We’ve gotten things the wrong way round

In the current system of universal compulsory education, where education is a right, we’ve gotten things the wrong way round.

In aiming for universal education, we end up achieving something far less superior. If we aimed at something far more modest, we’d get further in our goals. Let me explain.

Currently, the disruptive students receive a lot of the teacher’s attention. They’re not entirely rational, but one thing they are quite good at is knowing how much they can misbehave before the consequences are too dire. They push the limits, and in doing so, they stymie the class’s progress. It is these small acts of individual defiance, rebellion or fun that wear away at the goal of universal education.

The disruptive students receive much of the teacher’s attention, while the more academic students sit frustrated and bored. The result is that we do not maximise the learning that could take place. The disruptive students are learning very little, while the academic students are substantially impeded. What we need is a situation where we maximise learning, which would come from a situation where more academic students receive the education and challenge they require, and if the other students cannot meet the standard, they are moved onto something else. We’ve got things exactly the wrong way round.

If we were harsher on our disruptive students, and focused more on the academic students, there would be more learning and less disruption. The disruptive students would realise that in order for them to be able to participate in the class, they would need to change their behaviour. If we increased the consequences for misbehaviour, the part of them that is rational may well adjust to this new environment. In doing so, learning is maximised. The disruptive students would be less disruptive, and both the disruptive students and the academic students would do more learning. For those that cannot handle this environment, they would have alternative options (in a more pluralistic and diverse education system).

There is a major caveat here. In forcing our children to go to school, they are very dependent on the environment of that school, which comes down to the school culture and rules and the quality of the teaching. I want to make a small point here on the quality of the teaching. If the teaching is bad or mediocre, it is difficult to blame students for not being interested and disrupting the class. They are very dependent on their environment. Therefore, for a system like this to be a fair one, it has to be a high performing system. Unfortunately, the NSW public education system is not one.

Another caveat is that we need a more pluralistic system to enable students that cannot cope in a more disciplined, rigorous academic classroom to be able to do something else with their time. This would require a range of different types of schools offering a range of different types of programs. Unfortunately, we do not have that and arguably cannot produce that in the NSW system.

A final caveat is that in forcing education upon the students, it is likely to meet resistance, and if not, is not likely to deeply resonate with them. The Socratic wisdom that you cannot educate someone until he or she is asking the relevant questions is still relevant. Many students are not overly academic and will not be asking questions about Rome, or chemistry or Hamlet. It is not surprising that there is a huge compliance problem in getting students to participate and learn when there is insufficient choice and relevance, and where other options have been removed from their lives.

In summary, if we aim for universal education, we will not achieve it and our efforts will backfire. We need a more disciplined approach in the classroom, and more options for those that do not fit. We need to abolish the compulsory nature of education (while maintaining public funding), and make our schools much more accountable. One way to do this would be to give the students the option of exit. Currently, the education system is an example of the imposed wisdom of planners on innocent children, who have other plans and naturally stymie the grand vision of compulsory universal education.



Human dignity

Yesterday I mentioned the importance of self-help in improving lives. While government policy is  critical, public discussion needs to rebalance, by bringing into focus the ways in which we can help ourselves

Policy and individual choices interact in interesting ways, one of which is the propensity for well-intentioned policymakers to diminish the dignity of others, which then affects the latter’s outlook and decisions. Whether it is viewing people as being in need of help, or  actually trying to help them, policymakers undermine peoples’ dignity, much to the detriment of society.

As government diminished the need for those who support us by providing risk management services, it reduced the consequences of bad decisions. We now seem to have a dysfunctional working class, beset with problems such as drug abuse, obesity, unemployment and government dependency, culminating in a dignity deficit.

As people sought safety, security and stability (and government provided it), we sacrificed the opportunity to be of value to others. We shifted our dependence from family, friends and community to the government, emancipating us from obligations (both good and bad). (It seems that independence, space and privacy are normal goods, meaning we want more of them as we become richer, and we have been willing to pay for them. If we cannot pay for them ourselves, the government has provided it.)

A major cause of the loss of human dignity is the social scientist working with the politician (collectively: ‘planners’). The social scientist sees humans not as agents of their own destiny but as data points to manipulate, and politicians have public choice influences on their decisions. The result is that an ordinary person turns into the means of achieving a planners’ end. There is no dignity there, no matter how good the planner’s intentions.

