Want thought-provoking thinking on American education? Charles Murray’s essay, The Age of Educational Romanticism fits the bill. Murray, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, helps to answer why educators and policymakers are forever analyzing academic underachievement and offering countless remedies to address every academic deficiency. Our quest for perfection, according to the author, is rooted in the mistaken belief that all children who are not doing well, have the potential to do much better. Simply put, society says everyone can – and should be – above average. Since science — and most parents — know intelligence and ability are not equally distributed among children, the current focus on ensuring educational success for all students is a quest grounded in hope, not reality.
Murray calls No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the pinnacle of educational romanticism. Murray notes that even before NCLB we had operational, standard definitions of what it meant to be proficient in math and reading. Only about thirty percent of American students were proficient in either math or reading. Now, under NCLB all students are required to reach the seventieth percentile. NCLB, in essence, codifies the Lake Wobegone effect – where all the children truly are above average.
How did we get here? Murray points to two factors. First, Americans hold onto a strong belief in the malleability of intellectual ability. However, this is a scientifically disputed notion. Second, we also cling to the romantic — and mistaken — notion that our public schools, bad as many of them are, should still be able to raise student performance — even within the constraints of limited intellectual ability.
Despite the gloom, Murray is not a pessimist. Public education’s current problems underscore the death of educational romanticism, a precondition to a much-needed and realistic public discussion about educational limits and abilities — a discussion we’ve needed to have for about four decades. You may not always agree with Murray. But he has a way of asking the questions that need to be asked, marshalling strong evidence to support his arguments, and framing important issues in new ways. All reasons why The Age of Educational Romanticism is worth reading.