Friday, January 19, 2007


Predictions, Vocations, and Charles Murray

A reader sent me a copy of a recent article by Charles Murray (located here) in which Murray makes a series of claims about higher education, IQ, and the role of vocational ed.

(A quick aside: yes, I know Murray has a history as a public figure, most prominently for The Bell Curve. I never read The Bell Curve, so I'll limit my comments to this article.)

Murray's position is based on the assumption that IQ is fixed, precise, and correlated perfectly with the potential for academic success. (To be fair, he concedes that high IQ people with low motivation can fail as well.) That doesn't fit the basic fact that IQ scores have been rising steadily for decades to such a degree that the tests have to be re-centered every ten years to keep the average at 100. (Steven Johnson's Everything Bad is Good for You makes some interesting arguments based on that.) Nor does it fit what most of us know about margins of error on standardized tests. But never mind that. He asserts:

There is no magic point at which a genuine college-level education becomes an option, but anything below an IQ of 110 is problematic. If you want to do well, you should have an IQ of 115 or higher. Put another way, it makes sense for only about 15% of the population, 25% if one stretches it, to get a college education. And yet more than 45% of recent high school graduates enroll in four-year colleges. Adjust that percentage to account for high school dropouts, and more than 40% of all persons in their late teens are trying to go to a four-year college – enough people to absorb everyone down through an IQ of 104.

Where he gets his figures is beyond me. He doesn't cite any sources for any of them, so we're just supposed to take him at his word.

(I also have no idea of what it means to say that “more than 40% of all persons in their late teens are trying to go to a four-year college.” Either you're enrolled, or you're not. There is no 'try.')

But never mind all that; it's actually peripheral to his main point. He's really arguing that true higher education – whatever that is – is appropriate only for nature's aristocrats, and that nature's proles should content themselves with vocational education. That's okay, though; the aristocrats need the proles to fix everything in their McMansions. Murray again:

Finding a good lawyer or physician is easy. Finding a good carpenter, painter, glazier, mason – the list goes on and on – is difficult, and it is a seller's market. Journeymen craftsmen routinely make incomes in the top half of the income distribution while master craftsmen can make six figures. They have work even in a soft economy. Their jobs cannot be outsourced to India. And the craftsman's job provides wonderful intrinsic rewards that come from mastery of a challenging skill that produces tangible results. How many white-collar jobs provide nearly as much satisfaction?

Those lucky, manly, salt-of-the-earth proles! They get to build stuff! It's a good thing the aristocrats are making all the income gains – those marble countertops won't install themselves! And the idea that higher education could also be intrinsically satisfying goes oddly unaddressed. Higher education is cast purely as job preparation – real satisfaction only comes from manly guy stuff involving hammers and power tools and honest manly guy sweat.

It gets weirder. Murray asserts that “the nation's two-year colleges...are more honest than the four-year institutions about what their students want and provide courses that meet their needs more explicitly.” Okay, here's where I seriously have to assert specialized knowledge. The single largest major at my cc is the transfer major. By Murray's logic, then, what my cc students want most is four-year degrees. The second largest major is business, which is also built for transfer. The single occupation for which the career services office on campus gets the most inquiries from employers is office help – administrative assistants and the like. We had to shut down the automotive repair program twenty years ago for persistent lack of enrollment. We place more Early Childhood Ed majors (that is, daycare providers) in a year than we placed in the entire history of the automotive repair program. We have more art majors than engineering majors – if the students are all about jobs, that doesn't make a hell of a lot of sense. (In fact, the only reason we haven't dropped CAD altogether is that the interior designers are taking it!) The manly male guy stuff – other than criminal justice – doesn't sell.

Having misconstrued cc's, Murray also misconstrues craftsmen. The reason they're well paid is that they're unionized. The unions are hard to break into, and not at all shy about flexing their muscle to keep uncertified competition away. If a flood of new people arrived on the scene, we'd either see a lot of unemployed new people or the salaries drop like stones. On top of that, it takes brains to be a good electrician or HVAC technician or carpenter. If we funnel the intellectually-weak – assuming, for a moment, that we can isolate that category – into skilled trades, most of them won't cut it there, either.

