Should education be compulsory?

If there’s someone that’s going to put up an interesting argument against compulsory education, it’s the late libertarian economist and philosopher Murray Rothbard. While it doesn’t seem like he had much involvement with schooling, his perspective is so different to mainstream thought that it’s worth discussing here. When I’ve previously read Rothbard, I’ve been both stimulated and disappointed by his work, but it always makes you think, and the clarity of his exposition is rarely matched. If he’s wrong, we will all see it.

His political philosophy centres on the use of force, and particularly his opposition to the government’s monopoly thereon. He also employs a priori reasoning to create a theory, through which he then views events. Bearing these considerations in mind, we know we will get a certain perspective in this text. But therein lies the interest for me.  Below is a short summary and discussion of the first chapter of Rothbard’s Education: Free and Compulsory.

Rothbard starts with a child’s process of growing up, involving developing goals (ends) based on the individuality of the self, and a growing understanding of how to achieve them (means). Forming this rational means-ends framework is the process of growing up, and there is much useful knowledge to be gained in this process, of which formal instruction to convey intellectual knowledge is but one part. This involves reason and observation, and once these basic skills are learnt (through reading, writing, arithmetic), the learning of science, moral sciences (economics, politics, etc) and imaginative studies (literature) can occur. Outside of this, people formulate ideas about the world, how people relate to each other and how to achieve subjectively-determined ends within this world.

(There is much of this type of perspective in Thomas Sowell’s A Conflict of Visions and Knowledge and Decisions, wherein distinctions are made between ‘articulated knowledge’ such as that which is formally taught in schools, and other, less- or non-articulated knowledge, which is not formally taught. One can position Rothbard as respecting both sets of knowledge, while those whom Rothbard criticises later, as wishing to design a system based on their conceptions of useful knowledge, ignore unarticulated knowledge. Importantly, though, Rothbard criticises such people more for their willingness to control people through emphasising articulated knowledge, the instruction of which they control.)

Rothbard notes the individuality of children and people is a natural phenomenon, and that the growth of civilisation, brought about through specialisation (a form of knowledge creation), makes us more unequal. The push for uniformity to achieve equality of outcomes will stifle a student’s individuality and societal progress. Instead, equality should be emphasised by allowing students to develop their faculties and personalities, and to do so, they must be free from coercion and equal before the law. (One can also include freedom from economic constraint, one of the bases upon which a different strand of liberalism is underpinned. One can thus see the underlying tensions inherent in debate about free schooling – it depends upon one’s conception of liberalism.)

Therefore, Rothbard favours individual instruction, provided by parents, as the best means to educate children. It is voluntary, context-dependent, utilising the fullest knowledge of the individuality of the child, and not being burdened by the uniformity inherent in classroom teaching. Economic means are required to provide this education, and without such means, voluntary, individualised group-based schooling, focusing on the particular needs of the child, and without central direction backed with the use of force, will enable the individuality of a child to emerge, and allow a greater accountability mechanism to be used (exit). (Again, economic constraint is an issue here. Inherent in Rothbard’s analysis is that economic means can buy a better education. While some will argue this is bad for poor students, the lack of school choice now  – even when it’s free – has a similar effect.)

Rothbard provides other reasons for favouring voluntary educational methods: education can occur at appropriate paces, thereby tailoring education to a specific child’s needs; the level at which subjects are taught can be tailored to the specific capabilities of the child; the subjects that are taught can be tailored to the particular strengths of children;the amount of schooling can be tailored, allowing some students who have strengths in other areas to pursue their learning in those areas [this relates again to Rothbard’s (and Sowell’s) belief that there are many valuable forms of knowledge that can be attained, through various means].

Rothbard does not consider the downside of individualised instruction – the lower average ability of the teachers as more become involved in teaching. Rothbard seems to value the individualised instruction more than the average quality of the tuition, placing the emphasis of his argument on individualisation. It seems that a good middle ground is private schooling, and Rothbard is in favour of this.

