Uncommon Interview: Charles Murray

Charles Murray has written several best-selling books on sociology, including his widely read The Bell Curve.

By Noah Weiland

Charles Murray, social scientist and the W.H. Brady Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, spoke on campus Wednesday night about his recent book Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, which explains the changing roles and habits of the upper and lower classes in America. He sat down with the MAROON before his talk to discuss gay marriage, the importance of studying history, and the lack of diversity at the U of C.

Chicago Maroon: Today [May 9th] is a pretty historic day, at least symbolically, for civil rights. How important is it for the President to take a stand on social issues like gay marriage? Do you think this helps or interferes with how public policy is treated and implemented?

Charles Murray: I think with divisive ones like gay marriage, a president probably is well advised to wait until some kind of consensus is starting to form, and I think that’s what’s happening to gay marriage. I think if a president had come out ten years ago, it would have been problematic because the deeply, deeply felt positions were so split down the middle. But you know, there are an awful lot of people on the right, including me, who having had ten, fifteen years to experience watching gay couples, are saying, ‘Well, you know. My friends who are gay who are living as couples, they sort of look like marriages to me.’ That’s certainly the reaction of my wife and myself. And that doesn’t mean that there is not still a very vocal, adamant portion of the population that’s still opposed to it, but I think it’s a lot more reasonable for a president to do that now than it would have been earlier.

CM: Your work seems to emphasize cultural over economic determinants when considering social policy. How can you act on these kinds of assumptions? David Brooks suggested a National Service Program that forces people of different economic and social classes to live together in order to spread certain values. Is there some sort of practical model you’d look to?

DCM: Well, I’m emphasizing cultural explanations in this book [Coming Apart]. In Losing Ground, I emphasize some very concrete changes in economic incentives that in my view jump-started a lot of the trends in out-of-wedlock births, in crime, in drop outs, and the rest. So economic incentives at some point in the policy trajectory play a big role. But, what happened in my view subsequently is that even if the trends were started by changes in economic incentives that then led to changes in social norms, such as stigma disappearing for out-of-wedlock births. Once that happens, then the continuing momentum for the continuing change is no longer the economics, and you aren’t going to turn the trend around by changing the economics.

So, at this point in our history, I think that cultural shifts are going to be the thing that fixes things, if that’s possible. In terms of policy prescriptions, one of the implications of that is that it’s probably very unwise and ineffectual to try to rely on policy. Government policy used to influence behavior in a manipulative way. Government has effects on behavior, but they’re usually unintended. They very seldom work out the way people planned them to work out.

Let’s take national service as an example of the natural policy prescription. If we do indeed have a problem of these cultural divisions of the upper class, it would be a disaster. Why? After all, the draft worked wonders in bringing people together. But the draft is backed by the uniformed code of military justice. If you are an unhappy draftee in the army, you don’t have a whole lot of choice but to do what the army tells you to, because you’re facing jail time if you don’t. Any national service program that we had that was compulsory is, like the draft, going to have a very large majority of young people who don’t want to be in it. They are there against their will, but they are not in a program backed by the code of military justice. They are in a soft, squishy Peace Corps type of thing, where people are trying to convince them what a wonderful thing this is going to be, and the result is going to be two things: first, everybody will learn how to game the system. They will manage to get away with the least possible they can do, and it will be a training ground for cynicism. And the second thing is, insofar as the national service administrators do manage to force people to do this, it’s not going to lead to wonderful new friendships across the classes; It’s going to lead to more hostility. And the same kind of thing applies to most of the kinds of solutions that you might advocate.

The one exception to that is that I would like us to get rid of the BA as a standard of educational achievement. I wrote about this extensively in a book called Real Education. I think setting up this four year, liberal arts, in quotation marks, if it even is that anymore, liberal arts degree, which no longer has any meaning except an enormous amount of cultural prestige. More precisely, lacking a BA now carries with it real stigma. I think the BA is one of the most class-divisive things we have, and it is something that both could be changed and probably will change in the natural course of events.

CM: You studied history as an undergraduate. How important is it to understand past social, political, and economic trends in order to understand and interpret change?

DCM: I think the most important thing is for us to understand past American culture. One of the things that I realize is going to be different about tonight’s lecture, is that this is going to be the first college audience I’ve addressed on this topic. So, in previous presentations, many of the people in my audience were 50, 60 years-old, or at least in their forties, and so when I refer to an American civic culture that used to exist, I didn’t get lots of people raising their hands saying ‘What are you talking about?’ I have a feeling that tonight, there are going to be lots of students in the audience that have had no experience with the kind of civic culture I’m talking about. They have not grown up in that world. They’ve grown up in the bubble, and I’m going to have to do some explaining that I’m not dredging up some nostalgic geezer’s view of what America used to be like. I’m talking about a real, existing civic culture that used to function. I’m going to explain what that was all about. So I’m all in favor of learning from history, but if there is one thing that is most exceptional about the United States, it has been that civic culture, which was unlike anything in Europe. And how many 19, 20 year-olds today at elite colleges are aware of that? I don’t know the answer to that.

