Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Scientific Racism, Neo-con style?

"Elite white guilt made it impossible to say that
a lot of black children were going to continue to fail in school
and there’s nothing anybody could do about it."

- Charles Murray

This is one conclusion drawn by Charles Murray in a recent article in The New Criterion, "The age of educational romanticism." He says, "Educational romanticism consists of the belief that just about all children who are not doing well in school have the potential to do much better."

With Richard Herrenstein, Murray co-authored the controversial 1994 book The Bell Curve, the reaction to which had much to do with launching the move toward disaggregating student test scores - the heart of the No Child Left Behind law which Murray now decries.

Murray correctly states that under NCLB,

All means exactly that: everybody, right down to the bottom level of ability. The language of the 2002 law made no provision for any exclusions. The Act requires that this goal be met “not later than 12 years after the end of the 2001–2002 school year.

It is this single fact that undermines what might otherwise make NCLB an effective law (assuming it was fully funded). Better would be to continue collecting data on all subgroups of students, but amend the schools' goals to a more realistic 90% attainment or so. This debate should end there. But it won't.

Some will see Murray's argument simply as a defense of student "tracking." Others will see it much more broadly, as confirmation of the most closely held predjucies. They hope to see Murray portrayed as a brave hero, willing to speak "truth" in the face of "political correctness."

Murray calls out "educational romantics" on both sides of the reform spectrum. And his strawman is tailor made for political commentators. Expect it to catch on.

Educational romanticism characterizes reformers of both Left and Right, though in different ways.

Educational romantics of the Left focus on race, class, and gender. It is children of color, children of poor parents, and girls whose performance is artificially depressed, and their academic achievement will blossom as soon as they are liberated from the racism, classism, and sexism embedded in American education.

Those of the Right see public education as an ineffectual monopoly, and think that educational achievement will blossom when school choice liberates children from politically correct curricula and obdurate teachers’ unions...

...the leading symptom of educational romanticism is silence on the role of intellectual limits even when the topic screams for their discussion.

Over at Bridging Differences, Diane Ravitch isn't having it, largely on historical grounds.

Ravitch's rejection of Murray's notion recalls Alfred Binet, one of the earliest designers of mental tests. Binet disagreed with those who “assert that an individual’s intelligence is a fixed quantity, a quantity which cannot be increased." He urged educators to "protest and react against this brutal pessimism.”

Ravitch also recalls Carl C. Brigham, a Princeton psychologist who helped to develop the Army inteligence tests used during World War I to select officers.

"The highest scores went to recruits who were native-born and of northern European background, while the lowest scores went to those who were foreign-born, of southern and eastern European background, and black."

Ravitch adds,

One of my intellectual heroes, William Chandler Bagley of Teachers College, punched holes in the theories of the IQ testers. He was literally the only prominent psychologist who took on the leaders of his field. Bagley wrote critical articles and a book ("Determinism in Education") in which he said that the IQ tests were a threat to democracy because they were being used to close the doors of educational opportunity to large numbers of people. Bagley showed that the groups that had the highest scores on the Army tests were those who had had the greatest educational opportunities.

In a coup de grace, he pointed out that the IQ scores of literate northern blacks were higher than those of literate whites in Kentucky, Mississippi, and Arkansas. Since southern whites were the purest “Nordic stock” in the country, Bagley said that Brigham would have to acknowledge that the test scores were the result of education, not racial inheritance.

Murray's persistent desire to discount the powerful effects of racism and oppression on identifiable groups of students - and therefore, their test scores - throws the rest of his "science" into question. Upon inspection, it's not science so much as it is neo-conservative political argument.

In fact Murray's first book, Losing Ground, was promoted as just that. In "The Manhattan Institute: Neoconservatives’s Lab," Paul Labarique reports,

Despite a huge number of obvious nonsense and empirical mistakes pointed out by sociologist Christopher Jencks, economist Robert Greenstein and even Nobel Prize James Tobin, the media turned the pamphlet into a “classic” and made it the central issue on the debates about social assistance in the U.S.

On its side, the Manhattan Institute made an enormous promotion of the book: William Hammet sent 700 copies to journalists, political and “university” personalities in America and hired an expert on public relations to turn the unknown Charles Murray into a “media-related phenomenon”. Its purpose was not selling the book but made it the core of every political debate. Months later, the Institute held a symposium on Losing Ground whose participants,whether they were journalists, public policies experts or social sciences specialists, received between 500 and 1500 dollars.

While much of Murray's argument is correct, acting on its logical extention would lead America to the worst possible place - one that returns us to the days when belief in preordination was used as a rationale for limiting opportunity to certain individuals based on class and race. It is a clear and certain repudiation of the notion that "all men are created equal."

The 2000 census predicted that 38% of the American workforce in 2025 will be people of color. And people of color are - magically, one supposes - overrepresented among the poor. Murray's invitation to give up on those he deems incapable of benefitting from a good education is economically poisionous to all of us.

Say what you will, but a hard-working poor person's best chance to realize the American Dream lies in an education that prepares them for productive citizenship.

No comments: