April 3 2014
Charles Murray: Context Matters
People are always complaining about being taken out of context. When I was a reporter, I always hated it when quotees made that charge. It generally meant that I'd quoted them right but they wanted to disavow what they had said.
But sometimes the complaint is just. The American Enterprise Institute’s Charles Murray has just been accused by a writer for the Huffington Post of believing women are intellectually inferior to men.She cited a passage from an earlier essay. We'll get to the quote in a second. But first it must be noted that Huffington Post’s Laura Bassett managed a twofer in this article, slinging mud at both Murray and Texas gubernatorial candidate Greg Abbott. Ms. Bassett writes:
In his pre-Kindergarten education plan released this week, Texas Republican gubernatorial candidate Greg Abbott cites the work of a man who believes that women and minorities are intellectually inferior to white men.
In the second paragraph of his introduction, Abbott cites Charles Murray, a conservative social scientist and fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
"Family background has the most decisive effect on student achievement, contributing to a large performance gap between children from economically disadvantaged families and those from middle class homes," Abbott writes, citing Murray's book Real Education in the footnote. (Abbott's plan misspells the book's title as "Read Education.")
Of course, the prudent course would be to examine the role of family stability and apply this knowledge to help underperforming kids. But Abbott is running against Democrat Wendy Davis, the darling (albeit somewhat tarnished) of the left, so he should expect a great deal of mud coming his way.
In revealing what an ogre Murray is, Bassett quotes the Southern Poverty Law Center, whose propaganda inspired a shooting at Focus on the Family, as a source.
If you read the quote Ms. Bassett selected to characterize Murray’s views on the intellect of women, it does indeed sound damning:
“No woman has been a significant original thinker in any of the world’s great philosophical traditions,” he wrote. “Women have produced a smaller number of important visual artists, and none that is clearly in the first rank. No female composer is even close to the first rank. Social restrictions undoubtedly damped down women’s contributions in all of the arts, but the pattern of accomplishment that did break through is strikingly consistent with what we know about the respective strengths of male and female cognitive repertoires.”
Murray provides a link to the article from which Ms. Bassett took the seemingly incriminating material. The next sentence, however, would have made it clear that Murray doesn’t regard us as intellectually inferior:
Women have their own cognitive advantages over men, many of them involving verbal fluency and interpersonal skills. If this were a comprehensive survey, detailing those advantages would take up as much space as I have devoted to a particular male advantage.
But why stop there?
But, sticking with my restricted topic, I will move to another aspect of male-female differences that bears on accomplishment at the highest levels of the arts and sciences: motherhood.
Regarding women, men, and babies, the technical literature is as unambiguous as everyday experience would lead one to suppose. As a rule, the experience of parenthood is more profoundly life-altering for women than for men. Nor is there anything unique about humans in this regard. Mammalian reproduction generally involves much higher levels of maternal than paternal investment in the raising of children. Among humans, extensive empirical study has demonstrated that women are more attracted to children than are men, respond to them more intensely on an emotional level, and get more and different kinds of satisfactions from nurturing them. Many of these behavioral differences have been linked with biochemical differences between men and women.
Thus, for reasons embedded in the biochemistry and neurophysiology of being female, many women with the cognitive skills for achievement at the highest level also have something else they want to do in life: have a baby. In the arts and sciences, forty is the mean age at which peak accomplishment occurs, preceded by years of intense effort mastering the discipline in question. These are precisely the years during which most women must bear children if they are to bear them at all.
Among women who have become mothers, the possibilities for high-level accomplishment in the arts and sciences shrink because, for innate reasons, the distractions of parenthood are greater. To put it in a way that most readers with children will recognize, a father can go to work and forget about his children for the whole day. Hardly any mother can do this, no matter how good her day-care arrangement or full-time nanny may be. My point is not that women must choose between a career and children, but that accomplishment at the extremes commonly comes from a single-minded focus that leaves no room for anything but the task at hand. We should not be surprised or dismayed to find that motherhood reduces the proportion of highly talented young women who are willing to make that tradeoff.
Murray does, of course, refer to a phenomenon many feminists won’t look square in the face: the choices that women make that affect their professional status.
Still, whatever you think of such choices—and some feminists condemn them--you must at least admit that, as Murray argues, context matters.