Thursday, May 08, 2008

Charles Murray on a modern education heresy

I've always said that a couple years in teacher's college is as good as a lobotomy, and the woolly-headed thinking about human nature that gets propagated there is the major cause of our education woes.

One of the unquestioned dogmas that gets passed on to each successive generation of teachers is that "every child can learn at high levels". This was one of the mantras of the Kentucky Education Reform Act of 1990, one of the most sweeping education measures ever approved by a state. And in the early 1990s, it was considered heretical to question it. All children are equal, and all have equal natural capabilities.

Charles Murray is the perfect person to address this issue, as he does in this article, with his background in dealing with the issue of nature and nurture, a debate the fire of which he threw a great deal of gasoline on in the late 1990s in his book The Bell Curve. Murray just reported the data, and the liberal media proceeded to do two things: either scream bloody murder, or stick their collective heads in teh sand.

What made the news was the very brief section in the book about intelligence and race, a rather unremarkable part of the book anyway. The real point of the book was to report what the evidence tells us about how both nature and nurture affect who we are and what we become. Murray and Herndon, the co-author, delivered the common sense conclusion that nature determined from 40-60 percent of what we become intellectually, and nurture the rest.

In this essay, Murray asks why it is that the education establishment just simply ignores this fact. I'll have more to say about it in the weeks to come.

15 comments:

Motheral said...

I've always said that a couple years in teacher's college is as good as a lobotomy, and the woolly-headed thinking about human nature that gets propagated there is the major cause of our education woes.

Have you ever been able to back up what you've "always said" with a factual or logical case -- or even offer a specific testable hypothesis?

Given the mind-boggling ignorance you've displayed in the arguments you've made on your blog; given the ease with which us college-educated folks (even people like me, who squeaked by on a gentleman's C) have debunked your arguments and sent you scrambling to change the subject; and given your shamelessly stated disregard for the truth or falsehood of some of the positions you've tried to defend; you're really not in any position to belittle higher education.

Murray and Herndon, the co-author, delivered the common sense conclusion that nature determined from 40-60 percent of what we become intellectually, and nature the rest.

That sounds true if, and ONLY if, our family/home environments are counted as "nature," which they are clearly not. (Oh, and you need to edit your posts a bit more dilligently -- reread the above paragraph of yours and you'll see what I'm talking about.)

Martin Cothran said...

Motheral,

Are you saying that the only means to truth is through the confirmation of specific testable hypotheses?

You are correct, of course, about my using "nature" when I meant "nurture".

And I don't know what to say about your repeated claims that my statements have been "debunked" other than I'm happy to see you so giddy as you shake your pom-poms on my blog and cheer for the home team.

Motheral said...

You are correct, of course, about my using "nature" when I meant "nurture".

In which instance? You use "nature" twice, when it's clear you meant "nature" in one instance and "nurture" in the other.

Martin Cothran said...

Motheral,

I changed it, but why would it matter which was which? If one is 40-60, then the other is 60-40, right?

Motheral said...

If it doesn't matter to you which is the 60 and which the 40, then that's a pretty shabby and slipshod argument you've got. Are you even sure about those numbers? And where did those numbers come from anyway? Murray's bum?

Quite frankly, in lieu of actual proof of specific genetic causes of specific traits, I strongly suspect that there are a lot of environmantal factors (a.k.a. "nurture") that are passed from generation to generation (such as abusiveness, alcoholism, disregard for education, poorly developed rational faculties) to the point where they LOOK like genetically inherited traits. Then people like you and Murray look at people with these traits and say "They're born that way, it's in their blood, nothing we can do" as an excuse not to care or make an effort to improve their conditions.

Martin Cothran said...

Motheral,

Ever heard of The Bell Curve? In fact, I could have sworn that I referenced it in this post. That's what the whole, very thick book is about. Just loaded with data.

Apparently you haven't read it, but I'm sure that won't stop you from making what you think is an informed judgment about it.

Art said...

So, Martin, what hard data in The Bell Curve shows that intelligence is heritable? Please be specific.

