21st Century Skill #1 – Know Thy Source


In his blog, “Oh, and You Have a Degree, Too?” Will Richardson returns to a theme he has expressed on numerous occasions; a concern that schooling wrongfully prepares kids for college. Actually, I’m not sure what his point is except that Will maintains the “radical” notion that his children should learn everywhere and have the freedom to choose their own destinations in life. I honestly don’t understand his arguments and doubt that we disagree much.

In this blog and its previous incarnations, I’ve commented that American higher education represents some of the greatest innovation in education today. Sure, there are crappy colleges and universities, but there are an awful lot of good ones embodying the progressive liberal arts principles I think Will and I share.

However, that is not the purpose of this blog.

In Will Richardson’s recent blog, he cites the views of Charles Murray as supporting evidence for his argument. Neither Will, nor a single one of the 32 blog commenters (as of 3:09 Pacific Time – 12/31/08) question the source used to support Will’s thesis. Not one.

I am not a fan of the 21st Century Skills or Information Literacy movements. I see them as much-a-do about so very little and find that the opportunity costs of focusing on information literacy result in children learning too little with and about computers. However, my understanding of the 21st Century Skill/School 2.0/Information Literacy bluster suggests that a basic skill required to navigate the world of ideas is question the source of what you read.

Questioning the source leads a reader to consider the potential for bias, validity or reliability in a person’s argument. Such a modicum of skepticism allows the reader to better make sense of information and assess its credibility before making decisions or passing the information along to others.

I often stress the importance of being well-grounded in the education literature and understanding learning theory sufficiently to communicate one’s practice articulately. Chris Lehmann also reminds our colleagues in the blogosphere how we stand on the shoulders of giants. A knowledge of education history allows us to better navigate the challenges of today and tomorrow. It also keeps one from being snookered or aligned with noxious views.

This is all a very long-winded way of questioning whether Will Richardson should have quoted Charles Murray as an expert in order to advance his ideas.

At best, Charles Murray is one of the chief ideologues of the right. At worst, some consider him a White supremacist. Charles Murray is most famous for a book he coauthored, Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life. In this book, Murray makes the claim that Black people are genetically intellectually inferior to white people.

The Bell Curve is not some obscure publication, but rather a New York Times Bestseller. It was featured in newspapers, television debates and has spawned a cottage industry of books dismantling its pseudo-science, racism and social Darwinism. The eminent evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould wrote extensively about Murray’s work (and not in a good way).

Disturbing as I find the anachronism of The Bell Curve, I am even more distressed by its pervasive disingenuousness. The authors omit facts, misuse statistical methods, and seem unwilling to admit the consequence of their own words. (Stephen Jay Gould, 1994)

Unfortunately, Murray’s assertions were based on a series of internal contradictions, specious arguments and outright phony claims unsupported by his data…

…Murray’s ascendancy would never have been possible without the patient, far-sighted investments in his work by a conservative network of funders and foundations, including the reclusive billionaire, Richard Mellon Scaife. (Eric Altermann, 2007)

Richard Mellon Scaife also funded “The Arkansas Project” the bogus journalistic witch-hunt against Bill and Hillary Clinton accusing them of all sorts of things, including murder.

Even if we grant his hypothesis — that only a relatively few children are capable of high academic achievement — can we identify for a certainty which ones they are, especially among the underprivileged and those who are academically disadvantaged before they set foot in school? And do we want to live in an Aldous Huxley world where our place in the pecking order is more or less predetermined? (New York Times review of Murray’s most recent book, October 29, 2008)

In a September 2008 New York Times interview, Murray says that his latest book, the basis for the article Will cites, is a distillation of things I’ve been thinking since “The Bell Curve.”

In the rest of the rather snarky and anti-intellectual recent New York TImes interview timed to sell his new book, Murray favors think-tanks (that pay his rent) over higher education, defends anti-intellectualism and expresses his love for Sarah Palin. I don’t believe that Will Richardson intended to side with such a fine person as Mr. Murray.

A popular information literacy pundit alarms educator audiences by using the example of martinlutherking.org to demonstrate how dangerous the web can be unless we are critical readers of information. Considering the source of information seems prudent.

I’m confident that my friend Will Richardson does not want to take sides with Charles Murray in the education wars.

As they used to say at the end of roll-call on Hill Street Blues, “Hey, let’s be careful out there!”

Additional resources:
• Here is an online university text challenging Murray’s work – http://www.indiana.edu/~intell/bellcurve.shtml

• Brittanica Blog review of Murray’s latest book – http://www.britannica.com/blogs/2008/08/there-he-goes-again-charles-murray-that-is-on-real-education/


5 Responses to “21st Century Skill #1 – Know Thy Source”
  1. Will says:


    I know who Charles Murray is. I know his reputation. But does that mean that I’m not allowed to post about an idea that he offers that in some way resonates or challenges my own thinking? If I had posted something in opposition to the op-ed, would that have been ok?

    As you suggest, I’ve been having this conversation on my blog for quite some time, and you’ve been consistent (and civil) in your push back. You know that my thinking on this has been influenced by a number of folks, that I’m not buying into Murray’s argument wholesale, that I don’t agree with everything he says.