Compulsory schooling laws, Rothbard argues, constitute an injustice on children, even those in private schools, by imposing by force standards of instruction that do not respect, and cannot consider, the individual needs of the child. The result is to move instruction to a lower academic level. To the extent that compulsory schooling laws allow for differentiation, this does not seem correct, but in reality, many schools, particularly comprehensive schools, seem to suffer from mixed abilities in one classroom, preventing appropriate differentiation. Indeed, my postgraudate teaching degree emphasised the need to differentiate within a lesson to cater for all needs, an impossible task that nonetheless is barely recognised as such. Good intentions often dominate over realism. Perhaps it is the best response we have to the system we are to work in. Try your best to differentiate.

Rothbard’s argument really centres on the uniformity and bluntness of centralised, compelled education. Each child is different, yet the force of law is going to force children into a situation that is not best for them. Rothbard also points out that the state, in assuming responsibility for education, is substituting itself for the parents in the child’s life, thereby stripping the family of the dignity of choice and responsibility, while imposing an inferior authority into the child’s life, one that does not have the incentive nor the information to do right by the child. In exercising it’s responsibility, the state will inevitably seek to control the child. Rothbard compares the horror of public education to the concept of a nation-wide chain of publicly run newspapers, with everyone compelled to read them. Naturally, this would be opposed by most people, and yet public education stirs but a few opponents. The ‘domain dependence’ in this type of thinking is revealed.

While Rothbard doesn’t consider some of the benefits of public education, he makes an interesting case against it. Human dignity and differentiation, and confidence in parents, form the basis of his perspective, as does his repulsion against the use of force. I tend to see myself as more utilitarian with respect to force, and am less offended by it than Rothbard. But Rothbard makes a good, albeit narrow case. If one accepts his premises on differentiation, dignity and force, it may be difficult to mount a counter to his argument. Expedience may be one. And of course the underlying notion in society that education is a human right and must be provided or at least funded by the state is an ideology that is not going anywhere fast. It is tied up in the notion of formal equality of opportunity (although it could be argued that substantive equality of opportunity is also a goal of public educationists, by stripping students of unearned advantages). While the intention to provide formal equality of opportunity is admirable, I wonder what the benefits of stripping the government of it’s role entirely, including of funding, would be on the education system? Perhaps greater inequality but an overall improved situation? One’s level of aversion to inequality will be critical in how one thinks of this type of situation, but as Rothbard quite rightly notes, people are different, ability and interest in education differs, so should we be aiming for equality at all, or is it an arbitrary, utopian vision that ignores the very nature of man? Indeed, the type of liberalism that will impede deregulated education from occurring is underpinned by the notion that humans are malleable and perfectible. This is inconsistent with reality.

Don’t sit that exam, you’ll bring the school average down


The Age reported yesterday on the tendency for some schools to discourage less academic students, who may harm the school’s test scores, from taking the final exams that allow students to qualify for university straight out of school. The article specifically concerns students in Victorian (Australia’s second most populous state), who can complete a vocational program (the VCAL), or an academic program (the VCE), the latter providing an option to finish with or without a score. If without a score, or if completing the VCAL, the school’s average is not affected as students do not receive an Australian Tertiary Admission Rank (ATAR). The article notes that students who do not receive an ATAR feel a lack of self-worth – they feel like ‘failures’ and ‘rejects’.

One of the students who continued with his academic studies, despite pressure from his school not to, received an ATAR of 53 (with 100 being top of the state and most degrees requiring substantially higher scores than 53).

Another student did not sit the exam, despite studying the academic program. He sat out the exams at the urging of his school. One teacher reportedly told him that he ‘was not cut-out for the high-stakes exam’.

According to one teacher, the process of urging lower achieving students from getting an ATAR was ‘sophisticated scheme’ to ‘weed out’ underperformers.


There a number of issues to discuss here:

The obsession with results over learning. In their current form, schooling causes an obsession with marks and results in senior school, with the students’ grades a ticket to university. For those hoping education would be an end in itself, the system would kill that hope. For those seeing it as a means to an end, the end is questionable. Too many students are attending university, and are not getting enough time working and gaining employable skills. Unfortunately, university is still a strong signal to employers of human capital.