Many commentators say that planners have ignored the working class. But this is not quite true. We have certainly thrown money at it, which is attempting to help people (e.g., the War on Poverty in the US). But planners have also seen them as people that need helping, which strips them of their dignity. Instead of offering a positive message, planners offer a negative one.  They haven’t ignored the working class per se, but they have stripped them of their dignity by attempting to save them.

Planners have also focused on less relevant issues than basic economic opportunity and human dignity, while imposing regulation that blocks opportunity. So, the pretense of care shown by planners is shallow and selective. Their actions are actually a sign weakness and selfishness, the former because they meekly wilt in the presence of hardship, and the latter because they need to allay their own guilt and seek righteousness and redemption. It is about the working class’s need to be saved (and the planners’ divine need to be a saviour (see Joseph Bottum’s thesis on the shift from seeking righteousness through religion to seeking righteousness through politics)).

The focus in public debate should shift from what we can do for other people to what we can do for ourselves. It should also shift to providing an environment that is incentive-compatible with dignity. And we should also not view people as pawns to be manipulated in accordance with our vision of the world.

The solution lies within

Have you noticed that when we discuss an issue in education or society at large, the ‘solutions’ part of the conversation always centres on what government policy should be to solve or improve the problem. Seldom, if ever, does the questioner ask: what can people do for themselves? How can people change their mindsets and behaviours? How should culture change to improve the problem? We are continually looking for solutions from someone or somewhere else, and not looking at ourselves.

PS: I previously discussed this here.

Cowen, Peltzman, Taleb, Trump, and the Complacent Class

Tyler Cowen’s latest, The Complacent Class, is getting a lot of talk already. I haven’t yet read it, but some initial thoughts based on what I have heard.

Book thesis summary

In the Complacent Class, Cowen argues that people are taking less risks and seeking more comfort and security, leading to less dynamism in the economy. For example, people move less for new jobs, they seek security in discussion, they aim to control pain and distract themselves.

Cowen vs Peltzman

I wondered whether Cowen’s thesis was due to government making dynamism harder, which incentivises people to take less risk. But, as per the Peltzman Effect, if risk is artificially reduced, people will take more risk to get back to their preferred level of risk. Thus, the Peltzman effect suggests the opposite of Cowen’s thesis (if in fact there is an cause outside of the individual of the reduced risk). How do we reconcile these? Perhaps people are taking less risk in certain areas (such as moving jobs and house) and more risk in others (such a drug-taking and alcohol abuse), to ensure their overall level of risk remains the same. Or perhaps people simply do not like discomfort, and things like safety regulation (which Peltzman wrote about) were discomforting, while drug-taking and steadiness in employment and living are comforting. Or, perhaps it is not so much about risk for us as it is about the ongoing search for comfort and pain alleviation. Human history would be very different without this propensity, and perhaps, having achieved all the major breakthroughs with respect to modern innovation and the comforts they bring (as set out in Cowen’s The Great Stagnation), we are content to enjoy our comfort as we have been trying to do forever, thereby leading to ever lower levels of risk-taking (which is counter to Peltzman). Or, as alluded to above, perhaps our risk-taking has spilled into other domains. Daniel Bell’s The Cutural Contradictions of Capitalism, argued that capitalism saw us partying by night and working steadily by day, with the contradiction of capitalism being this inconsistency in our approach to life. Perhaps Bell was more prescient than we thought.

Cowen vs Taleb

This one is straightforward, it seems. Cowen apparently argues that greater individual safety may lead to greater collective risk. This is roughly what Taleb argued in Antifragile. Attempts at imposed security and stability only lead to vulnerability, like being on a salary but then losing your job. Consider this on a mass scale and you have the financial crisis of 2008, where seemingly stable jobs were no longer, and the more stable those jobs, the greater the losses (see this Italian labour market study as supporting evidence). Worker protection, or the desire for comfort, stability and security, only makes us more vulnerable.

I view this in the following way: we have ‘perceived risk’ and ‘true risk’ or ‘underlying risk’. We may not see the true state of risk until it hits us in the face, at which point underlying and perceived risk collide. Risk still exists, but we are doing our best to cover it, for the sake of personal comfort, all the while contributing to the risk and making ourselves more fragile.