Hey, here's a vocational category for which colleges used to be criticized for not producing enough people: computer programmers! How's that job market working out? To assume that we know which fields will experience labor shortages ten years from now flies in the face of the dead-wrong predictions we were making ten years ago. Proprietary U rode the tech wave up, and it rode the tech wave down. Vocational fields are like that. If Murray paid the slightest attention, he'd know that.

(For that matter, there was supposed to be a terrible shortage of college faculty by now. Remember the prediction of a "great wave of retirements"? How'd that work out?)

The shame of it all is that Murray's apparent ideology overwhelms what could have been a valuable discussion. Doc cited a study a while back showing that liberal arts grads – those poor, benighted souls whose degrees, according to Murray, “do not qualify the graduate for anything,” actually catch up to their more vocationally-minded peers in terms of annual salaries fairly quickly. Could it be that those 'soft' skills actually amount to something? Could it be that the economic elite want the liberal arts to themselves for a reason? The last time I checked, the progeny of the elites were climbing all over each other to get into Williams and Swarthmore and Yale, none of which offer undergraduate degrees in vocational fields. Could it be that they know something Murray doesn't?

Where Murray could have gone with his piece – and where there really is a productive discussion to be had – is on the question of what the academically mediocre or disinclined should do to make a middle-class living in the new economy. That's what the real question is. There will be only so many glaziers. Construction, as anyone who has paid attention can tell you, is a manic-depressive industry, and some people don't savor the thought of life on a boom-bust cycle. The old unionized heavy-industrial jobs aren't as common, or as lucrative, as they used to be, and the service sector – the one reliably booming vocational area – generally pays quite badly. (That is, except for all those 'easy to find' lawyers and doctors.) Given that higher education is one of the few reliable hedges against disposability, students are acting quite rationally in seeking degrees. Yes, many of them will drop out --- it's called standards – and many graduates have a tough time getting the first real job upon graduation. The real issues are around income distribution, and economic security, and the ability to handle changes the nature of which nobody can predict. Telling a kid whose IQ tests at 108 to give up on college and get busy building additions onto the houses of all of those easily-found cardiologists is simply absurd. Colleges (and high schools, for the love of pete) shouldn't pretend greater predictive powers than they actually have. I don't know what the Next Big Thing is going to be. (If I did, I'd buy stock in it.) Neither does Murray. Consigning the majority of the population to narrow skill sets when the one constant is change is indefensible, except as bald-faced elitism. Just ask all those laid-off programmers.

your points are all good. But, there is a case to be made that there aren't enough skilled tradespeople anymore. This is why the costs are so high. Try to find a stone mason for instance. The downside is that there's very little flexibility. So if someone comes up with a way to do high end modular counter tops, the carpenters are screwed.

Also, i knew a lot of people that went on to a 4 year college because well, that's what you do if you aren't poor or stupid. They picked a major at the last minute and did as little work as possible. They didn't 'love learning' they loved beer and parties.

My brother did something like that. He wanted to keep wrestling and picked a college based on where he could compete on a team. About two years after graduation he started an insulation company and is not making far more than he would using the skills obtained with a poli-sci degree.
Charles Murray is an ass, but/and you're right: there are interesting discussions to be had here (he just doesn't engage in them).

To my mind, one of these questions has been: Who belongs in a 4-year college? (Or a 2-year college, for that matter.) (And the answer is not as simple as "those with IQs over 115" or whatever.) I have no interest in elitism, but I do wonder how much remedial work, for example, a college should be expected to engage in.

I like your post, but I have to take issue with one of your points:

"Hey, here's a vocational category for which colleges used to be criticized for not producing enough people: computer programmers! How's that job market working out?"

I don't know about where you are, but the tech industry here seems to be rebounding quite nicely. True, not to the crazy pre-boom levels, but there *are* jobs, and good ones, out there for techies. I actually think that we're in serious trouble in 5-10 years due to the precipitous drop in CS majors. We really need tech-savvy workers, here in the good ol' US of A, those who understand technology and can apply it to a variety of areas. Not everything can or should be outsourced.