It is true that many students are not cut out for the rigours of university. As Charles Murray wrote persuasively in Real Education, only 10-20% of students really have the aptitude to go to university and do it well. So, despite the seeming underhandedness of the schools’ urging of students to not gain university admissions ranks, the pressure for lower-achieving students to shift into vocational study is not a bad idea, particularly if strong avenues exist for them. This is in contrast to the advice from David Roycroft, principal of Oakwood School:

“He [Roycroft] says while VCAL is “terrific” in building vocational skills, it should not be the default option for students with low grades.

“If the student is thinking that they are heading towards tertiary study, then they should be doing a VCE program, regardless of their grades.””

Currently, I side with Murray on this. Murray argues that its better for someone to move into a vocation and earn a strong living than finish university near the bottom of the cohort and try to compete for jobs in a saturated market. The educated labour market may not pay-off for these students, and they should consider other pathways. The trouble here is that schools are urging these students to do vocational courses without a proper institutional or social backing for such an education. It is deemed less successful if a student learns a trade instead of attends university, and attention in schools is on the ATAR, so naturally less academic students feel marginalised. No wonder students who probably should be learning a trade are instead sitting the VCE and getting an ATAR of 53. (Admittedly, the student who scored 53 had aspirations of being a director and missed out on his desired course by only one mark. So perhaps it was the right call – he tried and failed, but good on him for having a go. Failure is ok! The question of whether a student should be at university with an ATAR of 53 (and universities accepting students with such scores) is another matter. Perhaps it is fine if the degree is not overly academic in nature (given that the ATAR is determined mainly by academic study)).

Despite the above comments, the student that studied the VCE but was discouraged from sitting the exams and getting an ATAR, has been done a tremendous disservice by his school. If the student was not overly academic, he should have been encouraged to go into vocational study much earlier. It is cruel to say to this student that, after all the study he had done, you are not good enough to sit the exams. The point of the exams is to determine if the student is good enough. Not the teacher. Making this decision at such a late point is a let-down for the student. It suggests the school did not have the student’s interests at heart.

Time spent focusing on growth of the individual outside of school, or finding other avenues after school other than university, could be time well spent. Students can unschool themselves – a process of ridding the strictures and focus of schooling from the person, to enable them to become the person they should be, not the person the schooling system channeled them towards. Working and exploring passions are ideal ways to do this. Earning a living and transitioning into the adult world with a flourishing hobby are rewarding and productive ways of entering adulthood, and should make those who do it, happy. Given the rise of mental health issues, this is no mean feat.


Overall, the article is a reflection of our obsession with the school-university-graduate job track in life. That track may well fall apart as we find better signals of human capital and learning becomes increasingly separate from schooling. The effect of this system on students and schools is detrimental. Students should have choices to enable them to flourish, and our obsession with schooling is getting in the way of that.




Pre-service teaching degrees: accountability and control

I’ve thought for a while now that the pre-service teaching degree is one of the few instruments of control the government exercises over teacher quality. They have little ability to control teachers once they are in the job (aside from certification requirements), given the strength of the union and worker rights.  In exercising control, the government determines what is required for a teacher to be qualified and certified. It has attempted, in NSW, to wrest back control of teacher talent from the universities by setting higher standards for certification and entry. Combine this with societal panic over education and the incentive of existing teachers to erect barriers to the profession, and you have an overly cumbersome process of becoming a teacher. Admittedly, the pre-service teaching degree in NSW does a reasonable job at equipping teachers for the demands of teaching, but it is lengthy and lacking in relevance at times. A much more efficient way of training teachers would be for schools to hire them without  teaching qualifications, have them initially engaged in an internship/apprenticeship  program with observation, practise and formal study, the latter provided by an external provider and potentially subsidised by government. The progressive Teacher Wars gave favourable treatment to an American internship-style teaching program. Not only does it get teachers into work quickly and before they commence study, it is also an appropriate way to teach teachers. Practical placements remain the best teaching tools for pre-service teachers.

Ultimately, though, of importance is not qualifications or certifications. It is whether you are a good teacher. The reason we have such a need for certification and qualification is because our students and parents struggle to hold teachers to account. Certification is the means of accountability you exercise when you can’t actually exercise it. A form of ex-ante, attempted  accountability. And it is actually compliance, a different thing altogether than accountability. Further, it is also about government controlling the system. (For example, even private schools must study the NSW curriculum and be certified and qualified as determined by the government, despite parents clearly being able to exit their chosen school if need be and demand higher standards. Thus, it is not solely about the government’s inability to keep the public school system accountable.)

