Thursday, March 08, 2012

On the Charles Murray op-ed



Kind of.

Kind of.

Slightly longer version: Murray suggests four ways to bridge the gap "between the professional and working classes in white America." 

His first suggestion is one I can get behind: "get rid of unpaid internships." I'm not sure he's thought through the fallout from this - even if we fixed the unpaid-internship-accessibility-issues end of things, there's also the fact that employers at "real jobs" would rather hire potential permanent employees than rich kids on "summer vacation." As I remember it, coming from an UMC family and trying to get that kind of work, one either had to lie about significant details (such as: off to college in August - how a friend of a friend was hired at a clothing chain) or to take jobs designed for college students (such as the one I ultimately ended up with: shelving books at the university library). It's not that it's impossible for kids on vacation to do stints in more working-class lines of work, and it certainly varies by locale. (Live in Manhattan? Forget it.) But with the exception of a few specifically seasonal jobs (lifeguard, camp counselor, ice-cream scooper), no one will take the kid seeking beer money over the single parent needing to make rent. But in terms of Murray's specific gap-bridging goal, the fact that some people now grow up thinking work-work isn't for people like them is, I'd think, a problem.

His second one, scrap the SAT, is problematic for reasons I also get into here, but let's first look at Murray's own language. "The test has become a symbol of new-upper-class privilege, as people assume (albeit wrongly) that high scores are purchased through the resources of private schools and expensive test preparation programs." If the SAT isn't something one simply purchases a high score on, and the public is mistaken in thinking it is, wouldn't the better approach be to raise awareness of this, thus helping to demolish the test-prep industry, whose very existence perpetuates the belief that scores can be bought? The whole point of the SAT is to compare students from different high schools, something grades alone wouldn't accomplish. The alternative Murray proposes - "achievement tests in specific subjects for which students can prepare the old-fashioned way, by hitting the books" - already exists in the form of SAT II and AP exams, and would end up being, I'd think, a measure of how good a high school is, or how well it tailored its curriculum to the tests, which would dilute its capacity to measure student achievement.

His third, "replace ethnic affirmative action with socioeconomic affirmative action," is not a "no-brainer," but is in fact something about which reasonable, intelligent, well-meaning people have been disagreeing since forever. Racial and socioeconomic disadvantage are not mutually exclusive. And there's the issue of representation - once whichever influential institution ceases to be an all-white (or zero-black) entity, it will de facto become an institution that's open to blacks. And, more to the point, if what Murray wants to do is to bring about solidarity between whites of different classes (and we'll assume he means this in a non-exclusionary sense...), it's hard to imagine that if the children of plumbers were labeled a disadvantaged category, and known to get into college with lower grades and scores, this despite any history of systematic discrimination against plumbers and their families, that this would, I suppose, go over well. And if the issue is more (as becomes apparent with the fourth point) that it should be possible to make a living with a blue-collar (which is to say, college wasn't a prerequisite) job, then why should we care if children of blue-collar families are proportionately represented at elite colleges? Why shouldn't it be enough to make sure that elite colleges are accessible to them? Why would affirmative action be needed?

Murray's final point - that the BA shouldn't be required of job applicants if the position doesn't specifically require it - sounds appealing at first, but is impractical. Most obviously, a liberal-arts education doesn't prepare you for any particular job. So if it's ridiculous to ask a plumber to have a BA, it's nearly as absurd to ask this of a journalist. Also, I'd think, obvious: entry-level jobs virtually never require the skills acquired in Philosophy 101. The BA is required because if one is to ascend whichever ladder and be in more of a decision-making position, whichever "critical thinking" skills might come into play. (As for his bit about how the BA "has become educationally meaningless," this kind of unsubstantiated nostalgia for a Golden Age of when everyone left college a distinguished Aristotle scholar, I will simply ignore.) Point being, if no job could draw a direct connection between skills needed for the position (again, not the career, the position) in question and a BA, this would mean eliminating college for all, not just opening up fields where demanding a BA feels preposterous.

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