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.