If students were empowered with more options and the means to exercise them, greater accountability would emerge without the need for many regulations. Teachers could be hired without qualifications and held to account by the school and the parents. This would be effective if students had school choice. Teachers could be employed on negotiated terms, not terms dictated by a lengthy and opaque enterprise bargaining process. It would not be perfect. But it would be more incentive compatible than the current system, where accountability is hard to achieve and relevant knowledge difficult to transmit.

As Charles Murray wrote so eloquently in In Pursuit, schooling is just about the most natural thing that could form in a community. Stripping people of the dignity of choice and responsibility does nothing to achieve empowered, responsible citizens. If we want to solve the problem of disengagement in schooling and by parents, consider that their responses to disengagement may well be rational, and that a new type of schooling system would be needed to remedy that. Such a system empowers the student, putting them, not the department, union and teachers, first.

Are students rational when they’re disengaged?

I’m following my post on disengagement and resistance in the classroom with the idea that students may be rational when disengaged. As teachers we may try to convince them that it is in their best interests to apply themselves, but what does the rational actor model suggest?

Rational ignorance is where a person foregoes knowledge because the cost of obtaining it exceeds the benefit. They are rationally ignorant. The most common example of this concept is voting – voters will not pay adequate attention to politicians as their vote doesn’t count; there is no benefit to them of being informed, so why incur the cost of doing so?

In the classroom, students may perceive little benefit to what they are studying. They are required to study particular subjects as determined by the government, which often diverge from their interests. Meanwhile, in choosing to disengage, they are conserving mental energy and focusing their efforts on internal considerations of value to them, or impressing their friends, who may be similarly disengaged and reward such behaviour. Value is subjective, and it does not matter whether the teachers or government consider year 9 geography or science to be of value in the eyes of the student. It is all down to the students’ perception of value, and I’m inclined to consider that their perception of value is stronger than we give them credit for. For example, consider the extent of memory loss in ‘just-in-case’ knowledge. If it is learnt once and not revised, most of the knowledge will disappear over time, so it even fails to live up to the ‘just-in-case’ aim. To recall such knowledge, students must revise on several occasions over the next few days and months to achieve a high level of recall. The cost of this activity is quite high, and even then the value of the knowledge may be low to these students’ lives.

So we have a system where, for a substantial amount of students, they are acting in their best interests when acting against the wishes of teachers, parents and bureaucrats. Perhaps in considering education policy, incentive compatibility would be a necessary consideration. But that’s not what politics is about (which is another reason to remove education from the political realm and place it in the market, where the those in transactions are families and schools, not political actors.

It is true that students lift their game during senior school. The HSC is a big intellectual sorting system, allocating students to different university courses based on a measure of academic ability. Therefore, students rationally demand more knowledge during the HSC arms race. But justifying a system on the final two years of a 13 year journey makes no sense.

Prior to senior schooling, their is little benefit to marginal knowledge. Instead, perhaps we should be engaging students in projects that they value. To the shock of my friend, I recently suggested that students be engaged in work to a greater extent and far earlier than is typically the case. I asked my 14 year old students how many of them would be interested in work experience. Hands shot up across the classroom…

What if grocery stores worked like public schools?

The must-read piece of the day.

by Eric Schuler

One of the most important things to consider when buying a house is the quality of the grocery district.

As the name implies, the grocery district determines which public grocery store you and your family get to use. District maps are drawn by the government to ensure each grocery store has an appropriate number of patrons based on its capacity. Most residents are assigned to the public grocery store that is closest to their home.

Groceries are paid for primarily by local taxes. If residents go to their local public grocery store, they get their weekly groceries without any additional out-of-pocket cost. However, they cannot get groceries from a public grocery store that’s outside of their district.

In most purchasing decisions, people are not limited to a single provider in their jurisdiction.

In theory, all of the public grocery stores are supposed to provide equal access to high-quality food. Indeed, this is largely why government got involved in the grocery business in the first place. Politicians believed that access to food was a fundamental right and they were concerned that a free enterprise model would inadequately serve poor people. After all, there is not much profit to be made selling to those of lesser means. Or so it was argued at the time.

