Interview with Charles Murray

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In conjunction with his visit to Kenyon, American Enterprise Institute scholar in residence Charles Murray took some time to answer some of our editors’ questions relating to academic and political pursuits, rigor and debate.

TKO: It is possible for two people to view the same data and come up with very different causal stories to explain them. When you see data showing class separation, what are some of the possible causal stories that can be derived from said data, what is your interpretation and why do you consider it preferable to the interpretations of others?

CM: It’s not only possible, it happens all the time, and the reasons for the different causal interpretations are usually related to the analyst’s assumptions about human nature and often also related to the analyst’s first principles about human flourishing. That’s why it ought to be standard operating procedure for social scientists to do two things in every journal article and book they write. First, explicitly segregate the statement of the data from the interpretation of causes. And second, tell the reader where you’re coming from. So if you look at the opening of Part 3 of Coming Apart, you’ll see me saying to the reader, “I’m a libertarian, so I think these data constitute a call for limited government. If you’re a social democrat, you’ll think they’re a call for an expanded welfare state.” If you go back to Losing Ground or The Bell Curve, you’ll see the same kind of thing: chapters explicitly devoted to the presentation of data with no causal analysis, then a section of causal analysis accompanied by an explanation of the frame of mind I bring to that analysis. What gripes me is that you never see the same kind of straightforward statement in social science from the Left: “By the way, you should understand as you read me that I’m a passionately committed social democrat.” I explicitly avoided causal analyses for the formation of the new lower class in Coming Apart because I wanted the book to be one that people of the left could read. And it seems to have worked. For example, Nicholas Kristof felt free to write a column in the New York Times saying that I was talking about a real problem, even though my politics are nuts. For the record, I stand by the analysis of causes from Losing Ground. Answering your question more fully would take several thousand words of the Observer, so I’ll pass.

TKO: You have said before that too many people are going to college. Why?

First, genuine college-level material makes cognitive demands, even in the humanities and social sciences, that mean only about 10 to 15 percent of high school graduates can do well in college – not just struggle through, but flourish. About half of all high school graduates enter college. Something’s wrong with that picture. Second, the BA has become a credential of first class citizenship at the same time that it has become substantively meaningless. If the only thing you know about a person is that he has a BA, you don’t even know if he can write a coherent sentence. In effect, we’re saying to 17-year-olds, “You have a choice between a respectable white collar job or working at Wal-Mart.” We sneer at training in all the other ways of making a living that can be satisfying, absorbing, and yield a damn good income as “vocational training.” We’re saying that you have to go to a residential institution, stay there four years and spend a fortune so you can get a piece of paper that doesn’t say a thing about what you know. It’s idiotic and punishing to a huge proportion of young people.

TKO: Do the members of the “cognitive elite,” as you call them, have social obligations extending beyond utilizing their cognitive and economic potential to the fullest?

CM: Yes. And they’re failing in those obligations miserably.

TKO: Can you speak a bit about the “cognitive sorting” you described in Chapter 5 of Coming Apart? In educational discourse in this country, this feature is usually viewed as an unmitigated virtue; we want our schools to evaluate applicants only based on intelligence, to the extent possible. Do we need to give up this ideal, or is it possible to have meritocratic schools while bridging the gap between students in other ways?

CM: It’s one of those cases where a good thing – giving kids with talent a chance to realize their talent no matter what their backgrounds may be – has long-term collateral consequences that are problematic. The feminist revolution is another classic case. It doesn’t mean that we should stop sending the most intellectually talented students to good schools or that women shouldn’t have gotten a chance to realize their talents. Sometimes positive social trends have negative side-effects. That’s just a fact, and it’s important to ponder what might be done to mitigate them.

TKO: Some critics and reviewers, even those sympathetic to the book’s claims, have called your policy proposals implausible and idealistic. What are a few politically viable and practically feasible policies that can start to bridge the gap between the classes? Or, are these critics mistaken?

CM: I don’t think I’ve ever offered a politically viable policy recommendation. It’s almost become a point of pride, but the underlying reason is pretty simple: I can never think of any politically viable policy recommendations that would do any good.

TKO: You’ve heavily criticized the conventional wisdom that increased funding for pre-kindergarten programs would greatly improve outcomes. Why?

CM: Because the conventional wisdom is wrong. The data for long-term effects of pre-K from a program that could be implemented nationwide are terribly weak. Even the data from the most intensive interventions aren’t nearly as solid or as impressive as the advocates make them out to be. If the quantity and quality of data being used to justify universal pre-K were evidence for any less politically fashionable venture, they would be dismissed out of hand.

TKO: There was a bit of debate in Kenyon’s community in anticipation of your talk. Some were concerned that hosting you at Kenyon signaled some kind of approval of ideas which they found to be beyond the pale of reasonable discourse; others saw these complaints as inhibiting free intellectual exchange, and as not befitting an academic institution. As you’ve spoken at college campuses throughout the country and during your career, what is your sense of the attitudes of elite students (and their professors) to ideas which they find objectionable or offensive? Have you found changes in these attitudes over the years?

CM: With a handful of exceptions right after the publication of The Bell Curve, I’ve had a good time speaking on elite campuses. The interactions with the students in the Q&A have been serious and mutually respectful. The campus newspaper coverage the next day usually is to the effect that this kind of intellectual interchange is what universities are supposed to be all about. I would have thought that this kind of track record would eventually make me a hot ticket on the college speaking circuit, but it hasn’t happened. I don’t think it is students who think I am beyond the pale, but college administrators.

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