Please don't avoid the question - you're claiming in your blog entry that intelligence is heritable, so much so that 50% or so of one's innate intelligence is genetically based. That's your claim - back it up with some specifics from the book.

Also, please be careful to understand and correctly describe heritability. This is at the core of your insinuations, and all of your claims on this issue are going to be pretty vacuous if you don't really know what this is.

Martin Cothran said...

Art,

You're not serious are you? I gave the reference to Murray's book, and said that was his finding. That was my claim. If you have a problem with Murray's claim, THEN GO READ THE BOOK. I have absolutely no intention of doing it for you.

I really don't mean to be rude here, but if you don't believe the fairly common sense notion that we are about half nature and half nurture, that's fine, but it's your problem, not mine.

If you disbelieved that the earth went round the sun, it's not my responsibility to go gather the evidence for you after you get on my blog and demand that I do it. I really have better things to do.

The book is probably in your library. Mosts libraries are open on Sunday. Have fun.

Art said...

Martin, my claim is that The Bell Curve does not provide data that establishes the sort of heritability that you are suggesting. Since my claim is that this data does not exist, I cannot (logically) point to the parts of the book that have this stuff.

Am I wrong? You can show us all, Martin, by spelling out my error. Chapter and verse, as it were. But remember that I'm speaking about heritability. Vague correlations with race or ethnicity don't cut it (as any geneticist would tell you). I want you to relate to your audience the data that speak specifically to this - structure of the populations used to study heritability, controls, and the like.

(I know I'm asking a tough question, and an unfair one. It's unfair because the answer isn't to be found in the book. It's also fair because I believe that you, Martin, haven't an inkling of what I am talking about. Even though my question cuts to the heart of the matter here.)

Martin Cothran said...

Art,

Actually, I think I do see what you are saying here. I can't lay my hands on my copy, and I was referring to the book from memory, but what I expect you are going to say is that the book does not argue for heritability. That, in fact, it assumes it in the process of arguing about social implications of it.

Once again, I haven't checked it, but I suspect you are right here. I think Murray uses those figures in the book (possibly at the end when he is discussing policy implications?), but does not actually present data for them.

And I was so cheeky in my last response too (a certain other commenter has me trigger-happy).

So, I think I'll have to tip my hat to you on this one. Note, however, that although my statement, "delivered the common sense conclusion that nature determined from 40-60 percent of what we become intellectually" (they did not show it, they drew out its policy implications if I recall) is misstated, I don't think that affects the main point of the post.

If you think it does, maybe we can argue about that (and hopefully I'll come out better than I did on this particular point)

Art said...

Hi Martin,

The matter about heritability is more subtle than you will get from the Bell Curve, and it calls into question some of your claims on this blog. The fact is, intelligence does have a heritable component. Whether this component explains the observations spelled out in the Bell Curve is not clear, but many other studies suggest the answer is no. (Of course, I'm referring to the notion that race and intelligence are in some way correlated - any trends that one may see are probably not genetically-based, at least if one considers other studies apart from dealing with intelligence that compare different races.)

More to the point, the scientific factor here is the contribution that "nature" and "nurture" makes to the spread of performance (in populations) on tests that are used to measure intelligence. The data are pretty clear - "nurture" contributes as much (if not more) to the spread as "nature". This means that it is not appropriate, for example, for an educational professional to tell a group of parents that a particular proportion of their children are predisposed to lower intelligence, and the places in society that such a sentence carries. "Nurture" by itself can "move" performance from below to above the mean.

Stated another way - "all children can learn at high levels" is not an arcane tenet held to by some ivory tower educational elites, it's an ideal that parents want, and are justified in holding their teachers to. The book you cite to argue against this ideal does not support your claims, nor does the much more careful work in the field.

This is not to ignore the fact that people are different. That's something that comes with both biology and society. And perhaps some can, in time, "give up" on people as they grow older. But I think it's possible to be both idealistic and pragmatic. Our responsibility to parents demands the former, and to society the latter.

