Should We Listen To Charles Murray?

Here’s how the story appeared in Seven Days: Vermont’s Independent Newspaper:


This is attention-getting, isn’t it? Here’s the story in Inside Higher Education.  Here it is in The Washington Post.  A mob committed violence to prevent someone from speaking.  A mob. Injuries.  The story doesn’t go down better when we learn that some of the mob members were college students upset about white racism.  At least it doesn’t for me.

Today we are in a struggle for the soul of America.  Roughly half of the voters who showed up at the polls in 2016 voted for Donald Trump.  More than half voted for Republican members of the House of Representatives, the ones that are busy deregulating everything they can reach.  We need to persuade these voters to vote differently in 2018 and 2020.

Are we likely to persuade people by having mobs attack Charles Murray? Of course not. For one thing, mob violence tears apart the civic fabric.  It is likely criminal behavior.  But it’s more than that.

The question of what we make of Charles Murray and his writings is an important one.  I disagree with Charles Murray, often in quite fundamental ways. Nevertheless, I regularly use his writings when I teach public policy.  I especially use The Happiness of People, Losing Ground, and Coming Apart.  (Note: not The Bell Curve. Why not, see below.)  Why do I read and assign others to read Murray’s works?  Because I believe he is one of the clearest, most evidence-based, broad-gauge conservative thinkers about public policy today in the United States. He is immensely influential and admired in conservative intellectual circles.  If we are going to persuade people to vote differently, we are going to have to understand and be prepared to speak intelligently about the ideas being put forward by the other guys. Charles Murray is a good place to start.

As progressives all across the United States perform an inquest on the 2016 election, one common theme emerging is that we missed focusing on those Americans who have been ‘left behind’ by the march of globalization, lost their jobs and lost their dignity.  Thus, lots of people are taking the time to read J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, 2016, touted as ‘#1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER, NAMED BY THE TIMES AS ONE OF “6 BOOKS TO HELP UNDERSTAND TRUMP’S WIN”‘.  What else might we read to help us understand this?

I suggest Murray’s Coming Apart, first published in 2012, four years before Vance’s excellent book.  (“This is an immensely important and utterly gripping book,” writes Harvard History Professor Niall Ferguson.)  No, I don’t agree with much of Murray’s analysis, still less with his prescriptions, but the book did make me think, as I believe it would make many others think if they gave it a read.  Had many of us read it, we might have approached voters in some midwestern states differently.

Today, as I’m mulling about the shout-down and worse at Middlebury, I find a moment to read Andrew Sullivan’s most recent letter about the Trump era.  As always, Sullivan’s letter is worth reading.  In it I’m surprised to find this:

In America, as Charles Murray has shown in his extraordinary book, Coming Apart, the young and the smart and the talented — the people who would once have formed the core of these small towns — have long since fled to distant colleges and cities. They don’t come back. They would once have been the police chief or the town librarian or the school principal. They once helped make the town a well-run place with a clear identity, where the same families and networks lived together, died together, belonged together. These connections have attenuated … as economics supplants culture, as efficiency erases the individuality of inefficient places, as Amazon rips the heart out of shopping districts, as the smartphone removes us from physical space, and as many more immigrants and their culture alter the feel of a place in ways that disorient those with memories and loyalties.

I don’t think we can understand the politics of this moment — Brexit, Trump, Le Pen — without noticing this abiding sense of loss.

Murray. “Extraordinary book.”  “Can’t understand the politics of this moment without ….” The same Murray that Middlebury students shouted down and chased out of town.  Sullivan isn’t shouting him down; he’s praising Murray.

A group of nearly 500 Middlebury alumni signed a letter before the event objecting to the invitation.  They said “Dr. Murray’s scholarship is of blatantly dreadful quality.” I doubt very many of the 500 had ever read Murray.  The very smartest, best educated conservatives in the U.S. largely don’t agree with that “blatantly dreadful quality” (unsupported) assessment of Murray’s work. We won’t effectively defeat conservative arguments by simple name-calling, and still less by mob behavior. We won’t win future elections by sticking our fingers in our ears or by shoving our fists and elbows in other people’s ribs.

Yes, some of you may remember that Murray came to Earlham in March 2011 at my invitation.  Some students tried to stop that speech by pulling first one and then another fire alarm.  I spoke up for academic freedom on that occasion.  I’d have liked to see a stronger letter from Middlebury’s President on this occasion, one that apologized to Murray at the start of the letter rather than at the end, but she did voice the key concerns.  Because Earlham and Middlebury are institutions of higher education, academic freedom is the central concern.

Today, not on a college campus and hoping for better days for America, I want to speak up for more than academic freedom: for hearing out and thinking clearly about those with whom we disagree.  If Murray is wrong, say why with care.  You might even find insights that you’d otherwise have missed.  Murray noticed the “abiding sense of loss” among the white underclass before we did.

We may learn something; we may win more elections.


