Is Charles Murray’s Ceiling Their Fate?

Writing in this week’s Wall Street Journal, IQ expert Charles Murray argues that “Our ability to improve the academic accomplishment of students in the lower half of the distribution of intelligence is severely limited.”

In one sense, he is almost certainly correct. No matter how much we improve the quality of schooling, there will always be intellectual pursuits that are beyond the reach of not just half the population, but beyond the overwhelming majority of us. He gives the example that he himself cannot follow proofs in the American Journal of Mathematics — not because he knows too little, but because he is not smart enough. Charles, I’m with you. After perusing this paper on “The Equivalence Problem and Rigidity for Hypersurfaces Embedded into Hyperquadrics,” I am prepared to agree with the now-discontinued Teen-Talk Barbie: ”[Abstract] math is hard.”

But in another sense, I suggest that Charles is mistaken. It is likely that a significantly improved education system could raise the academic achievement of all students substantially above their current levels. There are numerous examples of this happening, both anecdotally and in the research literature.

On the anecdotal front, recall star calculus teacher Jaime Escalante, and how he put LA’s Garfield High School on the map in the 1980s by constructing a math department that was truly top notch. So many of Escalante’s low-income Hispanic students started taking and passing AP calculus courses (more, at one point, than at Beverly Hills High School) that the program’s overseers insisted on a re-test (his students did remarkably well once again).

Are we to believe that the only children whose grasp of mathematics was greatly improved by Escalante’s instruction were those with above-average IQs? That seems unlikely. It would be hard to argue that calculus is as prohibitively difficult, when well taught, as “hypersurfaces embedded into hyperquadrics.”

On the empirical research front, consider the wealth of international studies comparing student achievement in parent-driven, competitive market schools with the achievement of similar students in bureaucratically-run, non-competitive schools. Are these academic advantages, which are sometimes substantial, concentrated only among those with 100+ IQs? Again, there is no reason to think so.

The problem, as I see it, with Murray’s argument is simply that he is assuming the “ceiling” on academic achievement is lower that it is actually likely to be. This may be due to the fact that, at present, the education system through which 90 percent of American students pass is badly designed, and consistently fails to raise students up to their full potential.

It is also worth noting that Charles makes no mention in this particular piece about the benefits of an improved K-12 education system for brighter students. Surely they deserve the opportunity to fulfill their intellectual potentials just as much as children on the left side of the bell curve.

In short, a better school system could do a lot of kids an awful lot of good.