Motheral said...

I really don't mean to be rude here, but if you don't believe the fairly common sense notion that we are about half nature and half nurture, that's fine, but it's your problem, not mine.

Since when was that a "common sense notion?" WHICH "half" of "us" is "nature" and not at all determined by our environment?

You really sound like you're in retreat here: you've been asked for supporting facts or reasoning you're unwilling to provide, and sputtering "it's just common sense!" and then all but explicitly giving up on engaging with someone who doesn't already see things your way.

Martin Cothran said...

Art,

I think if you read what I said carefully you will see that the only reason I brought up the Bell Curve was to establish Murray's credibility in dealing with issues having to with intelligence.

You said: The data are pretty clear - "nurture" contributes as much (if not more) to the spread as "nature".

I agree with this statement, and it is perfectly consistent with the idea that we're generally 1 part nature to 1 part nurture (very roughly speaking).

But my post questioned the statement "all children can learn at high levels", and it is unclear whether you agree with that statement or not. I can't believe you would.

"All children can learn at high levels" is logically equivalent to "No children can not learn at high levels". Are there really no children who can learn at high levels? If that is true, then I can't imagine intelligence testing can have much meaning.

Can someone with an IQ of 60 really "learn at high levels"?

Obviously I agree that environmental factors are important too. In fact, these also militate against "all children learning at high levels" when it comes to practical reality. You might, for example, look at the correlation data between academic performance and percentage of students on free lunch in a school.

But what we do as a matter of policy in Kentucky is to hold schools whose socio-economic populations differ to the same standards anyway.

You said academic performance can be changed through "nurture". I never said it didn't. In fact, I can't think of any other way it could.

So I'm not quite sure where we disagree, but you seem to think we do. You also seem to think something I said calls into question other claims on my blog.

Why don't you say what those are. After all, you're on a roll. Exploit your advantage!

Motheral said...

Can someone with an IQ of 60 really "learn at high levels"?

That depends on WHY he/she has an IQ of 60. If it's the result of a physical (and possibly heritable) brain defect, then probably no. If it's the result of lousy educational opportunities, and/or a home environment where education has no place and is not encouraged in any way, then there is a much greater chance of getting the subject out of that dead environment and placing him/her in a situation where learning is both enabled and encouraged. There ARE people who have been written off as idiots, and who then catch a spark from someone or some event and outperform their elders' expectations.

(Of course, getting someone out of an anti-education environment very often means getting them out of the grips of backward, rigid social and family strictures, which is why the religious right tend to fight such efforts with all the means at their dosposal. Ever notice how the people who tout such books as "The Bell Curve" tend to be the same people who bitterly mock all forms of public and higher education, and oppose any effort to fund or improve same? that's not a coincidence.)

Art said...

Before the post goes off the front page, one last follow-up.

First, to clear up a possible misconception. When a geneticist says that a trait (such as intelligence?) is 50% "nature" and 50% "nurture", (s)he means that the variability one sees in populations may be attributed to nature and nurture in these proportions. For example, if a spread of some trait yields a bell curve in a population, the trait may be thought of as 50% "nature" if, when all genetic variability is removed, the width of the curve decreases by a factor of two. Likewise for "nurture" - if all environmental variation is eliminated and the curve becomes half as broad, the trait may be said to be 50% "nurture".

Second - c'mon, Martin. When we talk about people with IQs of 60, we're talking special ed. That's quite a different subject from the one of this thread.

Third, you said: "But what we do as a matter of policy in Kentucky is to hold schools whose socio-economic populations differ to the same standards anyway." Of course we do. Who in their right mind would tell a group of parents, a community, that we will hold their kids to a lower standard? The trick is to have these expectations, and separate lofty goals from the more absurd demands that politics inserts into the system.

Finally, I doubt if we would hear about it on this blog, but I thought I'd point out that Manual had four Grand Award winners at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. (That’s International – lots of projects from around the world, not just the USA.) Pretty darned good for one of those underachieving Kentucky public schools.