The Bell Curve Goes to College, Introduction & Ch 1

Murray’s central thesis for the book: the main reason for differing educational achievement is not poverty, bad curriculum, etc.; the main reason for differing educational achievement is differing academic ability.


Murray begins with an indictment of “educational romanticism.”

The educational system is living a lie.  The lie is that every child can be anything he or she wants to be.  No one really believes it, but we approach education’s problems as if we did.  We are phobic about saying out loud that children differ in their ability to learn the things that schools teach.  Not only do we hate to say it, we get angry with people who do. (11)

Is this lie noble or pernicious?  “It’s effects play out in the lives of young people in devastating ways.”

The nine year old who has trouble sounding out simple words and his classmate who is reading A Tale of Two Cities for fun sit in the same classroom day after miserable day, the one so frustrated by tasks he cannot do and the other so bored that both are near tears.  The fifteen-year-old who cannot make sense of algebra but has an almost mystical knack with machines is told to stick with the college prep track, because to be a success in life he must go to college and get a BA.  The twenty-year-old who knocks the top off standardized tests is still turning in rubbish on his college term papers because no one has ever taught him how to be his own toughest critic. They are all products of an educational system that cannot make itself talk openly about the implications of diverse educational limits.  (12)

Murray’s agenda: to tackle four truths that map a way through the well-intentioned falsehoods at the heart of educational romanticism:

  1. Ability varies

  2. Half of the children are below average

  3. Too many people are going to college

  4. America’s future depends on how we educate the academically gifted.

The unifying theme … is that we are unrealistic about students at every level of academic ability–asking too much from those at the bottom, asking the wrong things from those in the middle, and asking too little from those at the top. (13)


It’s axiomatic–everyone accepts this truth.  But the minute we move beyond the statement, “Ability varies,” the firestorm begins.  Murray suggests we ignore the hot button issues for a moment–issues like “WHY does ability vary?” and “Does ability vary because of race, poverty, class?”–and focus on a phenomenological description of the variations in students’ abilities.

He builds this description on Gardner’s multiple intelligences.  These are:

  1. Bodily-kinesthetic intelligence, which includes athletic ability and fine motor skills.
  2. Musical intelligence, “highly developed senses of pitch, rhythm, tones, and the ways in which they combine.”
  3. Interpersonal intelligence, understanding how people interact.
  4. Intrapersonal intelligence, a high degree of self-awareness and an understanding of one’s own emotions, motivations, thoughts.
  5. Spatial intelligence, “the ability to visualize and mentally manipulate objects” (and spaces).
  6. Logical-mathematical intelligence, “numbers, logic, abstractions.”
  7. Linguistic intelligence: memory, interpreting texts, expression, language. (18-19)

Next, Murray notes that “Ability not only varies, it varies a lot.” (20)

  • Bodily-kinesthetic: from someone who trips over his own feet to Fred Astaire

  • Musical: from tone-deaf to Mozart

  • Spatial: from someone who gets lost two blocks from home to Daniel Boone

  • Linguistic: from someone unable to form sentences to Shakespeare

  • Logical-mathematical: from unable to understand cause and effect to Aristotle

  • Interpersonal: from autism to Bill Clinton

  • Intrapersonal: from an undisciplined narcissist to Confucius

Murray notes that these abilities differ in two ways.  There are differences in KIND and there are differences in DEGREE.  Most people can learn to play tennis; the difference between me and Federer is a difference in degree.  “In contrast, doing a somersault with a full twist off a pommel horse is impossible for most people, no matter how much they might practice.”

This distinction is significant for understanding learning.  Practically everyone can learn to add and subtract.  If you test a roomful of people on addition and subtraction, the differences will be in degree.  NOT everyone can learn to do calculus.  If you test a roomful of people on calculus, the differences will be in kind.  “Grasping calculus requires a certain level of logical-mathematical ability.  Children below that level will never learn calculus, no matter how hard they study.  It is a difference in kind.” (21)

REACTION: I found this confusing.  Murray is using “level” as synonymous with “kind,” when (to me, at least) it suggest the opposite pole (“degree”) instead.

“The seven abilities are not equally valuable in adult life.” (22)  Murray here equates “value” with usefulness for vocations.  He notes that bodily-kinesthetic ability and musical ability are necessary for incredibly tiny fractions of the working populace.  The importance of spatial ability depends on how broadly or narrowly the ability is defined; even with the broadest definition (hand-eye coordination, depth perception), savant-like ability is seldom required for vocation.

The abilities that are most essential for vocation are interpersonal, interpersonal, linguistic, and logical-mathematical.

These abilities seem to move together.  Students who are above average in linguistic ability, for example, are seldom below average in logical-mathematical.  Murray groups linguistic and logical-mathematical with spatial, and regards these three together as comprising “academic ability.”  Students who excel in those three are usually high (or have the capacity to be high) in intra/interpersonal, as well.

Murray refers to the grouping of logical-mathematical, linguistic, and spatial abilities as “g“, “general academic ability.”

Murray’s summary from 29-30:

The truth that people may possess many different abilities is unthinkingly transmuted into an untruth: that everyone is good at something, and that educators can use that something to make up for other deficits.

Empirically, it is not the case that we can expect a child who is below average in one ability to have a full and equal chance of being above average in the other abilities.  … In the case of the three components of academic ability, the relationships are extremely close.  It is a classic example of life not being fair.  The child who knows all the answers in math class has a high probability of reading above grade level as well, and what’s more, a higher than average chance of being industrious and determined.  Conversely, children who are at the bottom of the math class usually have trouble with reading as well, and also have a higher than average chance of showing problems with thinking ahead and disciplining themselves.

Many exceptions exist, of course, and educational practice at any good school should ensure that exceptions are identified. … For any given ability, the population forms a continuum that goes from very low to very high. The core abilities that dominate academic success vary together.  Schools that ignore those realities are doing a disservice to all their students.


  • The descriptions of the different abilities were helpful.
  • The distinction between differences in degree and in kind was also helpful, but I don’t think the distinction is watertight. 
  • Murray notes that there will be exceptions to his generalities, but does not offer any suggestions for how schools could better serve students who have narrow g‘s.  For example: I have had a student who is far above average in linguistic ability (almost savant-like), but is below average in logical-mathematic.
  • I am not convinced that intra/interpersonal ability moves in harmony with academic ability.  Certainly the connection is not as clear as the connections between logical-mathematic, linguistic, and spatial.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s