Unfortunately, it’s clear that wide disparities still exist in the public system of food distribution. Poorer neighborhoods tend to have public grocery stores that offer bad service, limited selection, and occasionally even unsanitary conditions. It’s not uncommon to find food well beyond its sell-by date.

Meanwhile, in richer neighborhoods, public grocery stores are typically high quality. Most approximate the quality and selection that existed in chains like Fred Meyer, Trader Joe’s, or Albertsons before the system of public food distribution was implemented.

This is why it has become essential to consider the quality of the grocery district when looking for a place to live. Live in a good district, and you’ll get diverse, healthy food for your family. Live in a bad district, and your family’s well-being is likely to suffer.

Critics argue that this system is especially harmful to poor people. In most purchasing decisions, people are not limited to a single provider in their jurisdiction. If they don’t like the bank or the mall that’s closest to them, they can drive to one that’s a little farther away that they like better. But in groceries, if they don’t like the public store that’s in their district, the main solution is to move elsewhere. If they can’t afford to move to a better grocery district–and many cannot–then they are likely to be stuck with a bad public grocery store.

One other option for residents in low-quality grocery districts is private grocery stores. In most areas, there’s no law preventing people from getting their groceries from private providers instead of the public system. However, since people utilizing the private system do not get a refund for the taxes they paid into the public system, they effectively end up paying twice. This naturally makes the private solution less accessible to families of lesser means.

Of course, no one thinks this public grocery system is ideal–especially since it retains the very inequality it hoped to eliminate. But while everyone agrees there is a problem, there is little agreement on the possible solutions.

It remains to be seen which reforms will be tried next, but history suggests that we should not be too optimistic.

The Real World

The system described above probably sounds absurd. But, in many respects, it is the system we use to provide education in the US.

Education is important. It might be too important to leave to the government.

One often hears that education is too important to leave to the whims of the market. Yet food is even more important; it’s a prerequisite before education can be considered. In spite of this, the (relatively) free market in food seems to work quite well.

Consumers get a wide variety at a low cost. Even people that have niche dietary requirements like gluten-free or vegan have products suited to them. And while complaints about the quality of public education are rampant, one rarely hears objections about the quality of the grocery stores. In the latter case, people don’t have to complain; they just take their business to someone who will serve them better.

As a consequence, the inequality that exists with respect to grocery stores is actually much smaller than the inequality that exists in education. Whether you’re in a poor area or a middle-class area, the local Walmart is pretty much going to be the same Walmart. Even the gap in offerings between Walmart and, say, Whole Foods, is not so severe. One could still easily purchase the ingredients for a healthy diet in either establishment. But in public education, the difference between good schools and bad can be night and day. It could mean the difference between children graduating or dropping out, progressing or falling behind.

So perhaps it’s time to turn the conventional wisdom on its head. Education is important. It might be too important to leave to the government.

Originally published at



What we can learn from James Scott and Albert Hirschman about schooling

With the publication of the Engaging Students report, the Grattan Institute hit upon a widely-felt but under-reported phenomenon in classrooms – disengagement. According to authors Peter Goss and Julie Sonnemann, disengagement and minor disruptions are more widespread than anti-social and aggressive behaviours, and about 40 per cent of students are disengaged. These students are 1-2 years behind their peers, and affect the the whole class’s learning.

I’m going to look outside of classroom research to think about this issue. One of the transformational moments in my education was reading James C Scott’s Weapons of the Weak. [This paragraph outlines the book, but you can skip to the next paragraph as its non-essential.] Written in the 1980s, it examines the impact in rural Malaysia of the Green Revolution – the introduction of new production techniques into agriculture, which  increased productivity and changed relationships in the village. The gap grew between wealthy and poor, which shattered their  existing arrangements (the poor ascribed the wealthy villagers with status, who in return provided feasts and some assistance to the poor). Once the wealthy had new production techniques and huge production surpluses, and less need for labour with their substitution of more productive technologies, their attention shifted away from the poor towards the faraway markets they began to serve.  What was once a highly interdependent village with the social and economic intertwined was now more explicitly transactional, and traditional roles and bonds were weakened.