(of course, I'm arguing more for the "complete" CS degree here....I do agree that ultra-focused, language-specific courses are not as relevant or lucrative as they once were, and that's not the type of tech workforce we want, anyway.)
I think another missed opportunity for discussion deals with the timing of college education. I teach at 4-year State U which began as the Normal School for the state, so we see a lot of the folks Murray talks about: 18 or 19-year-olds who are in college because that's what people "of their social class do." I think Murray is dead-on there. However, my interpretation of this situation wasn't that these folks weren't intellectually acute enough to be there, but that they needed more time to make up their minds to be there. I wish that programs like AmeriCorps were geared more toward providing an after-high-school experience that could be formative and helpful to young adults in this situation. Because I don't think that the differences between my intro level class at State U and the intro class at Local CC are all that pronounced. So CC is not necessarily the "cure" Murray wants.

P.S. When people start spouting off about others' IQs, I always wonder how recently they've taken the test, since the average point has moved. Is it possible that Murray himself would "only" be of "average intelligence"? Hmmm..
Reading Murray, I was reminded of an ancient National Lampoon "public service ad" showing a black student picking up a calculus book with the caption "A strong back is a terrible thing to waste". He just extends it to all people in a certain IQ range.

That said, your points are on the mark. He never states the mean IQ of high school grads when ranting about the percentage of them that go to college. They might very well meet his threshold.

He never states the mean and SD (or, better yet, the 10th percentile point) of the IQ of the population of engineering grads. Or business grads. Or anything.

He appears to be completely ignorant of the fact that many police departments require a college degree in CJ. My reading of those degree requirements says that any motivated HS grad can pull that off.

His argument is an example of proof by assertion, which is adequate when preaching to a choir that shares his implicit assumptions.

As you note, he assumes "IQ is fixed, precise" and that nothing in an educational context can change it or what a person can do with it. That would seem to be an argument against bothering to educate anyone. Have the State sort them out and assign them to apprentice where needed, sort of like Trump does.
"That doesn't fit the basic fact that IQ scores have been rising steadily for decades to such a degree that the tests have to be re-centered every ten years to keep the average at 100."

This is called the Flynn effect and guess who named it that? Yes, it was Charles Murray in the Bell Curve. He was discussing some of Flynn's research. I don't have time to read the rest of your posting but you should read the Bell Curve, and when you look at the graphs, you can orient yourself by looking at the left side of them.
Murray kind of raises an interesting point, and one that I've thought about often.

Why is it that college is nearly a requirement for a decent living in this country? Not every student wants to be in college, and if they thought they'd be able to get a decent job without it, they'd stop going.
Murray's numbers may be suspect, and his politics may be questionable, but he's right about the general effects of the "democratization" of higher education. Not everyone wants what college (traditionally defined) has to offer, and not everyone benefits from a liberal education. Most students do, indeed, want and need vocational training. That vocational training need not be directed at the "craftsmen" that Murray seems so fond of romanticizing (and patronizing), of course. People need to be trained how to work in both blue-collar and white-collar jobs, and four years of a traditional college curriculum provides very little of that training.

Colleges can offer that training (and they're doing more and more of it, especially at the CC level), but they generally don't do it all that well. Furthermore, emphasizing vocational training takes away, in my experience, from the traditional mission of colleges and universitites, with the result that English composition classes, for example, now are expected to teach students skills that they will be able to "use."

European countries have long separated vocational training from the university track (a Belgian friend of mine graduated from Public Relations school, for example). It's not a perfect system, and it makes divisions that may be uncomfortable, but it can work.
Well, thought I'd try not to comment, but alas, I will. Say what you want about the Bell Curve, the technical data about intelligence is fairly well documented. The chief criticism of the Bell Curve is the social interpretation of the data.

That said, Murray is correct in pointing out some of the problems that we see with what an earlier poster called the democratization of higher education. More students are coming to college who don't benefit from what college has to offer, at least in the more traditional sense of intellectual challenge. We could, of course, say that we just change college to be less "intellectual." But I don't think that this is advisable. What we still do is have various "tiers" of colleges that cater more toward brighter kids. I don't know that this exactly solves any problems, but I think that is what continues to happen.

Murray's point about tradesman I think is not to say that tradesman are bright or not bright, or unionized or not, but that there are lots of good jobs that don't require a college education but that many people now don't want those jobs because they don't value them as "non-educated" jobs. I think he's right about that, and lots of folks would have a better time doing more vocational training than college training. I think a lot of us would agree with that.