CM: You work for the American Enterprise Institute. Why are think tanks important, and how can they work together with academia?

DCM: A lot of us in think tanks are there because we don’t want to be in academia. Is there any need to work together? I guess I don’t see any need for us to work together. What I find interesting is the degree to which serious policy scholarship is, I think, now predominantly in the think tanks rather than in academia. And part of that is because those of us who work at these political think tanks have much more intellectual freedom than people in most academic departments. How many academic institutions would have defended me and The Bell Curve the way that the American Enterprise Institute did? The Bell Curve was the one causing problems instead of being something that was supported, and yet they both protected my freedom to write it and they stood up for it without flinching once it came out.

Compare that to what just happened at The Chronicle of Higher Education. They fired one of their most important staff members for writing a no-holds-barred account of the nature of PhD dissertations in Black Studies, which were pretty dreadful, and she said so. There were all sorts of outraged PhD writers from Black Studies who were very upset and distressed by all this, and the response by The Chronicle of Higher Education was to fire the writer for causing distress. I have to say that as I look at academia, I find that that academia is much more concerned about whether intellectually people cause distress in others than they are in defending intellectual freedom to say whatever you damn well please. I guess maybe I do have an answer to your question—academia should learn from the think thanks what intellectual freedom is all about.

CM: The University of Chicago has quite a few cross-sections of people, especially considering the surrounding communities. How do you reconcile unique cases like Hyde Park with your more two-class thesis in Coming Apart?

DCM: The first answer is that if you have a chapter in the book talking about how thick your bubble is, we are sitting in the middle of one of the most carefully constructed bubbles in the country. My daughter went here for her first year in college, so I’m aware of the response time of the University of Chicago Police, which is probably the fastest response time in the world. To what extent in the student body here do you really have a whole lot of diverse backgrounds? One of the major problems of elite universities is that they are radically underrepresented with one particular demographic: white working class. You have a fair number of black kids from working class families, but you don’t have very many of what’s a major part of America, which is white working class, white lower-middle class.

I guess without knowing the University of Chicago in any detail, my prediction would be that you have probably distressingly little diversity in the student body and in the faculty in terms of social class. I’m not saying you don’t have any. There is not only probably an underrepresentation of working class and lower-middle class among those who are here from those classes who come in as freshmen. They are very quickly socialized into the elite culture that dominates the university, because when I describe the elite culture in the book, I’m describing the culture of the University of Chicago. Furthermore, when you come in as an 18 year-old from a working class or lower-middle class background, or if you come in from a small town in Iowa as I did when I went to Harvard, you really want to fit in. And so probably they adopt the elite culture even more rapidly than everyone else does: They do really want to assimilate and not want to be seen as the oddball. So I would imagine that overall the University of Chicago exists within a pretty thick bubble.

CM: Many critics have commented that this is a golden age of sorts to go to an elite university, but there has also never been a time when vocational schools are as relevant and essential as they are today. How can the two co-exist well together?

DCM: I’m hesitating at the idea that this is the golden age for going to elite universities. Certainly they are more in demand than they ever have been. I’m sure the University of Chicago could charge $100,000 and still fill its rolls, because there would be enough parents willing to pay that. That’s not the same as saying it’s a golden age in terms of the education you carry away from the University of Chicago. Someone like me would say, ‘Hey, your golden age was when you had the nation’s finest without parallel core curricula that guaranteed that if you went to the University of Chicago, you got a liberal education for real.’ And now, as I understand it, the University of Chicago still does a whole lot better than most other schools, but it’s softened up a lot.

So I don’t accept the idea that this is the golden age to go to elite schools, but in terms of vocational education, it is a crime. We are starting with high school counselors who counsel more than 90% of their students to go to a four-year college. Starting with high school counselors, reinforced by politicians, including the President of the United States who blather that everybody should go to college, reinforced by the artificial prestige associated with the BA. We are systematically preventing some huge proportion of America’s children from growing up learning something that they love to do, and learning how to do it well. We are making it as difficult as possible for them to do that. I consider one of my major policy objectives in future writing to keep hammering on a restructuring of post-secondary education—to get rid of what I think is an utterly unjustified and pernicious source of class division.