Charles Murray and High-End Collegiate Know-Nothings

You likely have read reports in newspapers – or even better, seen video on television or the internet – of students at Middlebury College rioting recently because they didn’t want Charles Murray, one of the nation’s most brilliant and vital social scientists, to speak on their Vermont campus.  More than a routine collegiate slurring of the First Amendment, students (and whoever else) came very close to physically assaulting him, and did in fact send his faculty host to the hospital.

I’m proud to say Charles is a friend.  I’m also proud to say that he’s not the only speaker at American Experiment’s inaugural conference, on reducing poverty, in 1990 who has been escorted off a campus or two for their own safety, as Linda Chavez also has been threatened by students whose ignorance of what higher education is about and what the Constitution demands is more breathtaking than Vermont’s Green Hills themselves. Or Colorado’s Rockies, one of the scenic spots where Linda needed police protection.

Let’s get two things straight: Despite what many on the left claim by radical rote, Charles Murray is not a racist, just as Linda Chavez is not a turncoat Chicana.  What they are, are two decent and stunningly brave people, who for decades have gone about their work undeterred by high-end know-nothings.

Among his many contributions, Dr. Murray wrote the most important book that led directly to major welfare reform in 1996: Losing Ground (in 1984).  He also is the author of the most influential book in helping the nation better understand current divisions among social classes in the nation, Coming Apart.  But, of course, the book that most inflamed the boys and girls at Middlebury, was The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life, coauthored with Richard Herrnstein, which I trust minuscule numbers of them have ever read.

As its subtitle suggests, The Bell Curve, which was released in 1994, deals principally with social class and foreshadows the many cleavages increasingly worried about these days.  It deals only partially with the ways race and IQ possibly intersect, though the combining of the two comprises perhaps the only issue that causes all but the smallest fraction of anti-P.C. warriors to clam up, as there is precious little practical or reputational upside of saying or writing anything about the pairing whatsoever.

I admit to being one of the clams, in part because delving into the matter would undercut almost everything else I wrote and spoke about, or opinions I held, or positions I took.  This is the case especially regarding my family fragmentation work, as it would be dismissed without a look by many who automatically assumed I was suspect.  Whatever I wrote or argued wouldn’t be worth it.  But more importantly I stay clear because the ties, if any, between IQ and race are fundamentally not the stuff of speculation and railing, but of science and sophisticated measurement, and I’m simply not a psychometrician and I don’t know many who are.

Going back to the early 1990s, American Experiment had a Board of Advisors, of which Charles was a member.  I received a letter from him one day with his resignation, as he said he was working on a book that was bound to be controversial, The Bell Curve, and he wanted to protect the Center by officially separating himself from us.  I immediately wrote back rejecting his resignation, saying the Center’s mission was fighting political correctness, not bowing to it.  But he wrote back again some months later saying he was resigning regardless of what I said, and that he was doing the same with his involvement in other groups, as he knew the explosiveness of the controversy to come.

Shortly after The Bell Curve came out I was asked to participate in a panel discussion about it at Carleton College.  Being the lone conservative at the table, a student unsurprisingly asked me a question in which he added something like, “You conservatives must be really happy that Murray wrote the book.”  To which I quickly responded, I suspect surprisingly to most in the audience, “No,” as it was causing African Americans, it seemed to me, to think even less kindly of conservatives as a genus than they did before the book.

Beyond nasty rank and file reactions, I also remember several elite black scholars and others, people regularly and accurately viewed as “black conservatives,” who were not happy with Murray and Herrnstein either.  Their contentions, however, generally had more to do with arcane aspects of the book’s methodology, not with knee-jerkish condemnations.

To sum up.

Is there a small part of me that wishes The Bell Curve never happened?  Yes.

Is there a much bigger part of me that respects and applauds Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein for writing the book?  Yes, again, as pursuing a society’s toughest problems and subjects is exactly what scholars are supposed to do.

Do I believe that Charles Murray is both a very good man and a superior social scientist?  Yes, absolutely.

Do I believe that colleges and universities should be hospitable places for all kinds of ideas and voices, not just politically, socially, and culturally skewed ones?  Obviously.

And do I believe that the people who violently drove Charles Murray off the Middlebury campus ought to be thrown out of the place themselves?   Throw the book at them, I say.

Mitch Pearlstein is Founder of Center of the American Experiment.