Charles Murray and Progressive Education

Tom Wood

There has been a good deal of discussion recently about the value of the college degree, much of it centering on the views of Charles Murray. However, skepticism about the value of a college education, and about the B.A. degree in particular, has a long history.

Though it is mostly conservative and libertarian writers who have voiced doubts about the value of a college education recently, this has not been typical of most of American history. A book by Diane Ravitch shows in great detail that most of the criticism of liberal education, the academic curriculum, and the college degree has come from progressive educators, not conservative ones.

Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms (2000) is a must read. Ravitch throws a great deal of light on current issues in her history of the conflict in American education between conservative and progressive educators over the value of liberal education.

As I read him, Murray’s own skepticism about the value of the college degree and the B.A. degree goes roughly as follows:

Too many Americans are going to college. Most of the students who attend college are incapable of benefiting from it, since to “really” benefit from college one must have an IQ of 115 and above. This means that college can benefit only about the upper 20% of the population. The B.A. degree itself is meaningless. Nothing of any academic or intellectual value is taught to students who pursue this degree. Nothing is taught that is useful for life in the real world. In this respect it differs from the B.S. degree. The B.S. is a meaningful credential, because in order to earn it students must master specific skills, like the ability to build bridges or do chemical analyses or solve mathematical equations. The B.A. degree, on the other hand, does nothing of the sort. It is a meaningless credential because it does not qualify the student to do anything.

An undergraduate education leading to the B.A. degree can benefit students only if it inculcates a certain set of cultural values and develops the kind of character that embodies those values, but under the impact of mass education and multiculturalism, it isn’t even doing that. Egalitarianism has degraded liberal education. This is particularly serious because the future of America depends on educating its elite, who, even if they are not always the best, are always the brightest.

Since Murray is so critical of liberal education, it is hard to see how it could contribute to the education even of the elite. For Murray, the factor of sheer intelligence, as measured by IQ tests, is almost always determinative. The brightest will become our leaders in any case.

Even the brightest students who get a liberal arts education do not learn any specific skills that they can apply in the real world that they will face after graduation—unlike say, accountants, machinists, and engineers who build bridges. Murray is not exactly opposed to liberal education and its traditional curriculum, at least for those who are well enough endowed mentally to benefit from it and whose families are able to afford it. He is tolerant of it, even though he does not believe that students in the liberal arts and humanities learn anything that is measurable and useful either for themselves or for society. And apart from the credentialing factor in the marketplace, such an education does nothing to alter one’s outcome in life. For that, sheer intelligence or IQ is determinative.

Murray acknowledges that employers employ the B.A. degree as a credentialing or screening factor for job applicants, but he believes that this is a mistake and that the practice that should be dropped. The B.A. degree is dispensable because the elite doesn’t need the kind of education that leads to it, and because those who do not have IQs of 115 or above can’t really benefit from it. At best, liberal education might be useful for the elite because it can transmit important cultural values from generation to generation, but not because it develops their intellects. One of the four dicta around which Real Education is structured puts it this way: “The elite are already smart, they need to be wise.”

One of my previous postings challenged the view that the B.A. is a meaningless degree and the related view that liberal education does not develop cognitive and intellectual skills that can be used outside the university walls. I pointed to the preliminary findings of a two-year longitudinal study of a cohort of college students who took the Collegiate Learning Assessment at the beginning of their freshman and the end of their sophomore years. The pre- and post-test results have been analyzed by a team at the Social Science Research Institute. The findings of the two-year study (which will be followed in due course with a study of the four-year college experience using the same assessment) were that the B.A. does develop cognitive and communication skills that are important for real world jobs, including management jobs in the business world. The gains in the outcome measures, which varied significantly across disciplines, showed that students in the humanities and social sciences did as well as those who concentrated in math, science and engineering. Both the liberal arts and science and math majors outperformed students with concentrations in business, education, and social work. The SSRI researchers found that there was no cutoff score on the CLA below which there were no gains on the test, despite the fact that scores on the CLA are highly correlated with scores on the SAT. Furthermore, the gains for students scoring in the lowest decile on the test were no lower than those who scored in the upper decile. These findings from the study directly challenge Murray’s claim that a liberal arts curriculum has no educational value, that the B.A. degree is meaningless, and that only a minority of students who currently attend college can benefit from it.