The book details the ‘everyday forms of resistance’ carried out by the losers of the Green Revolution, in the form of behaviours such as gossip, shirking, theft, etc. According to Wikipedia, Scott’s follow up, Domination and the Arts of Resistance describes the hidden and public transcripts that occur in a situation of domination. Public transcripts relate to what is outwardly displayed, which is often done to avoid the attention of the oppressors, while hidden transcripts relate to the behind-the-scenes actions of the oppressed. In order to understand the oppressed, one must look to these hidden transcripts.

There is something to be learned from James C Scott about the classroom. Students show the teacher one face and their friends another. They use minor forms of resistance everyday. Much like shirking workers, they disengage from school work. They disrupt to a low level, enough to disrupt the class and show their resistance. It is this low level disruption, and disengagement, that should be the main focus of school teachers with respect to discipline and engagement.

Consider disengagement and minor disruption as preventing shirking under a labour contract, with the teacher as the employer and the student as the employee. Disengagement effectively increases the ‘transaction costs’ involved in the classroom, through greater monitoring and enforcement costs.

Another way to look at it is Albert Hirschman’s Exit, Voice and Loyalty. If students are unhappy and disengaged, they can either voice their concerns or leave the school. Except they can’t – most students will not be able to leave the school as they compulsorily attend the local state school. And if they do move to an independent school, they are still subject to the NSW curriculum. In this instance, the best prospects for change would be to use voice to influence the school in your favour. But with little hope of exit, and the domination of the teachers, backed up by legislation, students are often left with no option but to quell voice and exercise everyday forms of resistance.

It shouldn’t have to be this way. By removing the curriculum monopoly currently in place, and offering students choice in schooling, students could vote with their feet. With voice currently not a great option, exit would be useful. The presence of exit would enhance voice and bring hidden transcripts into the light of day (rendering them ‘public transcripts’). Schools should be trying to understand these hidden transcripts anyway, but with the threat of exit, and the enhanced voice that will follow, it will be difficult to ignore student sentiment.

Ideas on schooling and education

  1. Education is different to schooling. Schooling can involve little education, and education can occur without schooling.
  2. Time may be the biggest cost of education.
  3. Education: is it about learning, signalling, self-acculturation, learning to submit to authority, or something else?
  4. Half the students are below average, and only 10-20% of students should go to university.
  5. University is a bubble.
  6. In today’s world, one of the biggest impediments to an education is yourself.
  7. University education is mainly a private good, not a public good.
  8. Education is an arms race.
  9. Deregulate university fees only after the removal of subsidies and government loans. Until then, keep the cap on. Uneven deregulation is a cause of many problems and is partly why markets get blamed when things go wrong..

The curriculum monopoly is the problem

Changes to the NSW curriculum were released today. While some of these changes were positive, the fact remains that the government has a monopoly on the curriculum in NSW. It is stifling innovation and choice. If the government gets the syllabus wrong, it’s a pretty big stuff up. And inevitably it will, because it doesn’t and can’t know what students want. Students are individuals, whose dreams and skills the government is not privy to. On the other hand, choice activates the market to respond to such dreams.

I asked my students what they want and its something very different to what’s on offer, something more relevant to their interests, with more just-in-time knowledge and less just-in-case knowledge. Current arrangements result in disengagement and complacency. It’s evident everyday. We’ll only get a system that responds to the needs of it’s customers and get happy, thriving students, if choice and pluralism is allowed.  Students should be given the dignity and option to choose for themselves. It’s that simple.


As Jeffrey Tucker has written so eloquently, when we hinder human activity, we don’t get all the unknown wonders that could’ve been created otherwise.

Complacency and educational attainment

Short and sharp today – much to do. Tyler Cowen’s upcoming book, The Complacent Class, is so timely for me because it’s a book that comments on something I’ve been observing and thinking about for a long time – our cultural complacency. Call it a curse of affluence, call it arrogance, call it diverted attention. Whatever it is, it’s a thing. It’s present. I see it in the classroom, whether it’s students coddled and kept away from the world, rendering them unprepared for life, or parents not sufficiently valuing education. Perhaps it’s a product of our material situation – necessity is a major driver of human energy and production, and abundance has, to some extent, sapped us of our drive. Millennial podcaster Megan Tan stumbled across this in her fascinating episode on affluence and privilege. While privilege has benefits, it also has costs, and lack of drive is one of them. Privilege is not black and white.