Returns from risk-taking

If there is less-risk taking, shouldn’t there be greater returns to risk-taking? That is, if less people are being entrepreneurial, shouldn’t there be bigger opprtunities for those that do take a chance? Or, is it that there is less entrepreneurship because there are fewer potential returns? The Great Stagnation thesis supports the latter, although may it is peoples’ search for comfort and stability, which has now been conquered by many, may be diminishing the urge to be an entrepreneur. Perhaps we just really don’t like risk. If we don’t like risk, and we think we have the means to remove it, we grab that opportunity and build our dream – a stable, secure environment for us to divert ourselves pleasurably and trivially with entertainments and comforts, with people just like us.

Or perhaps returns for entrepreneurship really are down at the moment. The money to be made may instead be during the transition from our secure state to a new equilibrium, brought about by a decline or disruption. In such an environment, people will be spurred into action as new patterns of behaviour, production and consumption emerge.

So do we act now because no one else is acting, or act when we really need to, because only then will it be worth it?

Or perhaps the returns are available now, but the potential downside is bigger than ever? So while money can be made, we can lose more than we could have ever lost before. So we sit tight.

Cowen’s book in the Trump era

Perhaps entrepreneurship has been declining in an intellectual environment increasingly hostile to markets, profit and business, reinforced by a regulatory state that hampers business and dynamism. Perhaps the Trump administration will spur a resurgence entrepreneurship, through changes to culture, action and institutional setting, enabling us to avoid a decline and instead spur the required resurgence. Trump’s positive rhetoric about America’s potential, his apparent plan to make it happen, and his efforts to increase the status of everyday workers and business people, may well be the inevitable reaction to our ongoing complacency.


PS: see my earlier discussion on complacency, where I argue that complacency is the underappreciated reason for declining educational attainment.


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.




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 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.

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.

Can education keep up with technology?

It’s become clear that the US has splintered by class; cultural, social and economic gaps are growing. Couples are increasingly formed between people of similar socioeconomic status (‘assortative mating’), economic and social inequality is increasing, and the political divide is stark, drawn along cultural, educational and class lines. I view the US as a clear and well-documented example of a phenomenon I think is happening across the Western world, including Australia . It seems that these trends are likely to worsen, and education will play a major part in ameliorating them.

The link between education, technological advance and income inequality is becoming clearer by the day. A major book in this literature, hailed by economist Tyler Cowen as “The most important book on modern U.S. inequality to date”, is The Race Between Education and Technology by Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz of Harvard University. Goldin and Katz argue that we are not increasing educational attainment fast enough to keep pace with the demand for skilled workers, leading to greater inequality. Those with elite skills can demand a premium in the labour market as they lack competition in getting top jobs, while a glut of unskilled workers has emerged, thereby reducing their returns relative to highly skilled workers. But, as they note, this wasn’t always the case.

In the first three quarters of the twentieth century, the supply of skilled workers was relatively strong, which reduced income inequality. Education was outpacing technology and the associated demand for skilled workers. The opposite has occurred in the last three decades, leading to greater returns for skilled workers and increasing inequality.

The implication is that we need to increase educational attainment to keep up with the increasingly sophisticated economy and the associated demand for highly skilled labour. However, I have a concern with this idea, derived from Charles Murray. Murray argues that many students are simply not equipped and motivated to do higher study to the level and rigour necessary for higher education (he thinks only 10-20% of high school students actually have the aptitude). Therefore, it follows that as the demand for high skilled workers grows, inequality will continue to increase; perhaps the economy is getting so sophisticated that the population simply isn’t capable enough in large enough numbers to participate at the top level. There is only so much we can squeeze from education.

One of the implications is that we should increase high-skilled immigration into countries with high demand for skilled workers (such as the US and Australia) as a means of supplying the economy with the workers it needs and thereby putting a lid on inequality. Australia seems to do this already, which is perhaps why inequality has only risen mildly in the last few decades (and wealth inequality has actually gone down since the 2008 financial crisis).

But perhaps more pertinently for education policy, we need to start considering a more appropriate education system, one where students are more engaged, learning useful stuff and gaining more experience to enable them to build relevant skills and useful networks. The current education system seems to have hit it’s limits with respect to supplying ample numbers of skilled workers. It’s time for an overhaul.