TCS Daily

For Whom the Bell Curves: America's Education Dilemma

By Arnold Kling - January 22, 2007 12:00 AM

" makes sense for only about 15% of the population, 25% if one stretches it, to get a college education. And yet more than 45% of recent high school graduates enroll in four-year colleges...

What they really need is vocational training. But nobody will say so."
-- Charles Murray

I believe that education is ripe for reform, and I agree with Charles Murray that there is a mismatch between the mission and practices of the typical college and the needs of many students. However, in many respects, I find his diagnosis and recommendations too simplistic. He argues for limiting educational expectations for children with modest IQ levels and for reviving the notion of a "classical education" for the elite.


Murray's analysis is contained in a three-part series in the Wall Street Journal. The quote above is from part two. See also part one and part three.

Murray's analysis reflects IQ-ism. That is, it reduces human talent to a one-dimensional measure, IQ.

One problem with IQ-ism is that it does not explain how people come to acquire particular talents, in chess or art or salesmanship. If one really takes seriously the one-dimensional concept of IQ, then the clay of a high-IQ child could be molded into a genius in any field. Yet many otherwise-talented people are severely limited in some dimensions. Even within a specific subject such as mathematics, different sub-fields come more easily to different experts. I am willing to talk about IQ as a measure of general ability. That does not make it the measure of ability.

There is a role for practice and dedication. A New York Times Magazine article by Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt reports on research by Anders Ericsson and colleagues on expert performance.

Their work, compiled in the "Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance," a 900-page academic book that will be published next month, makes a rather startling assertion: the trait we commonly call talent is highly overrated. Or, put another way, expert performers — whether in memory or surgery, ballet or computer programming — are nearly always made, not born. And yes, practice does make perfect.

Even taking IQ as a one-dimensional measure of ability, Murray's analysis is skewed. He tends to treat IQ as if it were a measure of one's capacity to hold knowledge, like the volume of a container. According to Murray, a high-IQ jar can hold advanced physics. A low-IQ jar can only hold, say, 4th-grade mathematics.

The container metaphor implicit in Murray's essays could be misleading. Instead, IQ might be a measure of the speed with which someone can absorb knowledge, rather than a measure of how much they can absorb. A high-speed car will get to the destination faster, but a low-speed car will still get there, if given enough time.

If the jar metaphor is correct, any resources devoted to trying to teach calculus to an average-IQ student are wasted. However, if the car metaphor is correct, and it is really important to teach calculus to the average-IQ student, then we should be putting more resources into doing so.

The economic approach to education would be to maximize benefits minus costs. Murray's IQ-ism implies that this can be achieved by strictly matching the complexity of subjects taught to the IQ of the student. However, his prescription may be wrong if ability is multi-dimensional or if the jar metaphor is incorrect.

Typists and TV Repairmen?

Murray claims that many students go to college who are not capable of handling the material that is taught there. This is indeed a problem, one that I have noted as well. However, it is not clear that vocational school is the answer. The challenge is that we live in a rapidly-evolving economy, so that vocations are not stable.

Thirty years ago, a vocational school for typists or for TV repairmen would have made sense. Many professionals used secretaries for typing, and many people took broken televisions to the shop for repair. However, not many people could have spent their entire careers doing typing or TV repair. Today, people throw out broken televisions (unless they are under warranty), and most people do their own typing on computers.

Granted, it is better to train people for specific occupations than to have them waste four years earning what I call the "Wizard of Oz" diploma. However, in a dynamic economy, we have to recognize that vocational school is far from a panacea.


Historically, European and Japanese youth were subjected to very severe tracking. An exam taken in one's early teens would determine whether the person is destined for higher education or for trade school. What Murray is suggesting strikes me as similar.

Formal tracking is distasteful, for a number of reasons. First, I believe that it is better to have multiple, competing elites than to go the route of having an "upper class" and a "lower class." Disparate elites are more easily penetrated by outsiders, which is important. Disparate elites also provide natural checks and balances. A unified elite would be a frightening proposition.

Second, the American narrative rests on equal opportunity. We know that people are born with advantages and disadvantages, but we like to think that we provide reasonable chances for people to overcome disadvantages and move up the social and economic ladder. Making college accessible to as many people as possible may represent a misguided attempt to err on the side of providing opportunities for upward mobility that are not realistic. However, formal tracking policies err in the other direction, by restricting opportunity. As an American, I see holding someone down with an artificial ceiling as a much more serious offense than extending a futile helping hand that fails to lift someone up.

Exploring Alternatives

I would like to see more students and parents exploring alternatives to standard K-12 education and college. Government funds and alumni contributions go to the entrenched establishment. Innovators are starved for funds.

The best sign of a vibrant education sector would be more institutional failure. With sufficient competition and innovation, we would see colleges and universities fold or merge at the same rate as ordinary businesses. We would see schools shut down because parents send their children elsewhere. We would see large layoffs in some school systems, with hiring taking place among successful start-ups.

I do not know what education models would emerge in a dynamic market. However, unless human ability is as rigid and one-dimensional as Charles Murray presumes, a dynamic market would produce diverse educational methods and opportunities rather than tracking into an educational hierarchy.


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