As part of this week’s reading for my policy course, we’ve been asked to take a look at Charles Murray’s seminal tome, Losing Ground. While my reaction to the text is different than my reading of Dewey’s Experience & Education, it seemed this might be a good chance to put another side of the argument into perspective.
Murray sets his sights on education in Ch. 7 and gives it a treatment no different than the previous three chapters.
Murray’s main point about education in the mid-to-late 60s is that minority populations, namely African Americans, were making progress at closing the gap with their white peers and that social welfare policies and moves to bring equity to the system messed that up.
At the outcomes end of the argument, he points to the findings of A Nation at Risk to show somewhere between the incremental gains in test scores in the 50s and the dire story told by Risk, we started charting the wrong course as a country. While I’d agree with his course contestation, Murray and I diverge when he points to federal programs aimed at equity as causing the widening of educational gaps.
In fact, Murray appears to ignore the unrest and riots of the late 60s in African American neighborhoods when groups of citizens saw violent riots as the means left to them following legislation and judicial decree’s failure to bring the equity of opportunity the country had promised. As I was reading, I found myself wanting to put my arm around Murray and say, “Don’t you think riots (understandable or not) finding their epicenters in the middle of African American communities might have done something to scar communities and detract from whatever education was happening in classrooms?” This is to say nothing of political scandal and a series of military actions that called a disproportionate number of unfortunate sons from the African American community? While I don’t know enough and there might not be the kind of data we need to know whether the policies Murray cites had a negative causal relationship with minority academic achievement between 1964 and the release of A Nation at Risk, I don’t believe the numbers are there to support the kind of sweeping claims he’s making.
One final piece about this chapter. Of Risk, Murray writes:
Only scattered, limited criticisms of the report were voiced, despite the harsh language that the commission used. Few were prepared to defend the state of American education.
Charles Murray. Losing Ground: American Social Policy, 1950-1980, 10th Anniversary Edition (Kindle Locations 1243-1244). Kindle Edition.
While I have many possible arguments as to why this was true, the one that sticks in my mind the most was Murray’s own from Ch. 3. Perhaps defending American education was out of fashion. With the ascendance of President Reagan and the shifting of American politics to a more conservative favor, was this yet another conversation we failed to have as country because the conservative elite, led by Secretary Bell had picked up another trend of demonizing public education and deficit modeling that’s remained the model ever since.