Research tells us that motivation and engagement is critical in learning, yet so much concern in education relates to what the government or teacher can do. Instead, sometimes we just have to help ourselves. The path forward is self-improvement as much as it is institutional improvement (or what Yuval Levin described as ‘taking the long way‘ to liberty).

Bottom line: complacency seems to be an unmeasured (ie residual) cause of stagnant or falling educational attainment.

Real Education by Charles Murray

“This book calls for a transformation of American education – a transformation not just of means but of ends. We need to change the way the schools do business. We also need to redefine educational success….The educational system is living a lie. The lie is that every child can be everything he or she wants to be. No one really believes it, but we approach education’s problems as if we did.” – Charles Murray, Real Education

Last year I raced through Charles Murray’s Real Education. The book’s message is unpopular, at least not in teaching departments at mainstream universities. Which is why it is important to consider.

Short summary

Students vary in ability. Children of lower ability will not be able to do the work required in schools, nor are they capable of sustained, substantial academic improvement. Meanwhile, gifted students are not fulfilled. Too many students who are not capable of going to uni are doing just that, but will not be prepared for life due to a weak primary and secondary education and poor ranking in their uni class. On the other hand, gifted students are not getting the liberal education needed to make wise and virtuous decisions that affect many in society. Murray recommends higher standards, greater matching of students’ abilities to their education, school choice, certification instead of degrees to signal aptitude and skills to employers, and a more exclusive, higher standard and more liberal BA.

Longer discussion

Ability varies

Ability varies, and many students with below average ability are not going to do well at school, no matter what money or attention are thrown at them. I found this contestable, but to his credit, he proposes conducting a major study to prove or disprove this perspective in the last chapter.

Multiple intelligences

Murray invokes Gardner’s multiple intelligences (linguistic, logical-mathematical, spatial, musical, bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal) and notes that they are not equal. Only linguistic, mathematical-logical and spatial intelligence correlate highly with academic ability, and academic ability tends to predict which students get into and do well at college, and which go onto top jobs. Other intelligences – eg bodily-kinesthetic and musical – are not highly correlated with academic ability and do not have great employment opportunities. With students gifted with different ability in each of the seven intelligences, there will be students simply not able to do well academically and go into top jobs.

Half the students are below average

Murray notes the fact that half of the students are below average. This is obvious, but he wants us to really consider what this means. Most of the readers of Real Education will be academically able and may not have witnessed the struggles of a below average student. He notes the number of students who cannot answer basic questions (eg, 77.5 per cent of eighth graders did not know the answer to a question involving adding 10 per cent to 90). He just isn’t optimistic that we can sustainably and substantially improve these students’ scores. When students with such differences in ability are in a class with academically-gifted students, he calls it effectively a difference in kind, not a difference in degree. Reading this, I considered my ability to do art. I was woeful, and quite a gap from the gifted students. The degree of difference was so vast it may have well been a difference in kind. I may have improved with a lot of help, but this would have been very costly, and not aligned with my natural gifts or interests, so why bother? This line of thought gets a tad depressing, but I wonder to what extent students of low ability in academics are similar to me in art. Surely more than a few. This does seem to dent what Murray calls the “Utopians” in education. But the obvious answer to “why bother” is the very notion that linguistic and mathematical-logical skills are relevant to work, and therefore the “why bother” becomes “how can you not bother?” It does makes you wonder though: if art were the majority of the curriculum instead of subjects testing linguistic and mathematical-logical intelligences, what kind of a student would I have been, and in this instance, what would be the best option for me to maximise my time?

Some issues

Reading Murray’s perspective made me consider a few other issues. How does one explain excellent relative performance in South Korea, China, etc if Murray is correct? It may be that their education system is less liberal, more focused, with more rote learning and teaching to the test, more time in the classroom, and a greater culture of learning. In other words, they pay a price for their achievement. But then of course there’s Finland. Putting this aside, these examples seem to undermine Murray’s point.

