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Charles Murray, relegated to the footnotes

Posted by Charles II on February 2, 2012

Bashing Charles Murray is all the rage since the publication of his book, Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010. Charles Pierce manages to swat Murray and David Brooks with one stroke, while Adam Serwer gets Murray and the American Enterprise Institute with another.

But it’s such overkill. This month, I got Charles Murray as the Cracker Jacks prize in my copy of Imprimis, the magazine produced by Hillsdale College, and mailed to me faithfully every 30 days for over a decade despite the lack of any indication whatsoever that I belong to that tribe.

And Murray does not disappoint. The article he writes, “Do We Need a Department of Education?” is so historically illiterate that the only place that would publish it is… Hillsdale College.

Take the claim that education is not a constitutional function, and that the Framers could not have possibly thought that Congress should get involved because it is not enumerated in Art. I Sec. 8. It’s historically-illiterate baloney, of course, which (after throwing up a giant smokescreen) Murray tacitly admits by saying he’s in the minority on this [fn 1].

Next, Murray asks whether there are any serious problems in education that can only be solved on the federal level. Murray admits that segregation did create a case for federal intervention. He claims that the first major federal spending on education was triggered by Sputnik, which is easily proven false by, well, looking at the facts [fn2] if not also by looking at Murray, who also says that it was in 1965 (eight years after Sputnik) that spending really increased [fn 3], but he contends that the increase in spending justified by desegregation no longer serves a purpose, which is an idiotic argument [fn 4].

Next, Murray asks what the federal track record is. This is not a very smart question and Murray admits that the feds did not cause a decline in educational achievement nor prevent a rise in it [fn 5].

Murray says that “The bachelor of arts degree as it has evolved over the last half-century has become the work of the devil.” [fn 6]

Murray says, contrafactually, that the only positive developments in education have been home schooling and charter schools [fn 7].

In short, the only thing that’s newsworthy about Charles Murray is that anyone pays any attention to him. He’s a fraud who doesn’t even know basic American history, misrepresents and misuses statistics, and lies.

Could be a VP candidate, mebbe.
(Click to read the footnotes)

1. Constitutional fundamentalism is exposed for the idiocy that it is by statements like a claim that the Framers didn’t think that education was a role of the federal government. The very generation that ratified the Constitution in 1788 also funded the Military Academy in 1802. Even earlier, in the Northwest Territories Act of 1787, the federal government became involved in higher education by granting lands for the establishment of schools. Indeed, there would have been bolder action had our most prominent Founding figure been listened to:

George Washington, as the first President of the United States, repeatedly endorsed the founding of a national university funded directly from the federal purse. He personally set aside funds to found such a university, but was unable to convince Congress to allocate federal money for the project.

Nor were any of these developments flukes. At the state level, the first public school was opened in 1635. William and Mary was founded as a state school in 1693. Penn fell into its final form as a state institution in 1791 after a period of being part-private. Even public education of women was common in Massachusetts by 1767.

While the federal role was minimal in the early 19th century, this was clearly just a function of the weakness of the federal government. Abraham Lincoln provided the land grants for land grant colleges in 1862, and the Department of Education was established in 1867.

One could go on, but the point is that government has had a role in education since the very early days of the Republic, and has had a strong role in education for almost 150 years. The idiot Murray thinks it was squeezed in under the commerce clause
2. A convenient chart here shows total government spending at about 3.0% of GDP prior to the 1957 launch of Sputnik, rising as the baby boomers entered the educational system to 5% of GDP. While, as the site helpfully points out, most spending on education is funded by the states, there’s also a chart showing federal expenditures actually declined as a share of GDP. In nominal dollars, they were $1.6B in 1957 and $1.7B in 1962, after those free-spending Democrats were back in the saddle.
3. This is actually true. See here. Desegregation did require the feds to pony up, and it still didn’t equalize spending in school districts. The range in per pupil funding between rich and poor districts is about 3:1.
4. Idiotic because federal educational spending has been under attack ever since the conservative era began. It is now roughly 0.5% of GDP. A substantial portion of this money is going to universities, where it is serving to sustain the declining technical base of the corporate and military elites. More goes for conservative initiatives like pay for performance. Very little is going to minorities.
5. US education is almost completely funded by the states, and federal funding has been under attack for a generation, there is no real federal record in the US to look to. There is, however, a federal record in our principal competitors, none of whom are stupid enough to leave something as important as education in the hands of localities.

He makes a long and incoherent argument, which can be summarized as follows:
* Test scores have improved since 1978 (he claims that these are a nadir, even though no data exist much prior to 1978. See, for example here.)
* Test scores in 1978 were a nadir (probably true, since between 1960 and 1978, not only were schools integrated, but more children excluded because of mental and emotional problems were brought out of the closet and into the classroom).
* Mostly white Iowa improved from 1942-65 but “when the federal government began to get involved” it all went to hell. But, of course, more happened than federal involvement. Kids with emotional and mental problems were mainstreamed. And then, of course, improvement continued despite federal involvement.
* He admits that federal involvement was probably not the cause and blames the hippies
6. Isn’t this statement alone enough to certify the guy as clinically insane?
7. Murray is correct that not much good has happened in education, what with eight years of Bush Administration sabotage, spiraling tuition costs, and no jobs for graduates. But charter schools and homeschooling?

Charter schools have been completely discredited. From a Stanford CREDO study of 16 states:

The group portrait shows wide variation in performance. The study reveals that a decent fraction of charter schools, 17 percent, provide superior education opportunities for their students. Nearly half of the charter schools nationwide have results that are no different from the local public school options and over a third, 37 percent, deliver learning results that are significantly worse than their student would have realized had they remained in traditional public schools.

Home schooling is a different story. We have no idea whether it’s good, bad, or indifferent:

Absent rigorous, social scientific data on the outcomes of home schooling, we are left in the realm of anecdote – the home schoolers who win the National Spelling Bees – and the occasional ethnographic study of small populations of home schoolers.[3] But neither can give us any picture of whether home schooling “works”.

“Worse” or “who the f–k knows?” are not the usual definition of “good.”

4 Responses to “Charles Murray, relegated to the footnotes”

  1. Avedon said

    Don’t forget the University of Virginia, Charles. Jefferson always believed that education should be free.

    • Charles II said

      Yes, Murray’s ignorance is even vaster than this post portrays. One could write whole books on the man’s perversity, a fake scholar writing to a fake institution of higher learning on a subject that he knows almost nothing about.

  2. David W. said

    Murray is a partisan hack, period. What he’s doing is providing fodder for the GOP to feed their 53% meme.

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