Apparently National Review has a series of short interviews with authors of newly released books. Yesterday I ran into this one with Charles Murray about his new book on education. (I wrote a bit about a Murray WSJ column discussing his proposals in this post.) It's just a ten minute interview, and it's worth a quick listen if you get the chance.
This is the sort of thing that can easily feed Darwin dinnertime conversation, though the girls can get a bit antsy when we spend too much time discussing topics other than princesses and dinosaurs. Murray proposes four "simple truths" about education, two of which are "Ability varies" and "Half of the children are below average".
Both of these are obviously true (at least, outside of Lake Wobegon) and yet I wonder if focusing on them can lead us to give up on far too many people far too early. Murray argues that only 30% of students are capable of ever meeting the standards for math and reading set forth in No Child Left Behind. Not being a fan of Left Behind novels or legislation, I'm not familiar with the reading and math standards involved, but I'm a bit dubious that any significant portion of the population is inherently unable to perform at what we would consider a decent high school level of reading, writing and math. (Though I'm willing to admit, this may be the result of imposing the experiences and abilities of myself and those I know on lots of people that I don't.)
Apropos of that, I also ran into yesterday this article from the American Thinker entitled "Why Shakir Can't Read". (Avoid the comments, they can lower your intelligence.)
One hopes that what the article describes is an exaggeration or is at least rare, but one fears that it is not. It wouldn't surprise me if, by age nine, or even age six, a child raised amidst instability and neglect, never read to and left to amuse himself with television and whatever action he can find on the streets of the 'hood, has been rendered unable to progress (at least without effort more intensive than most schools will ever be capable of giving) beyond a certain point. So maybe its problems like the ones Shakir faces in the article that create the 70% unable to meet standards that Murray talks about.
However it strikes me that although there is a real, inherent educational attainment limit for people, what we are generally seeing in current statistics is a created limit which results from bad parenting, bad culture and bad schools. And so while Murray is doubtless right that there is a limit beyond which it is not possible to push people, it does seem to me that there is still room for broad-based improvements in education if we manage to clean up American cultural attitudes (and particularly those of some sub-cultures in America) towards education -- and also refocus our schools on real teaching.
While there are doubtless limits (both inherent and created through early mis-formation) to educational attainment, I can't help fearing that focusing too much on them encourages us to only solve some problems (like better education for the "gifted") and not others like our overall cultural attitudes toward education, the family and child rearing.