Tag Archives: Coming Apart

The Not-So-Great Equalizer: Higher Education’s Role in Fighting Income Inequality

Income inequality, defined by Barack Obama as “the greatest challenge of our time,” has been a growing problem in the United States for decades. One of the many solutions proposed by Obama to solve this problem is to increase the propagation of a college education. Obama recently hosted education leaders from across the nation, including Claremont McKenna College’s President Hiram Chodosh, for a White House Summit to discuss efforts made by high schools and colleges across the nation to increase college participation rates.

While there are many proponents of education reform who argue that propagating a college education is the way to reduce income disparity, I argue that, looking at the current demographic realities of the US, this is a noble but, ultimately, futile effort.

In his recent book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, Dr. Charles Murray argues that simply increasing the number of people who obtain a Bachelor’s Degree cannot solve income inequality. Murray contends that “the simple possession of a bachelor’s degree does not come close to capturing the complicated relationship between education and the nature of the new upper class,” as there are many hereditary factors which lead to income and cultural differences, which, in turn, create this income inequality.

Elite colleges have become a kind of sorting machine that allow for the intermingling of, mostly, rich, smart people. This is not because colleges have not done their job in allowing for the admission of a diverse student body, it is because rich people just tend to have better scores and higher application rates. This creates a situation where colleges become filled with rich, smart people, most of whom are going to find their future spouse there. Economists call this phenomenon assortative mating, the tendency of people with similar characteristics to marry and start families. Rich Morin of the Pew Research Center states, “Better-educated people are increasingly more likely to marry other better-educated people while those with less formal schooling are more likely to choose a less well-educated partner.”

According to Murray, the urge to be around people who are like-minded is a basic human impulse that starts at a very early age. So when people in college marry, this only keeps the people in this class separated, thereby perpetuating this income gap between the college-educated and their non-college-educated peers. This means that in order to truly get rid of income inequality, one would somehow have to quell this human instinct to mate with people that are just as smart, rich, or happy as us.

A Pew Research Center study further details the growth of the income disparity as a result of a college education. According to this study, in 1960, a couple composed of spouses who had a high school education would earn about 103 percent of the average household income. In 2005, the same couple would only earn 83 percent. Similarly, couples that both completed post-graduate studies in 1960 earned approximately 176 percent of the average household income, while, in 2005, that same couple would earn 219 percent.

Another way to interpret this would be that the income disparity has only increased between the educated and non-educated despite the increase in college-educated people. Ronald Brownstein of the National Journal states that “despite Washington’s huge investment in access, since 1970 the gap in college completion rates between students from the bottom and top fifths of the income ladder has doubled. Those from the top fifth are now seven times more likely to graduate than those from the bottom.”

Murray states that tests like the SAT were supposed to level the playing field for everyone, from the rural fields of Iowa to the elite private schools of the northeast. However, his studies show that children with at least one college educated parent tend to score higher on any test than students with none. And because college education is linked to higher income, this generally results in upper middle class students applying to more elite schools.

Critics of this theory of cognitive segregation argue that it is luck or good fortune that the well-off were born into their circumstances, and this does not inherently make them smarter. However, like Murray says, the adage, “Shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations” came about due to observed reality. Murray argues that, if a child does not inherit the intelligence of their parents, the fortune won in one generation will not necessarily survive forward generations.

Keeping in mind Murray’s analysis, I would argue for a different strategy to combat income inequality. I contend that we must foster an education system that truly caters to children’s’ different learning abilities, thereby enabling them with tools for success in whichever type of employment best utilizes their strengths. One example of such a program would be apprenticeships. Apprenticeships would allow more scholarly children to continue in their education, while allowing for children more talented in other areas to go to trade schools and take part in on-the-job training. This would allow children to cultivate their strengths, irrespective of where those strengths may lie, which would, consequently, increase all children’s chances of success.

In trying to increase access to college to reduce income inequality, supporters of education reform have, in fact, missed the crux of the issue. The true problem lies not in increasing college access, but in addressing the stringent education standards that have only alienated children who have no hope of succeeding in the current academic climate. If there is any hope of reducing income inequality, it has to come from a reform of the education that will enable children to succeed in their own right. This can then create multiple pools of success as opposed to the one metric we have today: college.

