly compliments his readers, and I will, too. The fact that you have read this far makes it overwhelmingly likely your IQ is above average, and very probably in the upper quartile. Because of this, it is the case that most readers will not be familiar with what below average means, so Murray provides examples.

One is from a standard test for eighth-graders:

Example 1.There were 90 employees in a company last year. This year the number of employees increased by 10 percent. How many employees are in the company this year?

This was a multiple-choice question (5 possible answers) which 38 percent got right. But that 38 percent overestimates how many kids know the answer, because some kids simply guess correctly. Others, a much smaller fraction, will know the right answer but mistakenly mark an incorrect one. There are various methods to estimate how many kids actually do know the right answer: a common one gives 22 percent. That is, only about one in every five kids knows how to answer this question. Add the knowledge that teachers drill students in these standard tests, and the actual rate of student ability must be lower than even this.

Incidentally, once computers become even more widely available, I wonder if we can eject multiple-choice questions and require proper answers, which make for little chance for ambiguity in grading (many kids might be able to narrow down the list of correct answers, so multiple-choice tests overestimate ability to some extent).

Murray is quick to point out that these rates are not usually because of poor teaching (he does acknowledge the small percentage of poor, mostly urban, schools that need to be fixed)—curiously, teacher’s unions have not adopted this argument—and that “schools have no choice but to leave many children behind.”

Again, everybody willingly admits that, say, athletic ability varies, but only “for logico-mathmematical ability are we told that we can expect everybody to do well.” No matter what, some kids are just not smart enough to perform at “grade level”—unless grade level is defined down, and down, and further down. Some programs exist that might boost kids’ performance; but this is a thin might. Murray details several organizations such as Head Start and notes their inability to raise performance more than a meager amount or permanently—it is an interesting digression well worth reading.

The oddest thing we have done as a nation is to succumb to the “educational romanticism” that all kids can be above average, and so have passed the No Child Left Behind Act. One fascinating example for this romantic belief appeals to the days of yore. We have all seen the lesson plans kids used in these Good Old Days. Chaucer in elementary school! Euclid for breakfast! Can we not, through sheer grit, return to this ideal state (a black thread that has been with us since the French Revolution has been the belief that humanity is perfectible)? This myth of past perfection arose “because schools a hundred years ago did not have to educate many of the least able.” Now, of course, nearly all kids are in school, and so the lesson plans must be adapted to accommodate kids of all abilities and not just teach to those who can quote Shakespeare or divide by fractions in their heads.

Too many go to college

“If surviving to a diploma is the definition of ‘cope with college-level material,’ then almost anyone can do it if he shops for easy courses in an easy major at an easy college. But as soon as we focus on college-level material traditionally defined, the requirements become stringent.” About half of all high school graduates propel themselves to college. Murray suggests that only about 10 percent of these kids would have the ability to survive traditional courses.

Most students take away a mishmash of half-understood information and outright misunderstandings that probably leave them under the illusion they know something they do not.

It is obvious that all who now matriculate cannot handle the math required of science work, but how about the reading for humanities courses? Murray claims that most do not comprehend the assigned readings; they “take away a mishmash of half-understood information and outright misunderstandings that probably leave them under the illusion they know something they do not.” Again, examples from texts in history, art, economics, philosophy, etc. are given. The passages are difficult, but the proof of this is merely presumed. How can we know that these samples are too difficult? College grades are, of course, only a weak indication of ability; at least, nowadays, with rampant grade inflation. So we have to draw on our experiences as teachers, or if you aren’t one, you’ll have to take our word for it: many kids in college can’t read well, and many more don’t bother to read much.

This is partially because they haven’t acquired the habit before arriving at college. Murray contrasts items from E.D. Hirsch’s “Core Knowledge” with the actual curriculum where his kids attend school. The Core would have students learn, for example, about ecosystems, the food chain, etc. His school instead requires students explain “that making choices about the environment has consequences of varying degrees.” The Core’s astronomy: “galaxies, planetary motion & its effects on seasons, gravity…” His school: “Explain ‘subsystem’ as it refers to a system that is part of another system.” This was the most depressing section of the book. But Murray is careful to defend teachers: they might be being asked to teach this kind of silliness, but most do a good job, and, anyway, the silliness arises partly because most students cannot do the heaving lifting required to understand topics like gravity.

