Monday, September 22, 2008

Deviating from the Curve

I came across this interview in the New York Times Magazine. The questions are being asked of Charles Murray, who is known as the co-author of the controversial 1994 book, The Bell Curve (not to be confused with The Bell Jar). He gained notoriety for making claims about the inheritability of intelligence and its power to determine a good deal of our welfare, along with the widening the gap between the intelligent and non-intelligent. Well that and the claims of linking race to IQ and then linking IQ to overall intelligence. There's a lot written on the matter which people can decide for themselves. I'm a skeptical supporter or a supporting skeptic, either way I want to dissect the interview.

The interview focuses around the claims of Murray's new book, "Real Education," which is in a sense an extension of his work with The Bell Curve. The first question:

Although attending college has long been a staple of the American dream, you argue in your new book, “Real Education,” that too many kids are now heading to four-year colleges and wasting their time in pursuit of a bachelor’s degree.

Yes. Let’s stop this business of the B.A., this meaningless credential. And let’s talk about having something kids can take to an employer that says what they know, not where they learned it.

I agree with him here, however one can say these things and not immediately be an elitist. Being an elitist is when a person puts a moral judgement on people who do not go to college, and in that aspect a lot of the people who do attend universities (including many of those who really shouldn't) are elitists. But I make no such value, I simply look around and see many people my age overwhelmed with material they are supposed to learn. I have been in classes where I was the only one talking and answering questions, even in writing classes people had trouble engaging with what the teacher was saying.

Now there are two reasons that could be causing this, either people are not mentally equipped for more intellectual pursuits, or perhaps our high schools aren't rigorous enough. Not enough people consider the former option and I don't think Murray considers the later. When it came to the "high-brow" stuff: I largely taught myself. I read philosophy, geography, literature, philosophy, religion, all on my own during those four years I spent waiting for college. I was also willing to avoid having a social life.

However are some people not capable of intellectual pursuits? In regards to abstract reasoning and speculation about metaphysics and such, probably. First of all, most people aren't really interested, and many unfortunately try to convince themselves that they are while going to school. Second many people may not be able to comprehend the material, but is this such a bad thing? Often when one boils down complex texts, one find only a few central points. The rest is showing off with footnotes. I feel the problem may not be the ideas, but their presentation. A university education is supposed to do this, but maybe that's the wrong approach. It might be better if left up to the media (as problematic as they are).

When the facts are simple but the implications broad, we should not recoil. As long as people can grasp the central ideas behind what moves and shakes the world, that's all that matters. While I would not claim that someone who read the Cliff Notes for War and Peace "understands" the book, I don't feel that one has to read An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (always shortened to Wealth of Nations by intellectuals) to understand capitalism. I feel that Murray's approach to the issue is too avoid educating people about high falutin' ideas at all, which is not any kind of solution to the problems of our education system. he would do good to remember what Chomsky said:

it's striking to see the intelligence that's used by ordinary people in [discussions of] sports [as opposed to political and social issues]. I mean, you listen to radio stations where people call in -- they have the most exotic information and understanding about all kind of arcane issues.

Ordinary people are capable of learning, processing, and retrieving information, its a question of appealing in the right way. There is a way to dress things up for intellectuals, and then a way to do it for carpenters, another for housewives, another for young children...etc. this is something Murray seems to forget.

Well, that was a lot on just one question.

I’m sure you’re aware that unemployment is very high right now.

There are very few unemployed first-rate electricians. I can get a good doctor in a minute and a half. Getting a really good electrician — that’s hard. If you want jobs that are in high demand, go to any kind of skilled labor. And by labor, I mean things that pay $30 or $40 an hour.

This question and response show the fact that neither the interviewer, nor Murray has any idea of what really is going on. It is a follow up to his response that people should enter the workforce instead of going to college (which for most people I agree). The interviewer (Deborah Solomon) responds with this questions, which makes no sense to ask. Murray is thinking about the long term, not simply what unemployment is like right now. It isn't actually very high (it's still lower than many countries, and I'm not intellectually snickering, I'm unemployed too, thanks to Bush & Co. and NYU's inability to make a degree anyone wants - I went to the Detroit of colleges!). However Murray seems to ignore something about his line of thought, if people go from being in college to going to trade schools, there will be a glut of those electricians, plumbers, etc. Also most jobs without the college degree are not in those fields, they are in retail and the like, which does not pay as much (I know, I see the wanted listings).

Another exchange:

I believe that given the opportunity, most people could do most anything.

