Magazine article The American Conservative

The Bell Curve's Toll

Magazine article The American Conservative

The Bell Curve's Toll

Article excerpt

The Bell Curve's Toll Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, Charles Murray, Crown Forum, 416 pages

In 1950 my wife's uncle, the son of a West Side of Chicago ditch digger, won a scholarship to MIT. Back then it was unusual enough for anybody from Chicago to go all the way to Massachusetts for college that the local newspaper printed a picture of him boarding the train for Cambridge. By the 1960s, however, the spread of standardized testing had helped make it customary for elite universities to vacuum up larger and larger fractions of the country's cognitive talent. The long-term implications of this momentous change are quantified in Charles Murray's new book on the evolving American class system, Coming Apart.

The book pulls together strands of his thought going back three decades, a period during which Murray has been the model of a public intellectual. Striving to reconcile contrasting virtues, Murray has displayed a dazzling gift for sophisticated data analysis while remaining devoted to making his books as broadly comprehensible as possible. He's a social-scientific elitist and a civic egalitarian;, a libertarian and a communitarian; a truth-teller and a thinker of the utmost judiciousness.

Not surprisingly, none of these strengths have made the co-author of The Bell Curve terribly popular, especially because in the 18 years since the publication of that infinitely denounced book about the growing stratification of America by intelligence not much has happened to prove it in error. In 2012, it looks like it's Charles Murray's world and we're just living in it.

Murray isn't hated for being wrong but instead for authoritatively documenting the kinds of things that everybody uncomfortably senses are true. But Murray has never been complacent about how Americans are increasingly sorted by college admissions. Is an I.Q.-driven meritocracy compatible with the old middle-class republic that he cherishes? Part of the creative tension behind The Bell Curve was that co-authors Murray and Richard Herrnstein, the Harvard psychologist, could never quite agree on whether the growing cartelization of smart young people by elite colleges was, on the whole, good or bad for America. Herrnstein, a native New Yorker, tended to view the Ivy League's lock on native talent favorably, while Murray, a Midwestern boy who went to Harvard in 1961, worried that a Jeffersonian republic requires more geographic and cultural diversity.

The subtitle of Murray's new analysis of the deepening class chasm, The State of White America, 1960-2010, is likely to give the commentariat another case of the vapors. The term "white America" is only to be used these days with obviously hostile intent, and Murray, a loyal son of Newton, Iowa, appears suspiciously objective, even sympathetic.

Yet how can social class be tracked without isolating it from race? Class obsessed intellectuals from before the time of Marx, but interest in it faded after 1960 as race and ethnicity grabbed the spotlight And yet class still matters. So how do we make apples to apples comparisons over a half-century of rapid demographic change? Murray desnarls the data by focusing solely upon nonHispanic whites from ages 30-49. He's scoured the databases to find fair comparisons of the Eisenhower-Kennedy era to the Bush-Obama age.

Ironically, one problem with thinking about class is that the subject suffers from more fundamental vagueness than does race. We're always being told that race does not exist because races have fuzzy boundaries or because Tiger Woods belongs to more than one race. Yet the federal government collects vast quantities of statistics for use in discrimination lawsuits simply by asking people to check whichever race boxes they feel appropriate on the Census. This system is hardly perfect, but it appears to be good enough for government work.

In contrast, die Census doesn't botiier asking Americans to self-identify their class. …

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