Monday, March 19, 2012

Helping Fishtown (part one)

Charles Murray, one of my favorite public thinkers, has been all over the opinion pages (as author and subject) for his new book, Coming Apart.  He argues, in short, that there’s a growing cultural divide between the educated and the uneducated.  His sociological data shows (or apparently shows: I haven’t actually read the book), contrary to popular belief, that the upper classes, who live in the kind of enclave he calls “Belmont,” are not only harder workers, but also more likely to stay married and go to church, while the denizens of “Fishtown,” along with a failing work ethic (evidenced, above all, by vastly increased numbers of working-age men who claim to be unable to work and in need of government assistance) also don’t get married or go to church. 

Murray’s been criticized for his lack of solutions.  He urges a kind of welfare reform that I’ve been promoting for years, whereby one doesn’t have to quit working in order to get government assistance.  But otherwise, his solution is entirely cultural.  He says there’s nothing much we can do other than for the people of Belmont to start “preaching what they practice.”  Here’s how he put it in a piece in the Wall Street Journal this weekend:

To bring about this cultural change, we must change the language that we use whenever the topic of feckless men comes up.  Don’t call them “demoralized.”  Call them whatever derogatory word you prefer.  Equally important: Start treating the men who aren’t feckless with respect.  Reckognize that the guy who works on your lawn every week is morally superior in this regard to your neighbor’s college-educated son who won’t take a “demeaning” job.  Be willing to say so.
...The cultural shift that I advocate doesn’t demand that we change our minds about anything; we just need to drop our nonjudgmentalism.

That’s good rhetoric.

I wonder if Murray’s lack of solutions is also, in part, rhetorical.  I’d bet he has some ideas about policies that would help.  But he wants to keep the conversation focused on the bigger point.

In fact, in another recent piece, in the New York Times, Murray gave in and actually made some proposals:
1.      Demand that unpaid internships pay the minimum wage.  Unpaid internships are a huge educational advantage available only for those whose parents can subsidize them.
2.      Get rid of the SAT, which, contrary to its supposed purpose, does not measure pure intellectual potential, but also whether your parents could pay to put you through a test-prep class.  Another unfair obstacle to education for the lower classes.
(In a sign of mercurialness, Murray offers this as one of his four policy proposals, then claims that he thinks the SAT is actually working fine.  He’s playing with us.)
3.      Replace ethnic affirmative action with socio-economic affirmative action: instead of lowering entrance standards for black kids, lower entrance standards for poor kids.
4.      Some public-interest law firm should argue in court that requiring a BA for a job amounts to a form of discrimination, since the lowering standards of BA’s tend more to tell where you come from than whether you actually have any skills.

I see the advantages of all these proposals.  But I don’t think they end up being much good, and I suspect Murray doesn’t either.  He’s too smart for this – and, again, I think he’s more interested in getting us talking than in pushing any of these reforms.

I agree, for example, that the BA has become a stupid entrance requirement.  (I am an undergraduate professor.)  And I agree, more than Murray does, that SAT’s are not working.  But what would replace these things?  The problem is always unintended consequences.  If we get rid of the SAT, what will we use instead?  At least the SAT pretends to be measuring “aptitude,” or academic potential.  I don’t know any simpler way to let smart kids from the wrong side of the tracks prove they are college-ready.  And, again, at least the BA pretends to be a real credential.  If a kid can’t prove he’s Belmont-worthy through four years of college, how else will he prove it?  Murray is worried that kids from Fishtown can’t get a leg up on kids from Belmont.  Remove the SAT and the BA and, stupid as those two things have become, you only make it more likely that Belmont people will hire Belmont people.  How else can they tell who from Fishtown is going to be worth the investment?

I’m all for employers and colleges experimenting with better measurements than SAT’s and BA’s.  But when policy makers demand that you get rid of something, you tend to get something worse.  I suspect Murray knows that.

Tomorrow I’ll make some alternative proposals for helping Fishtown.