»  The Straggler, No. 73

December 1, 2008

   No, We Can't

I know, I know, we are the land of opportunity. Log cabin to White House! Anyone can be anything! Up by the bootstraps! TV talking heads, motivational speakers, pastors and pedagogues, all want to tell us — and especially our children — that we are each a hissing, throbbing little pressure cooker of potential. If we will only hitch our wagon to a star, we can be all we want to be. Yes, we can!

Here is New York Times reporter Deborah Solomon interviewing sociologist Charles Murray, following publication of Murray's latest book Real Education.

DS:  Europeans have historically defined themselves through inherited traits and titles, but isn't America a country where we are supposed to define ourselves through acts of will?
CM:  I wonder if there is a single, solitary, real-live public-school teacher who agrees with the proposition that it's all a matter of will. To me, the fact that ability varies — and varies in ways that are impossible to change — is a fact that we learn in first grade.
DS:  I believe that given the opportunity, most people could do most anything.
CM:  You're out of touch with reality in that regard.

That little exchange, and some remarks by one of the presidential candidates about special-needs children, stirred some memories. Forty years ago, not long out of college, with a bachelor's degree and a teacher's qualification to my name, I spent a year teaching special-needs children.

"Children" is not quite right. For one thing, this was a secondary school, ages twelve to sixteen. For another, they were all boys, this being England, and English secondary schools of all kinds being single-sex as often as not at that time. And for a third, this was a slum district in Liverpool, a rough port city where slum children grew up fast.

In England there was a system (now defunct) of special schools for students deemed to be in need of unusual attention. There were at least half a dozen official categories: schools for the severely retarded, emotionally disturbed, deaf, "delicate," and so on. Our boys were Educationally Sub-Normal. Without their having any known physical, mental, or emotional abnormality, they had finished their primary schooling still unable to read or do basic arithmetic.

That year of teaching a class of ESN boys was a total-immersion course in the nature/nurture controversy. The administrator at the city Education Office who offered me the job was a nurturist of Ms. Solomon's stripe. "They're not bad boys," he assured me. "They just missed out on too much of their primary schooling. Not enough truant officers … And they come from bad homes, many of them."

That last part at any rate was true. The school was in Edge Hill, not far from the city center. (The local railroad stop was the last before the main Liverpool terminus. Liverpudlians, who cherish a pawky style of wit, used "getting off at Edge Hill" as a synonym for coitus interruptus.) The streets were all nineteenth-century terraced row houses. The district might have had a shot at being poor-but-cozy, except that "urban renewal" was under way, the old row houses being demolished street by street, the inhabitants relocated to soulless distant "estates." Edge Hill wasn't just a slum, it was a demoralized slum.

The stories we heard from the school nurse (who went to boys' homes) and the local police station's Juvenile Liaison Officer (frequently at the school) were grim. Was it really the case, in prosperous late-1960s England, that a father would supplement the family's supply of firewood by removing alternate boards from the stairs? Or that a twelve-year-old boy should not know the function of toilet paper? My colleagues, the nurse, and our policeman, assured me that such things were quite normal.

Though rough, the boys were surprisingly easy to handle. In part this was because, as my colleagues said bluntly, they were so slow-witted, it was easy to outfox them. They were given tests every year, including a frank IQ test, on which most scored in the 70s or low 80s. There was nothing wrong with any of them, and many were cheerful and pleasant boys, but there was no mistaking the fact of their being … dim. Dimness also helped weed out the really hard cases, who would embark on a criminal career at age 13 or 14. Too clueless to evade detection, they would be caught at once and whisked off to Juvenile Hall to be someone else's problem.

Why were they so dim, though? We discussed this endlessly in the staff room. A young idealist, I very much wanted it to be nurture. Such awful environments! And missing so much primary schooling, as most of them had! My colleagues — dedicated men all, and a couple of them close to saintly in their determination to find what could be found in these lads, and to do what could be done for them — were pretty solidly for nature. In the pungent Liverpool manner, the topic was discussed as:  "Does the pig make the sty; or the sty, the pig?"

It was depressing work, with little to show for months of effort. Perhaps the most depressing thing of all was that none of the boys was very capable at anything. To play soccer, for example, needs a modicum of thought as well as some minimal physical fitness. Our boys could not rise to it. The masters-boys soccer match was a rout of them, strapping 15- and 16-year-olds, by us, wheezy desk-wallahs with a median age around 40. Up to that point I had assumed that even seriously un-intellectual people must have some ability at something. That this is not necessarily the case, is one of the saddest true things I ever learned.

Charles Murray is right. Ability varies, and not much can be done to change it. By no effort of will, applied from no matter how young an age, could I come to play the violin like Yehudi Menuhin, or golf like Tiger Woods. And yet, of course, this bleak fact is dispiriting and destructive, while Ms. Solomon's airy fiction is affirmative and inspiring. Tragic truth, or festive falsehood? The will needs a goal, said Nietzsche, er braucht ein Ziel, and we'd rather will Nothingness than not will, rather believe than know. Nietzsche was right, too.