Another perspective is the changeability of IQ. Thomas Sowell writes about the shifting IQ of different groups in society over time, indicating that things like culture and educational attainment and access can affect IQ in no small way.

I’m also made to think about the claim that academic achievement varies more within schools than between them (I hear this not infrequently in my teaching degree). Academics take this to mean that the teachers within a school vary tremendously, particularly as it is teachers that have the biggest ‘effect size’ (influence on attainment) after the student itself. But to me, this seems like evidence of the variety of ability between students, which in comprehensive schools will be vast within the school, but may even out across schools.

The benefit of school choice

Interestingly, Murray does not blame the schools for these outcomes, but in the nature of the children themselves. Despite this, he does go onto advocate school choice. But here he makes a fascinating point: ignore the maths and reading scores when debating school choice. These scores relate mostly to students ability, and both private and public schools face the difficulty of lifting students’ scores. Private schools are desirable because they offer a better education for students that is not picked up by reading and maths scores.It is schools that are more free to act and respond to the needs of the attendees that will provide them with the particular education they need.

Too many go to university

After considering the abilities of the students, Murray then claims that too many students attend college. Only 20 per cent (or more realistically, 10 per cent) of students have the ability to do a four year degree and do it well. Murray examines random passages from introductory books in survey courses for first year students, and indeed, they are challenging passages! A four year college degree should provide a rigorous liberal education for the future bankers, lawyers, doctors, etc who tend to get the top jobs. Less academic students can achieve a liberal education in primary and high school, where a more traditional and rigorous curriculum should be used. These students should be taught the basics for living a good life and being a citizen, and basic skills for getting a job. It is the philosophically devoid elite that need a rigorous, liberal college education, because while they may be smart and nice, they are not wise and virtuous. These attributes are required, in Murray’s opinion, if they are assuming powerful positions in society that affect many lives. I agree with Murray that many ‘educated’ people are well-trained but not really educated, and this is to our detriment. We are crying out for wisdom, philosophy, and virtue.

A hypothetical

Murray is strong when he considers a hypothetical high school student, facing a decision faced by many. The student, gifted with his hands and some spatial ability, but only in the 70th percentile for academic ability (remember Murray consider only 10-20 per cent of students should go to college). Should he do a trade, or go to university and then attempt to enter a business management role after graduation? The encouragement from authorities and intellectuals is to attend college, but how well would this really pan out? Aside from the debt incurred, the student, in attending college, would not compare will with his peers at university and may not perform very well in the graduate market. On the other hand, if he were to learn a trade, he would not only be doing what he is gifted at and thereby get pleasure and satisfaction from his work, but he may also earn more than in management by being atop a profession that pays reasonably. This analysis seems right, and it’s a view that seems to be growing, despite the push for more higher education. Murray argues that encouraging university as the be-all-and-end-all makes it punishing for those that do not graduate or attend college. The more widespread is the degree, the more worrisome it is for employers if an applicant does not have one.

Murray’s proposals

Murray finishes with some proposals:

  • Perform a massive experiment to once and for all address the issue of student ability and the changeability of it.
  • Discover what is possible so we can focus on what is possible.
  • Assess each students’ ability in order to better tailor education to students’ needs.
  • Teach core knowledge to every student (a liberal education).
  • Let gifted children go as fast as they can. Improve discipline and standards of behaviour.
  • Expand choice – through voucher, private schools, home schooling, curricula, etc.
  • Use certification to undermine the power of the signal that is the BA – the labour market is plagued with the issue of discovering who is skilled and motivated, and who is not. The BA is a signal, but it is flawed  and certification can provide a “known, trusted measure of their qualifications that they can carry into job interviews”. This is a topic for another post.


This book was mostly beautifully argued and challenging to the orthodoxy. For that, it deserves great credit. But, from my relatively uninformed perspective, it seemed to have some questionable views that require more investigation. Other parts were music to my ears – it’s so refreshing to read a social scientist who also sees the bigger picture, steeped in philosophy. Murray himself is illustrative of his argument – that our top students need to be taught to be citizens, not just to enter professions.