It isn’t just Murray who is challenged by these findings. It is clear from Left Back that Murray is an odd man out politically in a tradition in American education with a very long history. Most of those in that tradition were progressive educators, not libertarians or conservatives like Murray. It is important to compare Murray’s views with those of his progressive predecessors. While there are differences (and I will mention some of them) between Murray and the progressives, the similarities, affinities, and even identities are more even more striking—and also illuminating.

The progressive school of education in the 19th and 20th centuries

The view that only a very small minority is capable of benefiting from a college education is more closely associated with Europe and its educational traditions than with the U.S. Traditionally, Europe has had two tracks in its school systems, one leading to the university, the other concentrating on vocational and manual training, with the expectation that graduates from the latter schools would go immediately into the work force or to advanced vocational education rather than to the university. In Europe, most educators and politicians believed that it was cruel and socially unwise to subject most students to an academic curriculum, because it was believed that it would be beyond their abilities. In the 19th and 20th centuries American progressive educators also adopted this view.

Progressive educators believed that an academic curriculum was of use only to the relatively small minority who had the ability for it and who wanted to go on to college or to professional schools, where they would study more academic matters. For most students, such studies were pointless. A student destined for a career in business should take studies specifically directed to business at the earliest possible age. The same was true for students destined for careers as machinists, accountants, or factory workers. Women who were destined for jobs in the workforce should study things like sewing. The progressives believed that social engineering lay at the heart of education. This engineering involved making an early assessment of students’ abilities and then training them for what those abilities had marked out for them in life. IQ tests were developed by progressives in the first part of the 20th century to provide a quick and dirty way of accomplishing this.

Anti-intellectualism was an inescapable consequence of the progressive educational movement. The “new school” attacked “mental discipline”—the idea that the purpose of education was to train the mind and to develop one’s mental powers of reasoning, memory, will, observation, judgment, and imagination. It campaigned aggressively against academic studies. It maintained that academic subjects must meet the test of immediate utility. It was opposed to literary training and useless “cultural courses.” It disparaged learning for its own sake. Most progressives were deeply influenced by Herbert Spencer, the English utilitarian who had also disparaged the practical value of education. According to Spencer, higher education is nothing more than a “badge marking a certain social position.”

Like Murray, progressive educators did not think of themselves as hard-hearted about the less intellectually gifted majority of their fellow citizens. The progressives seem to have felt that they were more humane than their stodgy, retrograde, elitist, and classist opponents in higher education, who failed to pay sufficient attention to "meeting the needs of the individual child." Progressives felt that in favoring practical education over book learning they were more attuned to the majority of Americans, who were interested in jobs in business and industry, not algebra and literature. In pushing commercial studies (what we now call business school), manual training, industrial education, vocational education, domestic science, home economics, and agricultural studies, progressives felt they were offering most students what they needed and what they must have really wanted. Progressives regarded their own agenda for a differentiated curriculum—an academic curriculum for those who could benefit from it, and vocational education for those who could not—as the most humane solution given the wide differences in intellectual ability of the students that went to school

In fact, there was a clear class, racial, and ethnic bias behind the progressive movement. The tracking that the progressives advocated was directed overwhelmingly at the poor, immigrants, and racial and ethnic minorities—mostly Jews and Italians and others from southern Europe—who were held to be incapable of benefiting form a liberal, academic curriculum.  

Social engineering and advocacy of the differentiated curriculum reached its apogee (or nadir, depending on one's point of view) in David Snedden. Snedden became the Commissioner of Education in Massachusetts in 1909, and later became prominent in Columbia University's Teacher's College, where he was a strong advocate of vocational education and a leader in the "social efficiency" movement (another name for social engineering). He is also regarded as the founder of educational sociology.

Though his entire career was in the field of education, Snedden was opposed to the "dead hand of mathematics and the mummified study of algebra." He believed that society had no need for art of good quality: it only needed stuff that could entertain. Only studies that had an immediate, practical utility were important for society. Accordingly, he took the progressive advocacy of the doctrine of the differentiated curriculum to its logical conclusion. He wanted special schools—and not just special programs—for such vocations as

tailoring, jewelry salesmanship, poultry farming, coal cutting, stationary engine firing, waiting on table (hotel), cutting (in shoe factory), automobile repair, teaching of French in secondary school, mule spinning, power machine operating (for ready made clothing), raisin grape growing, general farming suited to Minnesota, linotype composition, railway telegraphy, autogenous welding, street car motor driving, and a hundred others

In Ravitch's view, this progressive agenda was unfair and unnecessarily restricted educational opportunity for the poor. It also lent a profoundly anti-intellectual cast and direction to American education.