We must also remember that some people who have the ability to assimilate a rigorous college education simply don’t want to, and that that is fine. The philosopher David Stove was often fond of saying that learning requires leisure, quiet, and libraries. Colleges can at least boast of the last: the first is there, but not in the sense Stove meant it. Quiet is now more precious than truffles, and as hard to find. And consider: learning is an odd thing. The disinterested pursuit of knowledge is not everybody’s idea of time well spent.

Thus college as it should be—the acquisition of a liberal education—is too hard, but kids are still enrolling, and in every increasing numbers, so what are the consequences? They cannot all be flunked out. Instead, we see the springing forth of courses like “Survey in World Cinema”, “Love and Money”, “Campus Culture and Drinking”, and (yes, God help us) “Rock Music from 1970 to Present.” Cornell offers a “degree” in hotel management. College is, in two words, dumbed down. An administrator at Duke said, “We’ve run out of classroom space between ten a.m. and two-thirty p.m. Tuesday through Thursday.” Scheduling a class on Friday or “demanding” students turn in high-quality work might bring bad teaching evaluations, and who needs the grief?

Kids aren’t stupid, of course. They know, and their parents know, that a “degree”—not, I must emphasize, acquired knowledge—is a requirement for entry into higher society: many business require a “degree.” Then there is the whining cry of “Equality!” hurled by those who have discovered college is a “right”; thus, their demand that all should go. Curiously, it is these people who most look down their stuffy noses at non-“degree” holders.

Murray offers his familiar economic analysis: for many kids who are not as intellectually able, but who are skilled in other abilities, college is a poor choice. There is more money to be made as a master electrician than as a cubicle-bound middle manager. Murray’s solution is to institute certification tests, much like the CPA or actuarial exams. That is, businesses should not demand a “degree” but should instead require demonstrated knowledge. (Shocking!) All other things equal, Hilton Corp. might still hire the Cornell Hotel School graduate over a self-taught certificate holder. But Hilton might equally well opt for the self-taught student whose certification score is higher and because that student evinced greater motivation by not choosing to prolong his adolescence for four years.

One way of brining this about is to have many institutions revert back to the trade, training, or teachers schools they were before the college craze began. Trade schools can impart marketable skills faster than colleges and for less money. Plus, their students won’t be required to master material they do not enjoy nor understand. Since many colleges are going the way of businesses—treating students as “customers” and, it follows, professors as “customer service representatives”—changing over won’t be difficult for them to do.

Our future depends on our brightest

Like it or not, there is, and always will be, an “unelected elite” at the top of society. Members of this group are “already smart. [They] needs to be wise.” For them, a classic liberal educated is warranted. And desperately needed. Think of journalists: “We all have to rely on the quality of information we get from the media—and, as of today, the quality is terrible.”

Murray wants a return to the ideas of the good, virtue, and humility. He does not define them—they do not need to be defined, we know of what he speaks. He wants a retreat from the stultifying ideas of “nonjudgmentalism” and feel-goodism. He tells us that California “went so far as to establish a task force on self-esteem.” It found that many “if not most, of the major problems plaguing society have roots in the low self-esteem of many of the people who make up society.” We all know where self-esteem has led us. Since the education of our elite is crucial, and our system now is poor, it is better to begin fresh.

Teachers should assess every kids’ ability and base what is taught on those assessments (which should, of course, be repeated to minimize placement error). Yes, we should discriminate. Smarter kids and less-smarter kids will both get an education designed for them—and not have to suffer through a one-size-fits-all curricula. To anticipate: “When children of widely varying abilities are mixed in classes, their differences are highlighted, not obscured.” And, anyway, kids always know who is who, even if adults pretend they do not.

Move less academically able kids to classes which teach them a living. Bring back shop class; teach business skills, and so on. Strictly “enforce punctuality and attendance,” the real skills many business are after. Recognize that not all kids will or should go to college. Eliminate the “misbegotten, pernicious, wrong-headed idea that not going to college means you are a failure. It deforms the behavior of all the actors in America’s high schools—principals, teachers, guidance counselors, students, and parents.”

Above all, expunge educational romanticism which assures us that all kids are above average, or could be if only this or that program were in place. Everybody has a potential and should strive to reach it, but remember that the Army’s slogan is “Be all you can be” and it is not “You can be all.”


1There are, sadly, many instances of politicians declaiming that 50% of the population earns less than the median income, and that under their tenure they will correct this shocking imbalance.


