Charles Murray has done it again. Murray is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C., but he is best known for books that are scholarly yet readable and provocative: Losing Ground, which eviscerated the American welfare system; The Bell Curve, co-authored with the late Richard Herrnstein, which analyzed the role of IQ in American society; and now Real Education (Crown Forum, 2008), which offers conventional U.S. educators a dose of reality.
Q: Why this book?
The definition of educational success in this country is, you've got to get a B.A. That is drummed into kids from the time they're young. Let's face it: If you don't have a B.A. at this point in this country you are in some sense a second-class citizen. That's the driving force behind a lot of kids struggling to get B.A.s, to achieve this status. Also, they read all the econometrics studies that say that the average B.A. makes x dollars more. So the book is in some sense a crusade to destroy the B.A. as a measure of educational success.
Q: The statistics that say, "Get a B.A., get a million dollars more," don't take into account individual attributes and talents . . .
That's an average. Suppose that you have enough intellectual ability to get through a college today and get a B.A., and you want to be a business executive. But suppose you have very average interpersonal and intrapersonal skills, and not great intellectual ability. You can't look at the average for business executives, because in the things that make great business executives you're going to be competing against people who are a lot stronger than you are, in terms of charm, perseverance, intelligence, and everything else.
Q: The better alternative is . . .
Look at the lower end of business people salaries, and suppose you have it in you to be a great electrician. You're plenty smart enough, plus you've got great small motor skills, you've got great visual-spatial skills, you could be a terrific technician. You look at the top of the scale for electrician salaries, and guess what-top electricians make a lot of money, on the order of 90 grand a year average for the top 10 percent. And that's a reasonable aspiration for you. So the average premium for the college degree is extremely misleading.
Q: But there's been a move back to craftsmanship, at least in theory-to be a carpenter or a furniture maker. Is that catching on?
Being a fine cabinetmaker is a cool thing to do in some circles, but that's not what we tell high-school kids. This figure came out of a major survey: 90 percent of high-school students are told by their high-school counselors that they ought to go to college. When I've interviewed these counselors, sometimes they say, "If we tell kids they're not suited for college, we get angry reactions from parents, who desperately want their kids to go to college, and from the kids themselves, who don't want to hear that." The counselors are telling people what they want to hear, and that goes back to the question of, why is it that we have this terrible reluctance to tell a child, "Find some things that you really like to do, and we will teach you to do those things really, really well. If you want to learn philosophy, we'll teach you philosophy. If it's cabinetmaking, we'll teach you cabinetmaking. If what you want to do is be a first-rate long-haul truck driver, we will help you become a first-rate long-haul truck driver."
Q: Any chance that your anti-B.A. crusade will succeed?
Employers mostly use the B.A., if they're interviewing social science and humanities graduates, as a screen for IQ and for perseverance. But as more and more people go to college, as college gets more and more dumbed down, as it gets harder and harder to interpret grades because of grade inflation, the B.A. is a noisier and noisier signal, and employers know it. They still use it because so many people are going to college that they aren't screening out too much talent if they require a B.A., but they know it's a bad signal. So that's important. Then you've got students who say, "This is really expensive, and do I really have to do this?"
Q: How does the online education industry fit into this potential change?
It's growing in sophistication-with podcasts and all sorts of interactions with professors. But the online industry understands that even though they grant B.A.s, they know their B.A. can't relate to a Ph.D. with the prestige of a brick-and-mortar institution. They would love to have some other way. So you have all these people who would benefit. Here's the solution-and I actually for once have a solution that is feasible: certification. The model is the CPA [Certified Public Accountant] exam. Fourteen hours long, I think four different segments; it's an extremely thorough exam, and if you get a high score on that, every employer of accountants knows that this kid knows a lot of accounting.
Q: Are there people now who get CPAs without going to college?
A lot of places insist that you have a B.A. before you take the exam. But the exam exists, and an employer wouldn't particularly care if there's not a B.A., if there's a really high score. It gives a way for a kid who's learned accounting online to compete with the kid who learned accounting at the University of Virginia, or wherever. Because if he has a high score and the kid from the University of Virginia has a low score, that employer is no longer going to be all that worried about the degree.
Q: How does the revolution begin?
Here's a scenario for you: Suppose that you take the information technology industry-let's start with Microsoft. The educational testing service decides that it's going to get into the certification business-it already is, actually-and create the gold-standard test for certification in computer programming. It develops a test which Microsoft agrees really is predictive: If a kid gets a high score on that, he is a crackerjack programmer. It's very easy to imagine Microsoft, which has always openly gone after talent rather than credentials, starting with Bill Gates, saying, "From now on, we are going to require of our programming applicants that they take this certification test. We don't really care about the B.A." If just Microsoft did it, everybody in the industry would do it. You'd already have a tipping point there. Certifications already exist for all sorts of things, but once you get the gold standard, where all employers know that this certification test is predictive of real performance by the employees, all the market forces that I talked about earlier would be in to that. Online is going to be delighted to have certification, because it can promise to train students to get good scores on certification tests.
Q: Now college for everybody is largely seen as a civil-rights issue: If you tell some kids they shouldn't go to college, maybe you're keeping down black kids. Can we flip this? The requirement that you can only take a CPA exam if you have a B.A.: Could eliminating that requirement become a civil-rights issue?
Yeah. I hadn't thought of that, but I think it's very persuasive. It would be real easy to write some powerful op-eds saying, there's this black youngster who took online courses and got a great score, and he can't get his foot in the door because they insist he have a B.A.-it would be great to have that kind of a story. That cuts to the core when you put it in terms of this slogan: "Kids need something to show what they know, not where they learned it, how long it took them, or who they know." Get rid of the halo effect that goes with attending a well-known college.