On The Bell Curve.  The book that Murray wrote with Richard Herrnstein, first published in 1994, is a controversial book because it deals frontally with the question of race and IQ.  Its subtitle is “Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life.” It drew more attention on publication than probably any other social science book since World War II.  On the whole, I agree with this 1995 assessment from three Brookings Institution scholars: “There are indeed some useful messages in the book. But there is also much wrong with it.”  What “useful messages?” What “mistakes?”  That would take some time to say.

The Wikipedia account is a decent place to start if you want to know more, but first it will let you know that the book generated an enormous scholarly literature, much of it quite technical about statistical techniques and the measurement of intelligence.  Taking the book seriously means committing yourself to a very deep dive.  Just reading one or two things, or worse, taking someone else’s word for it, simply won’t do.

I once read a great deal of that commentary; I pay the book little attention today.  I believe it is wrong in its conclusions, and I believe it is not a constructive contribution to discussions of public policy.  I believe it is Murray’s worst book. But I also believe many other scholars have written bad books and still are worth my/our attention.  I set their bad books aside.

Several of Murray’s other books are well worth my/our attention even though I disagree with them.  (Murray’s The Happiness of People, his 2009 Irving Kristol Lecture at the American Enterprise Institute lays an excellent foundation for a conservative opposition to the likes of Donald Trump.)  It simply is a cheap shot to say, as the Middlebury alumni do, “Dr. Murray’s scholarship is of blatantly dreadful quality.”  It’s as much a cheap shot as it is to say (for example) that most conservatives are shallow, or that they are mostly racist.

If Murray is wrong (or if he is a racist), be prepared to say why. And to do that you will have to read him (or listen to him) first.  Or pay him no attention because you think you have more important things to do.  Those at Middlebury had that option, too.


ADDENDUM, 3/6: The Atlantic’s Peter Beinart addresses the same issue in a similar fashion in A Violent Attack on Free Speech at Middlebury.  One cavil: He uses an ungenerous and I believe inaccurate quote from a student group to characterize Murray’s Coming Apart.  If he hasn’t read the book, why not just mention the topic.  If he has, why doesn’t he simply tell us what he makes of it?

See also The Aftermath at Middlebury, from Inside Higher Education.



About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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2 Responses to Should We Listen To Charles Murray?

  1. Timothy DeLizza, Earlham ’02, here (I took a politics course with you while you were school president).

    So, this is in line with your recent post. I just discovered yesterday that the Wall Street Journal published a letter to the editor by me way back in 2003 and never told me.

    No idea why they didn’t let me know — but it looks like the WSJ published a prior letter saying that it was okay for a conservative crowd to turn off a mic mid-graduation anti-war graduation speech of Chris Hedges. i wrote in saying that we all needed to listen to each other more and avoid our bubbles, and gave the politically-flipped example of Ms. Coulter coming to Earlham during my tenure, and how I felt disappointment that Earlham students didn’t engage rather than simply protest in an attempt to drown out.

    Sadly my rediscovered letter to the editor remains highly relevant for both sides.

    I’ve pasted below first the WSJ piece that I was responding to, and then my response.

    Leftist Venom Deserves to Be Shouted Down

    Regarding your May 23 editorial “The Rockford Fouls,” about New York Times reporter Chris Hedges being booed off stage for his anti-American, anti-war rant, there is a distinct difference between prior student disruptions by leftist goons directed at conservative speakers and the incident at the Rockford College commencement address. They are not, as you assert, “the same thing.”

    Chris Hedges was not “invited” to speak; he was employed by the college to do so and was therefore subject to dismissal for nonperformance. And Mr. Hedges is not “foolish,” as you call him — he is overtly anti-American. The college administrators who hired Mr. Hedges are the foolish ones. They had the responsibility to know, in advance, the nature of the presentation and to provide a speaker who respects his audience. (That Mr. Hedges was hired in spite of his record speaks volumes about the philosophy of the administration.)
    Presented with a slap in the face, some students spontaneously — rationally and with cause — demonstrated their displeasure. It was a time for celebration, for joy and for great expectation. Yet they received contempt and disappointment, not just from the speaker, but also from an administration that so cavalierly and carelessly soiled their big day.
    Edwin R. Thompson

    Angered by Views? Don’t Hiss and Boo — Rebut!
    In regard to the May 28 Letters “Leftist Venom Deserves to Be Shouted Down”: Last year, Ann Coulter spoke at Earlham College, a left-leaning liberal arts school. When she spoke there were boos and protests, but Ms. Coulter had the last laugh because she fed off student outrage, and they proved her point about their close-minded liberal perspective. I argued then that her view was important for students to hear, because it was one, in Earlham’s liberal bubble, that was most often silenced.

    Graduation was not the time for an anti-war speech at a pro-war school, but the Rockford graduating class’s behavior showed that they were leaving school short a valuable lesson. Hissing and screaming is not an effective rebuttal; it’s childish. America is becoming increasingly a conservative bubble, and when people disconnect the microphones to an opposition view, then healthy democracy is threatened.

    Timothy De Lizza
    Brooklyn, N.Y.

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