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`The Bell Curve' Rings False

By Keith Geiger. Keith Geiger is president of the National Education Association in Washington. / November 14, 1994



I LEAVE it to scholars to rebut the substance of Charles Murray's racial theories on intelligence, as detailed in his much-discussed new book ``The Bell Curve.''

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My own objection is less to Dr. Murray the man than to ``Murrayism'' defined more broadly: the age-old practice of attaching a negative label to entire groups of people and then using that label as an excuse for neglect or outright discrimination.

Admittedly, for me and other educators, this latest eruption of Murrayism hits close to home. After all, in the great ``nature versus nurture'' debate, teachers are the nurture people. We believe profoundly in the ability of families and schools to strengthen minds and shape good citizens. But not Murray. For him, what counts is in the genes. Equal parts pessimist and determinist, he describes an underclass of 12 million-plus Americans who largely lack the mental candlepower to better themselves. According to Murray, these people are mostly born dumb and, therefore, are destined to die poor - and there's little we can do about it.

Tragically, Murray's unproven and unprovable generalizations - and the notoriety they have gained in the media - inflict one more body blow to public education in America's inner cities, where the so-called underclass sends its children to school.

Bear in mind that education is largely a game of expectations. As any teacher will tell you, students tend strongly to perform up - or down - to the expectations of those around them. If schools and society tell children that they are smart and capable of achievement, then, lo and behold, they usually succeed. But when we tell inner-city youngsters that they are dumb and doomed - and Murray is only the latest to broadcast this insidious message - is it any wonder that so many fail?

Teachers know better. As a social scientist, Murray sees people in aggregates. Like many other smart people, he measures worth in terms of IQ. Teachers, by contrast, deal not with aggregates but with individuals: real, live children, every one of them worthy and precious.

In hundreds of public schools in America's most blighted urban areas, students are achieving big things and defying the determinists. Newsweek magazine recently profiled Hostos-Lincoln Academy of Science in the South Bronx, N.Y., where 300 black and Latino students - identified by their eighth-grade counselors as likely dropouts because of low reading scores and poor attendance -

are taught a demanding curriculum by teachers who preach high expectations.

Seven in 10 students in the class of 1989 graduated on time - twice the New York City average. And the percentage of students who passed the state's rigorous regents test in biology rose from 9 percent to 50 percent in two years. As a Hostos-Lincoln biology teacher told Newsweek: ``You have to believe in them. Most kids don't have anyone at home who does.''

Hostos-Lincoln is the good news. The bad news is that there are too many other urban schools that, superficially at least, seem to confirm Murray's gloomy vision, schools where students perform poorly and fail.

However, this failure is not innate; it is instilled. It is planted like a bad seed in impressionable young children by a society that often seems to have abandoned them. This is a tragedy that Murray now abets.

Americans appear to be buying Murray's book but not his conclusions. We are, after all, a nation of optimism and high expectations. We believe not only that all people are created equal, but also in the corollary: that all Americans deserve an equal chance to learn, achieve, and succeed.

Good teachers will counter Murray's message with one of hope and high expectations. But he has made their task that much tougher.

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