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.


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