    So why jump to the conclusion that I (and the 30 or so others who have commented) are neglecting our information literacy skills? If that’s the case, should I be vetting each of the commentors before I allow their voices to enter the conversation? Should I be requiring a c.v. with every comment? A background check? A wikipedia entry?

    I find it difficult to get from considering what I think is an idea worthy of conversation to “taking sides with Charles Murray in the education wars.” That is a leap generated by something other than a concern for information literacy, I think. And while we’re being careful, let’s consider hyperbole as a pretty weak way of making an argument.

  2. Gary says:


    How would one know who Charles Murray is or that you know he is based on your blog? I took pains to avoid saying that you shared beliefs with Charles Murray. I even said that I didn’t think you wished to take sides with him. I will clarify that sentence.

    That said, Charles Murray is a serious extremist discredited by countless experts. You indicated none of this in your blog and by linking suggested that people consider his work seriously. I am not sure I would have done so even if I found one of his arguments compelling.

    When a guy who would like to sort human potential by race argues that some people do not need much education, one can easily guess whose children he wants to leave out.

    Perhaps a parenthetical comment indicating that Murray is at a minimum “controversial” would aid the reader.

    Would you have told your students about Charles Murray if you asked them to read an article by him? If so, does the same care need to be applied to blogging?

    You don’t need to vet or get a CV from every blog commenter, although I occasionally try to get background information on the person whose words I’m reading. You know well that the strength and weakness of the blogosphere is that anyone can be published.

    That said, a blog comment hardly carries the same weight as an article in the New York Times – even if some bloggers might argue otherwise. I think the New York Times should tell readers that the guy they gave a column to harbors dangerous views that he often hides behind artifice and his fancy position at the American Enterprise Institute.

    If the New York Times published your Op-Ed, I suspect you would have had to indicate whether you agreed or disagreed with Mr. Murray. In your blog, your agreement was implied.

    Mr. Murray is a jerk. You are not.

    These are important issues we’re discussing and this instance is likely an outlier since Mr. Murray is so extreme in views that are discredited by scientists and applauded by those who use them to advance socio-political objectives.

    All the best,


  3. Jackie Gerstein says:

    First, thanks for this post. Second, “YIKES”. To quote Charles Murray as a reputable source in any argument really scares me. As you state, “I often stress the importance of being well-grounded in the education literature and understanding learning theory sufficiently to communicate one’s practice articulately.” As a faculty of Teacher Education, I use Charles Murray and The Bell Curve as evidence about how mainstream society is willing to accept racist agendas if they are couched in seemingly valid research and published by a reputable source.

    Strong criticisms against Charles Murray and his work have been occurring since the mid 1990s. See

    I really don’t know Will Richardson and his agenda . . . and I know Gary, that you did not use the word racist against Charles Murray. As a college teacher, I attempt to bring in both sides of any argument and let my students decide. But, as a educator who belief is founded in the right of all students to receive pedagogically sound educations, I overtly and freely express my belief that Charles Murray is frankly, a bigot.

    Again, thanks for bringing this to the attention of the blogging community . . . and reinforcing that even though these are blogs, we are educators and that sources we cite should be explored, researched, and examined prior to bringing them to the larger community.

  4. Gary says:


    Thanks for the additional links and for your support. I’m not sure that objectivity is an absolute while teaching. There are some views so repugnant that they are unworthy of debate. Not every issue has even and balanced “sides to the argument.”

    I truly appreciate your kind words. Will is a good man, but this issue seemed important enough to raise even if I become less popular in the edu-blogosphere.

    Happy New Year!


  5. tellio says:

    Not entirely true about how no one questioned Richardson in the comments.

    I wrote, “The NYT will publish anyone. Murray saw the error of his ways with the SAT, I wonder what else he will change his expertise on. He and Tom Friedman ought to get together and share bad metaphors and overpriced brandy. They can afford it, but we can’t in more ways than one.”

    I think his concern rises out of the hard fact that he is raising young children and that the choices we must make in the institutional morass that is K-12 public and private education are profoundly difficult. They were even more so twenty five years ago when my wife and I decided to “un-school” our kids. Sometimes what we want for our kids seems as inchoate as for them to “learn everywhere and have freedom to choose.” For some of us, that ideal is going to be a dicey one to strive for, but that is where it starts. I agree that how we reach that should not be through drilling for skills. That’s what 21st century literacies stink of–more of the same. I think that we need to learn skills in the service of something larger–a project, a movement, a personal desire. Process serves product, method serves approach.

    The choice of Murray was unfortunate, but even taken out of his ‘Bell Curve’ context it is rife with assumptions that are not backed up. Sounds familiar. This apple didn’t fall far from its intellectual tree. What really gets me about Murray is that he underestimates both nurture and nature. How can one underestimate any human who is the selected result of millions of years of survival? Humans are capable. I live in a rural areas that has been written off as fast food addled, meth-driven, and worse than Wasilla, yet I see every day glorious intelligence and joy. In a recent trip to a salvage grocery (look it up) I was struck by a cashier singing to herself the most extraordinary version of Dylan’s “You Gotta Serve Somebody”. On the surface we see the ordinary (or in Murray’s case much lower than ordinary), yet there seethes underneath a human power that Murray and his ilk (T.Friedman, D. Brooks, and the faux intelligentsia at the NYT among them) that seeks and stretches toward the available light. Life among these savages is a game worth the candle.