Politics and Education; Questions & Answers

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), September 5, 2008 | Go to article overview

Politics and Education; Questions & Answers


Byline: Brendan Conway, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Do too many Americans get a liberal education? Is the very title of No Child Left Behind naive, to say nothing of the content? Those are some of the uncomfortable questions that Charles Murray, the W.H. Brady Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, addresses in the recently released Real Education: Four Simple Truths for Bringing America's Schools Back to Reality.

TWT: Real Education posits that the educational system is living a lie. Explain.

CM: Everybody pretends that every child can be anything he or she wants to be, and yet nobody really believes it. Everyone has known from first grade that some kids are smart and some kids are dumb. By fifth grade, we knew that some of our classmates weren't going to become engineers no matter how hard they studied and that some kids would be lucky if they finished high school. But if you're a politician or part of the educational establishment, you can't say such obvious truths.

Some people tell me lie is too strong a word. OK, here's a test: Politicians of both parties are constantly telling us how their plan will get more students to go to college. Tell me the last major politician you heard acknowledge that some high school graduates just aren't smart enough for college. You can't - because none of them will say it, even though everyone knows it's true. That's what I mean by living a lie.

TWT: If too many people who do not need a liberal education are heading to college anyway because employers demand it and society expects it, as you argue, what would be the optimal number of liberally educated Americans?

CM: In an ideal world, everyone would get a liberal education. It is a wonderful thing to have acquired. But start with the reality that lots of people don't want to go through the process - spending day after day studying philosophy and history and literature is not something they enjoy doing, and it's hard to make people get a liberal education if they aren't interested.

Then consider the intellectual demands. If liberal education refers to a core curriculum with demanding survey courses in history, literature, the hard and soft sciences, and the arts, then a maximum of 20 percent of the population can get a liberal education. That's not elitism. Just take a look at the books you have to be able to read and understand to get through those courses. In Real Education, I gave examples of some randomly chosen sample paragraphs from major textbooks just to remind people how hard genuine college-level material is. Then there's the advanced mathematics you need to get through the science and economics requirements that must be part of a liberal education. 20 percent is optimistic, actually. …

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