Saturday, June 13, 2009

Real Education

If you are like me, that is, if you like to read books about education, this title Real Education will grab your attention and cause you to reach for this book.

Real Education: Four Simple Truths for Bringing America's Schools Back to Reality (Charles Murray) is intriguing. My head was nodding, nodding, nodding in agreement. At first, the title is a bit audacious. Really, just who is this Charles Murray who seems to know what real education is? But, just think first of all, what is the accurate meaning of the word real? Real means what is true and accurate.

From the introduction, Murray states, "The educational system is living a lie. The lie is that every child can be anything he or she wants to be." (p. 11) I've often heard the cliche meant as encouragement to children "You can be anything you want to be." It is meant as an incentive to reach for the stars, to be ambitious, to strive for the highest whatever. But the fact of the matter is, no matter how much I might want to and try to be a physicist, I will never be a physicist. The problem, in my opinion, rests with the educational system, or just the general public, not recognizing the limitations of individual human beings. I think the Army has it right: "Be all that you can be" with emphasis on can.

Murray concludes his introduction with the theme of the book: "...we are unrealistic about students at every level of academic ability---asking too much from those at the bottom, asking the wrong things from those in the middle, and asking too little from those at the top." (p. 13)

The four simple truths in Real Education, according to Charles Murray, of American schools are

  • Ability varies. "[E]ducators who proceed on the assumption that they can find some ability in which every child is above average are kidding themselves." (p. 29)
  • Half of the children are below average. "Some children are just not smart enough to succeed on a conventional academic track." Those are rather hard words to swallow for those of us who have great expectations for our students, not to mention our own children. Murray continues: "...[O]ur best educational experiences were ones in which adults insisted we could do better when in face we could do better; our worst educational experiences were ones in which adults insisted we could do better when in fact we could not do better." (p. 44-45)
"One of the most irresponsible trends in modern education has been the reduction in rigorous, systematic assessment of the abilites of all students in their care." (p. 46)
  • Too many people are going to college. This chapter was mentally invigorating because of the emphasis of liberal education. Some eye-opening quotes to ponder:
"Almost all high school graduates need additional education. But a lot fewere tha 1.5 million should be going to a four-year residential institution and trying to get a BA. One of the most damaging messages of educational romanticism has been that everyone should go to college." (p. 67) Murray's rationale here is quite reasonable.

"So few can do well in real colleges because real college-level material is hard." (p. 70) Murray backs this up with examples, one of which is list of six average paragraphs from random textbooks for introductory college core classes.

His analysis is that "The sentences in the passages average twenty-six words (by comparison, the length of the average sentence in a well-regarded high school history textbook is thirteen). Long sentences demand a high degree of focus even if the syntax and vocabulary are simple." (p. 73) One more reason I need to add to my list of why students should learn intensive grammar, diagramming, and vocabulary.

In this chapter, the longest (and the one I marked up the most) in the book, much space is devoted to E. D. Hrisch's emphasis on core knowledge and cultural literacy, topics of high interest to me.
  • America's future depends on how we educate the academically gifted. The first few sentences in this chapter jumped out at me: "What we need is leaders with more integrity, prudence, self-discipline, and moral courage, not smarter one. What we need is more common sense in public life, not a bunch of overeducated intellectuals telling us what to do." (p. 107)
"We need to structure their education so that they have the best possible chance to become not just knowledgeable but wise. The encouragement of wisdom requires a special kind of education. It requires mastery of the tools of verbal expression--not because the gifted will need them to communicate in daily life, but because they are indispensable for precise thinking at an advanced level. It requires mastery of the analytical building blocks for making sound judgments....The encouragement of wisdom requires extended study of philosophy, because it is not enough that gifted children grow up to be nice. They must know what it means to be good....[T]he encouragement of wisdom requires that we teach students to recognize their own intellectual limits and falliabilities--teach them humility."

This 168 page book (that is minus the forty page extensive notes and bibliography section) is chock full of sensible information to which any educator should be open to listening. That last long quote should make any of us take notice, particularly those of us who are classical educators striving to cultivate wisdom and virtue by nourishing the soul on truth, goodness, and beauty.

More later from this insightful and vital book.

1 comment:

Laura said...

I recently bought and read this book. I agree with so much of what Murray writes! Now I'm loaning it out to all my friends, especially those who homeschool.