Unlike Europe, the U.S. never adopted separate schools tracked by intellectual ability. In fact, Snedden's outspoken advocacy of separate schools like the gymnasia of Germany and other European countries led to his downfall, for it ran into opposition from John Dewey and other prominent progressive educators. Since Dewey rather than Snedden prevailed on this issue, the American secondary school, by attempting to be everything for everyone, became intellectually incoherent. The inevitable result of putting all secondary schools in the hands of educators who had no respect for the traditional, academic curriculum was that the schools were dumbed down.

Progressive learning theory

Educators in the conservative tradition during the progressive ascendancy believed that the purpose of education at all levels was to train the intelligence and discipline the mind. Progressives rejected this view of education. They even constructed theories of learning built on the denial of the proposition that it is possible to train or develop the intellect or discipline the mind. Mental training or development in one field does not carry over into any other field. They believed only in individuals trained in specific fields, not in the liberally educated person.

Most progressive educators belonged to the behavioral school of psychology, and a number were prominent behavioral psychologists themselves. Behaviorism no longer dominates psychology in the way that it did in the days of the progressive educators. Cognitive psychology, which studies mental processes and is interested in understanding how cognitive skills are developed, has replaced behaviorism as the dominant school of psychology, particularly in the areas that most directly bear on educational issues. It is important to recognize, though, that for much of American history, educators under the influence of the progressives and behavioral psychology did not believe that academic and cognitive skills could be developed. Many of the progressives’ educational theories and practices are intelligible only the light of this skepticism.

The view that training in one area or type of study does not transfer to another is associated especially with Edward L. Thorndike. Thorndike is regarded as the founder of the entire field of educational psychology. He was also a behavioral psychologist of enormous influence. He also became a leader of the progressive educational movement.

Thorndike's strongest statement about the absence of learning transfer was a paper he co-authored with R.S. Woodward in 1901 that was published in an early issue of the Psychological Review. Thorndike and Woodward studied low-level skills and abilities: the recognition of weights, lengths, and sizes; discrimination of two complex objects shown in rapid succession; picking out of a page of print all the words containing r and s, etc. They failed to detect any improvement of general ability by training in these low-level, highly specialized tasks. Thorndike and Woodward concluded that all training is specific to the task at hand, and that there is no transfer of learning from one practice or field to another. This view directly threatened the liberal arts ideal, because if there is no learning transfer, there can be no liberally educated person in the traditional sense—only people who have been trained in specific fields for very particular skills.

Thirteen years later, in 1914, Thorndike modified his views slightly in his influential book Educational Psychology: A Briefer Course. In this work he acknowledged that learning transfer in very limited situations does occur. Just how limited this was can be seen by the following. At one point (p. 268) he asks: “How far does an ability, say to reason, acquired with data A, extend also to data B, C, D, etc.?” In response to his own question he said:

The answer which I shall try to defend is that a change in one function alters any other only in so far as the two functions have as factors identical elements...To take a concrete example, improvement in addition will alter one's ability in multiplication because addition is absolutely identical with a part of multiplication and because certain other processes, —e.g., eye movements and the inhibition of all save arithmetical impulses, —are in part common to the two functions.

This became known as Thorndike’s theory of identical elements. The improvement in one's ability to do addition will improve one's ability to do multiplication, but only because addition is absolutely identical with part of learning the operation of multiplication. Obviously, this is very far removed from any cognitivist view of mathematics as involving the learning of abstract concepts or any understanding of mathematics as a system, founded on the notion of sets or any other abstract concepts about operations on numbers.

Thorndike drew the conclusion from his theory of identical elements that the academic curriculum, while it was not entirely useless, was of value only to those who pursue domain-specific studies. Thorndike's "findings" served as ammunition for broad attacks by the progressives on the academic curriculum. The traditional academic curriculum is built on the belief that it develops genuine understanding and genuine intellectual skills. Thorndikians and increasing numbers of progressive educators, on the other hand, believed that an academic curriculum is only useful to those who go on to collegiate and post-university studies or to professions that actually used such skills. Calculus, for example, is important for individuals who go on to become engineers or scientists. Apart from these narrow exceptions, the academic liberal arts curriculum is a dead end. Training in one mental activity could not transfer to other cases, uses, or subjects inside the school or classroom, or to tasks in the world outside the classroom. This view amounts to giving up on education, as opposed to training for specific skills, in any significant sense at all.

Image: Pixabay, Public Domain

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