So, what makes Murray so controversial? Because he talks in terms of IQ, and we are very wary to deal with this. We value it on the one hand, but feel somewhat queasy talking about it, especially about those folks who may not "have" a lot of it. But I think that this is part of the issue--is intelligence something you "have?" Can it be changed?

Certainly we can do things at a very early age to help enhance intelligence, unless, of course, the "wiring" is broken (brain trauma, etc.) But after a certain period it does seem that there is little data to support "raising" intelligence. I like to think of intelligence then as not something we "have" but as a measure of how well someone will do in school without outside assistance. I know, for example, that a kid with an 80 IQ ("low average") will have a devil of a time reading well in a typical 5th grade class without some extra assistance. This is what we are now talking about with public education--what can we do to make everyone learn?

The other aspect that Murray points out is that we need to start valuing things other than intelligence a lot more. And helping kids to have more options that don't involve traditional college for kids who might not best use what college has to offer. In an odd way Murray says "don't overvalue IQ."
A question for Murray's defenders: what vocations will still be hot ten years from now? And how do we know?

Murray's defenders seem to be taking the line of "he's telling difficult truths." No, he's not. He's wishing. He's wishing that we had some clue what kind of 'vocational education' would be relevant in the future. We don't. Narrow technical specializations tend to be either very hot or very cold, often in rapid succession. If we want people to have decent jobs beyond a single economic cycle, we need to be more realistic about what 'vocational' education might actually entail.

At Proprietary U, which prided itself on vocational relevance, employers constantly complained about the graduates' relative lack of 'soft skills.' We actually beefed up the 'general education' side of the curriculum specifically to address that.
DD, I agree that effective vocational training may mean more than simply teaching someone how to do a specific task. Training someone for work should include "soft skills," including such college staples as effective communication, writing skills, and critical thinking. What it probably won't include are things like a knowledge of U.S. history or the ability to effectively critique a piece of 19th-century poetry. In other words, the traditional college curriculum is a poor substitute for more focused vocational training. Asking colleges to pick up the slack definitely undermines the traditional idea of the liberal arts and probably shortchanges those potential jobseekers as well.
Thanks for a nice refutation of Murray's arguments. I agree we would benefit from a nationwide discussion of this ---- not his version. (I would love to hear more dialogue about the US system vs the "tracks" European education systems use, which seem less "democratic" and yet seem to have some things worked out better.)

What you don't spend much time on (and what concerns me with several commenters saying not everybody can benefit from college) is explaining the benefits of a liberal or university education ---- do only some people benefit from learning how to become informed citizens or why they should participate in the democratic process? Shouldn't everyone benefit from learning "critical thinking" and how to evaluate media messages? (Sure, you get some of this in high school, but in a mind-numbingly boring way).

There's also always the cynical argument (Robert Mott?? I'm totally blanking on the name) that the increased use of college functions to keep large numbers of people out of the workforce, just as keeping high school age people in class for most of the day prevents them from competing for jobs.

--- trystero
Two comments: For those looking to find what they want to do, there is the gap year between secondary school and college, which has institutionalized itself in England and elsewhere.

Second, the statistics in the Bell Curve are as fraudulent as everything that Murray touches. Nicholas Lehman had a fairly good, non-technical, takedown in slate with case studies illustrating his argument. For example, in the first case study, Murray and Herrnstein use applicant data to stand for attendees IQ, without letting you know that the data is for applicants. Moreover, they mangle the applicant data.
It's true that there's huge demand for workers in the building trade, but that's because not a lot of people want those jobs.

First of all, there's the work, which is hard, both mentally and physically, not to mention physically uncomfortable (since so much of the work is outdoors or in attics and crawlspaces). Plumbers often find themselves shin deep in other people's shit. That's not fun.

Job security is the second big problem. First of all, you're paid by the job, and you're not necessarily guaranteed another one. Then there's the yearly boom and bust that goes with any seasonal work.

Finally, there's the double whammy of injuries and ability to work. If you slip and fall off the roof, not only are you hurt, but you're unable to work until you get better. Even a little slip up that results in a couple of stitches on your finger could sideline you for a couple of weeks, and being off the job for the wrong couple of weeks can really screw up your finances in work that's as seasonal as construction.
Thought provoking. Thanks for the article everything still feels like a bit of a mystery shrouded in an enigma when you get to the end though.
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