You’re out of touch with reality in that regard. You have not hung around with kids who are well in the lower half of the ability distribution.

I agree with Murray here. I don't have the legs to be a dancer or the fingers to be a concert pianist. But I'm fine with that. The fact is we have aptitudes for different things. We are a species with a diversified mind, which helps us to be efficient in division of labor. However unlike Murray and his ilk, I don't think that means people should be paid wildly different amounts of money.

and so it goes:

Aren’t think tanks basically welfare for intellectuals?

Actually, the interesting thing there is the extent to which it’s the think tanks in the last 15 years that have been producing the stuff that has had the most effect on the debate, as opposed to colleges.

Well Mr. Murray, who produces the thinkers for the tanks? I suppose you just take 'em off the street? Well, maybe they should.

Have they affected debate, of course? But I think what intellectuals dream up together usually ends up causing more harm than good, intellectuals have to be checked in their excesses. As an intellectual, I understand that better than anyone. Now if only the scientists understood their limits...

Are they welfare for intellectuals? Of course they are (and I want some). And so are colleges. Just like monasteries in the old days. A place to put the crazy people with big words so work could get done in the real world without people stopping to wonder if God can make rocks he can't lift!

I digress

The last answers are the most worrying, displaying the kind of intellectual self-loathing that the thinkers of the Nazi Party exemplified in its worst aspects. When I disparage my eggheaded kin, it is a suggestion of improvement and done out of love, but these responses show utter disregard and well, ignorance. but think tanks don;t have much to so with history and historians I guess. They like number crunchers but not people who pin ideas to dates.

What do you make of the fact that John McCain was ranked 894 in a class of 899 when he graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy?

I like to think that the reason he ranked so low is that he was out drinking beer, as opposed to just unable to learn stuff.

His ranking so low is not a good thing, and his inability to comprehend things is not either. He is supposed to be running the country, remember? In a normal case, one could say "well someone has to be on the bottom, and he had to be a hard worker to get in right?" However he was the son and grandson of admirals, the closest the thing to royalty one could be in the navy. It's like W's lackluster performance in college, a warning sign.

What do you think of Sarah Palin?

I’m in love. Truly and deeply in love.

She attended five colleges in six years.

So what?

He attacks people going to college when they're not ready, she clearly wasn't, and if she wasn't running for VP (as a Republican) and was her college counselor he would have said to her, "Sarah dear, this isn't the place for you, you're just not capable of absorbing all these books!"

Why is the McCain clan so eager to advertise its anti-intellectualism?

The last thing we need are more pointy-headed intellectuals running the government. Probably the smartest president we’ve had in terms of I.Q. in the last 50 years was Jimmy Carter, and I think he is the worst president of the last 50 years.

What is Murray doing here? Why is he so willing to embrace anti-intellectualism? I think such behavior usually has two causes. The first is a feeling of inadequacy for being concerned so much with affairs of the body, perhaps memories of being the last picked to play on the schoolyard, maybe not. But it is a feeling which produces a loathing of oneself and this becomes projected outward. The intellectual becomes attracted to figures who show physical vitality and power (think Heidegger and Machiavelli).

Second, I think that this is something stoked by right wing intellectuals as a way to put down their left wing brethren so they can rule with less opposition and lead the people whom they consider little better than sheep (people can sing better but sheep give off wool). McCain has plenty of pointy heads around him and so did Bush, and both are manipulated, advised, controlled, and consoled by them. Same with all leaders. But celebrating anti-intellectualism never leads to suggestions they should hire the "regular folks" for the administration.

What is interesting is that Murray seems to debunk his whole thesis by invoking Jimmy Carter. Murray worships at the temple of the IQ, but the president with the best one had the worst administration. Well at least according to Murray (another case of why political parties make whores of most intellectuals left and right - by Murray's own libertarian standards Bush is the worst president of the past fifty years: terrorist attacks, wars, rights violated, debts, and now bailouts).

The case with Bush show why you want a sharp intellect in the White House, because you need a mind that will battle it out with the policy wonks and intelligentsia assembled at Pennsylvania Avenue. Bush simply became a Yes-Man to his own policies when they were fed back to him in the pleasing jargon of his Neo-Con Man buddies. The Oval Office should be a Hegelian battleground, a dialectical slaughterhouse where wills and intellects collide to result in the unfolding of the Absolute Spirit over the dimension of world-historical...okay, okay enough with the intellectual fancy talk.