Curriculum Opinion

Murray et al

By Deborah Meier — January 08, 2009 4 min read

Dear Diane,

Happy New Year!

I spent last Saturday going through years of “stuff” I’ve collected—letters, essays, reports, notes, etc. that will be going to the Lilly Library at the University of Indiana. Eighty percent of it is school stuff. Several colleagues came over to help put together boxes and sort. It was hard going because we kept calling out—“oh, listen to this!”.

I recall how confident I felt in the late 70s and 80s that we could “prove” a point: all kids could grapple with important abstract ideas—and love it. We succeeded. We made a dent: several hundred schools have since opened based on at least some of the ideas we “invented.” But we mostly influenced the language, not the reality. Block scheduling, standards, advisories, small schools, portfolios, family conferences entered schooling jargon. Meanwhile, “Reform"—the well-funded form—got confused with the latest American business model. No more factories now, but financial institutions based on mathematicalized data. We skipped once again the idea of schools as communities. Why? I was told over and over: self-governing communities are too hard to replicate or control.

Along came an article by Charles Murray of “The Bell Curve” infamy. He proclaims that the failure of current reforms is proof that he’s right—serious intellectual work is not appropriate for most kids, and certainly not most poor kids of color. It’s genetic! So let’s get off the kick about all kids going to college, he argues. To my surprise, his solution rang a bell—as it did for you, Diane. It set us both thinking!

Can one separate his blatant racism from the idea itself? Furious letters followed reminding us that putting it into practice would have decidedly racist results and sink the poor into permanent poverty. He’s also dead wrong, as some noted, about the potential of “those” kids. But…given that we have in effect created a system of colleges that helps precious few to climb up the ladder and meanwhile impoverishes many families, isn’t it worth questioning our frenzy about college-going? (Full disclosure: It so happens I’m currently in close contact with two college-age grandsons. It biases me.)

I’d guess that less than 10 percent of college students attend because they are eager to learn the disciplines of the Academy. In fact, fewer academic courses are now required for this reason. The only goal is the piece of paper. Murray calls it a Wizard of Oz certification system.

Murray’s idea? That we separate getting a B.A. from any financial gain, now a requirement for 95 percent of all employment. Let students go their own way after high school, with vocational training or apprenticeships in whatever field interests them—from scholar to chef.

Daring to think about this radical idea leads me to reimagine the whole kit and caboodle. Suppose we could redesign it all? Would we “incarcerate” 11- to 14-year-olds in 400 square-foot rooms, and demand they sit still for 45 minutes followed by 45 minutes, followed by…and expect much of what happens within those classes to “stick”? Or try to frighten them into remembering, coax them with external rewards, shame them, and/or honor them. Or narrow our sights to a few high-stakes tests? (Or add more tests with stiffer penalties and rewards—and decide to start at age 3 and add hours to the school day?)

What is it we think young people entering the polling booth or the job market are actually missing? What might we design to prepare them for such roles? Not to mention the roles of friend or family member? And is 17 years of schooling/schooling/schooling an answer to these rarely asked questions? My old friend John Gatto—enemy of all required schooling—looks wiser and wiser.

CPE and CPESS were attempts to answer these questions under the constraints of NYC’s public school system of 1974 and 1985 (when each was founded). They were efforts at reconceptualizing what had grown willy-nilly over the past hundred years. From home schooling and apprenticeships for the masses in 1800 alongside elite academies and private tutors for the elite to the modern K-17 system for all. Headlines cried “crisis!” as far back as the late 19th Century, and the criticisms have been remarkably consistent.

So every so often we call in the experts. CEOs, Wall Street experts, and governors. They say, “add more penalties and rewards (or privatize). And bonuses!” Wall Street swears by them. But at least their catastrophic manipulation of short-term data was exercised by folks who knew the business they were in. Similar efforts to create mathematical formulas useful for school decision-making, by non-educators this time, have not done better—except the damage is “just” a matter of the continued poor education of kids, and generally not the ones at the top of the social heap.

Enough already, let’s have the courage to rethink what we have wrought instead of just turning the screws tighter on an indefensible system we happened upon.

So, thank you Charles Murray. It suggests that we can learn even from people whose work we often despise. It’s a luxury—this capacity to learn from people whose biases we do not like—that may be easier to exercise if one starts off with a sense of entitlement. It’s the luxury that lies at the heart of playfulness, the capacity “to imagine otherwise” that is the birthright of every infant—regardless of race, class, creed. It’s what a truly “good education” should nurture, not crush.

The first task of a good school is to be sure that no individual in it has reason to be afraid of interesting ideas or people from 8:30-3. To be unafraid, as my friend Michael Walzer says, is at the heart of democracy’s promise. It’s what comes through over and over in the archival stuff I’m going through—how intellectually exciting it was to be unafraid—"us” being both the kids and the adults.


The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.