Q: The ACLU in 1925 went out to recruit a person to take on the Tennessee anti-evolution statute . . .
Get the Institute for Justice to do it. That'd be great. This is a whole new strategy.
Q: It'd be interesting.
It'd be beautiful.
Q: The interest groups that oppose this are . . .
Well, the colleges.
Q: Except the elite colleges, right, because they would still be in business?
The elite colleges are going to be in business no matter what. But the system I'm envisioning would look very much like the system now: We'd still have all the college campuses open, we'd still have kids going to universities to study accounting. The difference is that the ones who are studying accounting and know that's what they want to do might be there for two years or two and a half years, not four years. They'd be there until they learned what they wanted to know. There'd be other kids who stay four years, maybe because college is fun if your parents are paying for it. Lots of kids will still want to get four years of a college education. What you will have done is taken off this straitjacket which says, "You've got to be four years in residence at this expensive institution to get a piece of paper."
Q: Some might portray this as going against our democratic ethos, but it could also be portrayed as powerfully egalitarian: a Lincoln learning law by reading by the light of the fire.
Factually, the whole notion of certification actually could be applied to the traditional academic disciplines. If somebody has a degree in English Lit from a no-name school, I have no idea whether that person has even read George Eliot. You can get a degree in English Lit reading nothing but crap from the 20th century. Suppose you had certification tests in English Literature, in Russian History, in Greek Philosophy. They would be tests whereby, if I were running admissions for a law school, I would know a lot more about whether my applicants had gotten a broad liberal education if I had a set of four or five certification tests rather than rely on the B.A.
Q: But who controls the certification tests? For example, in literature you could have the Modern Language Association in charge . . .
And that's the problem. When you have certifications being taken for employers, there's no problem because if the tests are not predictive of high performance in that field, the employers aren't going to use them. Let's say you have certifications in English Lit and you're being sent to law school. Law schools want kids who have precision in verbal expression, they want kids able to deal with complex text. If the MLA is sending them a Maya Angelou touchy-feely thing, they may behave like employers, and say: We want to know about English Lit.
Q: How many fields have certifying exams now?
You have certification tests for building inspectors. There are lots of tests for technical specialties-for example, when you go get your blood tested, there is a specialty that takes about a year and a half or two years that the person who's sticking that needle in you has gone through. There's a certification test for brain surgeons. And you don't have to think in terms of multiple choice and bubbles: Both brain surgeons and master cabinetmakers are often judged on work samples. You can overcome the deficiencies of tests. The techniques are out there. It's not a technological problem.
What the colleges have to say is, "There is a world of the mind out there that we want to impart to students, and here's the problem: It is tough." Not everybody can read and understand Nicomachean Ethics, not everybody is capable of the rigor and verbal expression that's necessary to write a good term paper about it. It's tough. It's difficult material that a small percentage of the population is intellectually equipped to do.
Q: I hear you saying that if high schools are doing what they should, the time from age 18 on becomes the time for students who are intellectually gifted to delve into intellectual questions. For others we say, "It's time to learn something that will help you make some money."
And not only that. We must get over the idea that this choice is a second-class choice. I disagree with Aristotle-I don't think the life of the philosopher is intrinsically better than the life of those who take other routes in life. So you aren't asking the kids to settle for second best. What you're doing is recasting the goal of education so it no longer is, "get the B.A." The goal is to bring young people to adulthood with their having discovered things they enjoy doing and that they know how to do well. It is generically the same process for everyone: In every profession, you start out as an apprentice. If you become competent, you are a journeyman. If you get really good at it, you become a master craftsman. That has been true of me in my profession, it is true of you, it's true of the long-haul truck driver, it's true of the carpenter-we all go through the same trajectory. And you want to treat post-secondary education as being that process for everyone. The kid who's studying philosophy is an apprentice, and so is the kid who's studying to become an electrician. They're both doing things that, because of their different configurations and personalities, are right for them.
Q: What does it take for those occupations no longer to be considered second class?
It takes the upper-middle class to quit playing the pernicious role it plays. Upper-middle-class parents, when it comes to shopping for education for their children, act like drugged-up pop stars on Rodeo Drive. They buy by brand name, they don't check the quality of the product, they pay outrageous premiums, and they don't bother to check later to see if the product was actually delivered. I see no signs of that cracking. I do not know of middle-class parents who cheerfully say "that sounds good" when their son says what he really wants is to be in the merchant marine.
Q: So is the place to crack this Microsoft, or do we need novelists and poets to make fun of the Rodeo Drive mentality?
That would help. But it also helps to have a lot of rich people outside of the entertainment business who don't have college degrees. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs-throughout the software and computer hardware industries there are lots of millionaires who have IQs of 145 and never got a college degree. So you want lots and lots of those folks, but you also want to get them into other fields. Right now, if you go to the CEOs and the top people in big corporations, they in fact almost all have B.A.s, and oftentimes M.B.A.s. It would be really nice if we had the ability to get a certification for business administration. You start getting senior executives in corporations who just get the certification and don't have the B.A. You need to have visible examples, because not only will they be role models, but they will be talking differently to their children about what they need to do.
Q: And they're going to be open to other people with the same background as theirs.
The elephant sitting in the corner is the degree to which America is becoming more and more a class society, and that scares me. The upper-middle class is reproducing itself in its children, and social mobility is quietly just disappearing.
Q: Could we have a popular groundswell? Maybe, "You can't discriminate on the basis of the B.A." as part of our civil-rights code. You can't advertise, "B.A. required."
Wouldn't that be a great idea? Employers can discriminate based on the ability of the kids, but not on the B.A. You know they did this with IQ tests. There was a famous court case back in the late '60s where employers were prohibited from giving cognitive tests that were not directly related to job qualifications. So that's illegal. And, guess what folks, the B.A. is not directly related to job qualifications!