Real Education: Ability Varies

Reprinted from my previous and now defunct blog…

How does our society deal with controversial ideas? For too many, the first reaction (regardless of our place on the ideological spectrum) tends to be to label those with whom we disagree in order to cast them in the worst possible light. If the ideas of those we disagree with happens to have empirical backing, another successful strategy is to simply ignore their arguments. A great example of this is Charles Murray’s book Real Education. I initially hesitated to pick up this book because of memories of intellectual pressure from my college days: The Bell Curve (which he co-authored) was reportedly the work of a reactionary, and by extension anyone who read and engaged the ideas in a work by such an author was guilty by association.

This knee-jerk reaction is truly unfortunate, as Real Education is an important book which deserves interaction, regardless of where we fall politically. Short, readable, and with a good bibliography, Murray proposes “Four Simple Truths for Bringing America’s Schools Back to Reality.” These four truths are:

  • Ability varies
  • Half of the Children are Below Average
  • Too Many People are Going to College
  • America’s Future Depends on How We Educate the Academically Gifted

Each of Murray’s ‘truths’ is important and deserves consideration. The first point, “Ability varies”, seems obvious yet offensive at the same time. Murray starts by describing Gardner’s theory of Multiple Intelligences. This is a good point to begin, regardless of the theory’s validity, as most educators accept the concept as a matter of faith. Some students excel and have a natural ability to perform well in sports. Others have strong interpersonal skills. Others have a greater degree of musical ability. In many ways this seems to be common sense. I am not gifted with athletic ability and never had “professional athlete” in my future, even though I enjoyed sitting the bench with my basketball team in high school. Similarly, I recognize that some of my students have a greater musical aptitude than others; one student may be capable of majoring in music in college while others might simply enjoy the experience of participating in a high school band. Most people would not find such a perspective controversial.

Suggest that some students have greater mathematical or linguistic abilities, however, and a rotten can of worms has been opened. Making a statement such as this contradicts the Romantic ideal at the heart of our education system: that children come into the world as clean slates and are profoundly malleable by society and the State. Consider the educational truism: ‘All children can learn’. Perhaps so; learning is part of what makes us human. But can all children learn the same things equally well? Our current educational system seems to think so, and operates under the assumption that this should be true. Can every child achieve proficiency on a government test, or will there always be a spectrum of results? I would argue that an approach which confuses equity with sameness (identical results) is fundamentally unfair to all students as it ceases to treat them as individuals.

An additional point which Murray makes which deserves consideration is his contention that ‘abilities’ tend to be linked, citing research which shows a correlation between six of Gardner’s seven ‘intelligences’. In other words, students with a high ability in linguistics tend to also have high spatial and logical-mathematic ability as well. The logical conclusion here is that educators are engaging in mythical speculation when we posit that Gardner’s theory stipulates that every child must have at least one ‘intelligence’ with which they can be labeled ‘gifted’.

At this point I think it is important to avoid falling into the trap of equating ‘intelligence’ or ‘ability’ with ‘value’. Every individual is unique and has value as a human being regardless of their intellectual level or what they are able to “do”. Recognizing that there is always someone who is smarter or more talented is as essential in learning the virtue of humility as is working with individuals who are not. As educators, perhaps we should encourage students to the best of their ability, recognizing that results can and will vary…and that’s okay.


2 Responses to Real Education: Ability Varies

  1. William Martin says:

    All children can learn, and maybe they cannot learn equally well, but they certainly will not learn if they are not committed to learning themselves. I hear chatter in the political spectrum about failing schools, but what about failing students? Students that do not have the inclination to even put a piece of paper in a binder… Yet our so called leaders never lay the failure of students at the collective feet of the students themselves, but blame teachers. As a society we then busy ourselves “fixing” the schools, repairing the institution when the problem is students with broken minds who come from broken homes and communities.

    All students can learn and we should be ready, willing, and able to assist those who are ready to apply themselves, but let us stop wasting the few educational resources we have on those who refuse to help themselves.

    • offthebox says:

      Thanks for the response William! I agree that at some point students need to take responsibility. After spending a decade working in the public schools I feel confident in saying that too often students are not held accountable for their own choices. I have on more than one occasion seen parents enable their children in this regard, which is unbelievably frustrating. Part of the problem on a large scale is a Romanticized view of children within both the educational and political establishment which sees them as blank slates to be molded by the schools and communities; there’s no attempt to answer the question, at what point does an individual child’s choices and actions inform the results? This is the sense in which I think the schools are broken and in need of reform. We’re out of touch with the basic reality that at some point individuals must be willing to help themselves. I have yet to see a child denied an opportunity to learn or better themselves. I have seen plenty choose to ignore the opportunities they have and then blame others for their problems.

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