Bigotry at the Ath: A Response to the CMC Forum

In the opening line of her recent Forum piece “Why is CMC Promoting Racism and Sexism?” CMC Freshman Liat Kaplan wrote, “I’m not going to summarize political scientist Charles Murray’s recent Ath talk here because if I do, the stress will probably give me a heart attack.” Bracketing a discussion of Kaplan’s coronary arteries, it’s clear that Kaplan should have consulted her notes on the talk – if she took any. Kaplan’s portrayal of Charles Murray’s Athenaeum talk is as false as her ill-thought-out cries of bigotry.

Kaplan asserts that during his speech Murray claimed “that poor people, especially people of color, are genetically predisposed to be less intelligent,” – a thesis which appears in Murray’s 1994 text The Bell Curve. This assertion is factually inaccurate, and wildly so. The subject of Murray’s Ath talk was his more-recent book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, a study on class inequality. Murray clarified in the first five minutes of his speech that he excluded race from consideration in Coming Apart, in order to pinpoint the effect of college admissions on class inequality. The words “The Bell Curve” never left Murray’s mouth.

As a preface to his talk, Murray carefully noted that he was only presenting sociological evidence, not a normative stance on the issue of class inequality. It is difficult to reconcile this very overt sidestep of ethical issues with Kaplan’s claim that in Murray’s address “whole swaths of humanity [were] categorically deemed inferior.” The only very vaguely sexist thing Murray said, over the entire course of the talk, was that wives tend to civilize husbands and make them more productive; however, he noted that this was putting “not too fine a point on it,” and added the caveat that this thesis was only one explanation for the empirical truth that married men tend to be more economically productive than their unmarried counterparts.

What claims did Murray make at the Ath? During his talk, Murray focused exclusively on his thesis in Coming Apart, which is that the new upper class and lower class which have formed in America diverge more sharply than ever before in terms of core values like family and community life. The causal story which Murray emphasized in his Ath talk was that the college admissions process tends to concentrate high-IQ persons together at elite colleges and universities, where they often marry each other, become members of the new upper class and have children who lead sheltered lives in their upper class social bubble. Members of the new upper class, on Murray’s account, are typically insulated from an authentic understanding of the lives of their lower-class counterparts, which poses a grave problem for democracy since, in most cases, America’s governing elite wind up being members of the new upper class – individuals with little understanding of the lives of their constituents.

A crucial point here is that Murray’s thesis in Coming Apart is compatible with a wide range of normative stances. Murray seemed to indicate that he didn’t favor a class of elites who had never lived outside the bubble, but rather thought that a healthy democracy required its leaders to understand the lives of all their constituents. This remarkably progressive vision strongly contradicts the elitism Kaplan attempts to read into Murray’s argument. And although The Bell Curve did not feature in Murray’s talk, a similar principle applies. Even if one accepts the empirical truth that average IQ varies along ethnic lines, one can still, of course, recognize that the evolutionary and historical forces which contributed to racial IQ disparities were arbitrary and oppressive, respectively – and ought to be corrected for through affirmative action or educational reform, for instance. The bottom line is that Murray’s Ath talk involved statistical data, not the highly offensive ethical claims Kaplan thought she heard. The reason students didn’t angrily condemn Murray as a racist or a sexist during the Q & A is that he didn’t defend anything even remotely close to a “racist” or “sexist” position.

My last Claremont Independent article argued that the censorship of oppressive viewpoints is virtually never justified, and, coincidentally, considered Murray’s The Bell Curve. So instead of critiquing Kaplan’s views on censorship here, I’d like to conclude this article with a discussion of the problem of bigotry.

In her article, Kaplan repeatedly characterized Murray as a bigot. A bigot is defined as “a person who strongly and unfairly dislikes other people, ideas, etc.” While Murray’s views may not align with Kaplan’s own, they emphatically do not make him a bigot.

Each of Murray’s views is the result of fair and thoughtful consideration – for instance, Murray recently changed his mind, on reflection and decided to support the legalization of abortion and same-sex marriage. Charles Murray is remarkably open-minded for a man Kaplan essentializes as a racist, sexist, “old white rich man who thinks that women and people of color are inferior beings.” Indeed, Murray is far more open-minded than Kaplan herself. While Murray grounds his viewpoints in statistical evidence and careful reflection, Kaplan writes angry tirades only marginally evidenced by a single peremptory Google search. While Murray favors the open exchange of conflicting viewpoints (and explicitly thanked Claremont McKenna for hosting exactly that kind of exchange at the Athenaeum), Kaplan favors a McCarthy-esque policy of censoring individuals with whom she harbors moral disagreement. Consequently, the true bigot in this episode is Kaplan. If Kaplan genuinely felt Murray’s talk dehumanized and devalued her as a human person, she has some serious soul searching to do.