January 20, 2007

Who's horrified by Charles Murray?

In response to Charles Murray's three-part series of op-eds on intelligence and education in the WJS (part 1, part 2, part 3), plenty of bloggers have been quick to distance themselves from the knuckle-dragging portion of the center-right portion of the political spectrum: Jenny D. links to several. Who agrees with Murray is telling:  Richard Vedder and Russ Minnick are all I could find in the first few screens of a Technorati search. My favorite comment on the various blogs I've perused:

Does anyone see the irony in Chuck's argument...he is living proof that intelligence-deficient people can succeed with a modicum of knowledge!

Murray's argument here is essentially a rehash of his claims in Bell Curve (1994), which prompted a number of critical books in response, including The Bell Curve Wars and Measured Lies. (If I remember correctly, The Bell Curve Debate is a solid anthology that includes historical material.) Murray's argument is a seductive one that pampers the sloppy reader: It's not because you're lucky but because you're smart that you're sitting there, reading the Wall Street Journal. The subtext of virtually all Murray's writings on the subject is You're special.

That argument may work in a few quarters these days, but I think the time at which Murray would have appealed to a few people beyond David Brooks has passed, and only part of the reason is because the racist assumptions of our past are disappearing because, unfortunately, they aren't. (That fact doesn't mean social prejudices have changed; certainly they have, and far more people want to live in a racism-free society. But racist assumptions still exist.)

The dominant reason why Charles Murray's views will find fewer and fewer adherents is because his you're special argument only works if successful or wealthy people think their success is due to their innate intelligence instead of hard work. If you worked your tail off in school and in your various jobs, you're likely to be offended by Murray's view. And as people work more hours on the average, and as we're all stretched by our obligations, both loved and unloved, we are all likely to attribute any success we have to hard work in addition to circumstance, but definitely hard work. Whatever you think of Bill Gates, lazy isn't one of the adjectives you'd use. So Murray no longer flatters the super-wealthy and the chattering classes.

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Posted in Education policy on January 20, 2007 7:08 AM |