  1. I agree with pretty much all of this. But the problem has always been: how do you get from where we are to where we should be? The path to here seems clear: a combination of bad ideology and government subsidy of tertiary education got the whole degree-as-a-job-ticket going in the first place. A reversal would at the least require full user-pays for tertiary education, but I can’t see that every being politically feasible.

  2. Bernie

    Like Stephen I have difficulty seeing a solution given current expectations on the part of students and parents for access to college. College for many is a consumer good, not an investment good. It is more a rite of passage than a commitment to learning. But that said, it is hard to see how it can be changed.

    At this point we may need to come up with the equivalent of the bar exam – but the real waste of time occurs in majors where such a certification process makes little sense.

  3. stan

    The solution lies in the slow changing of consumer expectations. It starts by challenging the assumption that everyone should go to college. It continues by working toward better vocational options in public high schools and stressing the desirability of same. Like most public attitude changes, it will take a while and need every nudge it can get.

  4. Joe

    The observations are accurate, and presently the training offered by colleges and universities is often useless for the less-than-academically-inclined, but I expect the response of those institutions will be to start delivering trades training of the classical kind, albeit, perhaps, with inflated course names. In my town there is a college which offers 1st and 2nd year university courses with transfer credits, masters degrees in some subjects (mostly to working adults upgrading their credentials) and a panoply of trades training courses like industrial first aid, power mechanics, and heavy equipment operation.

  5. Briggs


    Looks like I was wrong about colleges having libraries. Some are going a no-book route.

    “When you hear the word ‘library,’ you think of books,” Alliy [a student] said. “But very few students actually read them. And the more we use e-books, the fewer books we have to carry around.”

    Jemmel Billingslea, an 18-year-old senior, thought about the prospect of a school without books. It didn’t bother him.

    “It’s a little strange,” he said. “But this is the future.”

  6. I pretty much agree with all of this.

    You might want to fix your wayward apostrophe in, “every kids’ ability”.

  7. One aspect of this situation that I most admire in Murray’s analysis is his recognition that truly intellectually-gifted students need (deserve) special attention. Just as top athletes get one-on-one attention from highly paid (and recruited) coaches, so too should the very smartest students get special attention.

    Currently universities don’t do this. The smartest kids get A’s and possibly a small stipend, but they are not singled out for special attention from high caliber educators. Professors teach to the room, not to the most gifted students. Universities alienate the gifted as much as they alienate the sub-par students.

  8. Briggs


    And then we have this story from England. “Universities could have to advertise how many lectures and seminars they provide following a wave of student protests over cutbacks. They may be made to publish detailed information about teaching time, examination methods and job prospects.”

  9. John Galt

    I agree with most of the discussion. Certainly, far more citizens attend college than need to. Part of the problem that isn’t mentioned is the failure of our secondary schools. Although there certainly is a limit to each students capacity, I don’t think we’re getting anywhere close for the average student. A good high school education should qualify most citizens for most vocations. One of the problems is that it doesn’t, causing many empolyers to look for college graduates for simple routine jobs. Even someone with a major that ends in “studies” can probably read, write and do simple artithmatic, something many H.S. graduates can’t, but should be able to do.

    I’ve had a several experiances tutoring students who were trying to pass the G.E.D, or take a college math placement exam. I have no training in education, my education has been in Physics and Math. Still, I’ve been suprisingly sucessful with every student I’ve tried to help. My simple approach has been to have the student do a sample test, with “show your work” notes on the side. I then go through sample, asking for futher explaination where I see a problem. I have always found that the student lacked some problem with fairly simple math, dividing fractions a very common failing, also, decimals and percentages a common problem. None of the students I have worked with have failed to master these concepts after 2 to 3 hours of work. These are students who have spent untold hours in middle school and high school classes that should have covered this. It seems to me that there is far to much tendancy to simply give the student a poor (but passing) grade and move on. Not understanding these simple concepts completely derails any further mathematical education for the student. Now, the students I have worked with were all very motivated by the time they asked me for help, which certainly is a major help. Their past failure may have been lack of motivation, but it wasn’t lack of ability.

    I would think that interactive computer driven testing could quickly and easily sort out each student’s weakness and map out remedial tutoring. This would not be testing to to assign a grade, it would be diagnostic. I have seen three children pass through the educational system and yet to see this approach taken. BTW, all three have graduated from college, one from law school.

    I think that what I would characterize as pre-algebra math is adaquate for most citizens and achievable by 90 -95 %. We don’t come close to that in our secondary schools.

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