Making Rob Long Uncomfortable

(Note: This is in the context of my multi-chaptered review of The Case Against Education, particularly the last, but I think it stands alone.)

I’m a big Rob Long fan; I listen to both his Ricochet  and GLoP podcasts. I’ve even subscribed to Richochet, and you should, too. I am not a Heather MacDonald fan, for reasons that puzzle others. But I like Long/Lileks/Robinson more than I don’t like her, so I was listening to their conversation a while back.

The three hosts were completely on board as Heather excoriated the college campus craziness documented in her new book. You can practically hear them nodding with approval as she outlines the various issues: the outraged feminist wars, the soft and whiny college students, the transgender insanities.

And then, at about hour 1.06, Heather turned the same withering sarcasm to race, talking about the delusional fools who think that African American disparities in college are due to racism as opposed to their low academic achievement….



I laughed and laughed.

You could practically hear Rob’s toenails shrieking against the tiles as he braked to a stop.  This was not the conversation he’d signed up for. He was there to lightly mock feminists and social justice nuts, not crack witty, on-the-nose jokes with Heather about the racial skills deficit.

Cognitive dissonance, anyone?

It runs all through the political and intellectual class, particularly on the right. So, for example, Charles Murray is a great social scientist and The Bell Curve an important work  (I agree!)–but  let’s blame crap teachers and low standards for black academic underperformance.

Recently, Megan McArdle added her voice to John McWhorter in calling for an end to research on race and IQ. This appears to be the new “informed right” position: if you’ve spent any time actually reading about race and IQ, it’s clear that only bad news awaits further research. So ban it.

Meanwhile, on the subject of recent campus craziness, Megan thinks that Evelyn Beatrice Hall’s formulation is one of “humanity’s noblest inventions” and John McWhorter routinely denounces the safe-space rhetoric on college campuses as absurd and “unhelpful”. Both of them are appalled at the idea that college students would want to shut down conversations they don’t like.

They’re reactionary fascists, you’re unreasonably censorious, I’m judicious in setting limits.

Ever notice how the same people who praise Caplan’s idea of restricting college are also those singing songs of praise about KIPP and “no excuses” charters in general–for sending more poor urban kids of color to college?

KIPP schools put their kids through hours and hours more school every week, all to get just 45% of them to graduate college “ten or more years” after 8th grade–that is, 6 or more years of college.

They’re the education blob who ignore reality to keep spending taxpayer dollars, you’re unduly optimistic about college readiness, I’m all for unqualified black kids going to college if it’s not unionized teachers sending them there.

I read many reviewers of The Case Against Education on the right or the intellectually honest left who discussed the book without ever observing the obvious implications of Caplan’s plan to cut back on college attendance. This perplexes me. I actually know a reviewer who gave a great analysis without mentioning race. I asked him why the omission. He replied the idea was  “far-fetched enough that the racial implications are a ‘cross that bridge when we come to it’ side issue.”

That sounds amazingly on point. Yeah, sure, Caplan’s proposal is pie in the sky, but it’s a great idea, you know? Interesting. Challenging. Controversial. Let’s engage it. Play with it. Not get into the nitty gritty details.

Of course, everyone’s totally into the nitty gritty when castigating the here and now.

“Failing schools” is an expression with bipartisan support–and the schools are always failing on the count of race. KIPP’s “Success for All” or Eva’s “Success” Academies are clearly talking about success by race. All the praise for Wendy Kopp giving Teach for America a chance to “expand opportunity” for kids is, again, talking about opportunities for black and Hispanic kids–and, by the way, pretty sure those opportunities include college. No Child Left Behind demanded that test scores be disaggregated by race, and only if all students of all racial and income populations achieved at the same rate could schools get out of academic probation. States dumped their test score standards and still couldn’t avoid putting all their schools in probation status, thus creating the need for waivers that allowed everyone to ignore the racial gaps while they Raced to the Top.

I don’t doubt the sincerity of my reviewer buddy. But come on. All the pro-charter, pro-voucher, anti-union policy wonks on the right are all about race when they can use it to beat teachers over the head. The nation itself defines its success in education almost entirely on how well it educates kids by race. But a guy writes a book proposing to restrict access to college and most public schools by choking off funding in ways that would be catastrophic to African Americans but hey, it’s just spitballing. No need to mention race.

Policy analysis a la Wimpy: I’ll gladly talk about race in today’s education if you let me ignore race in the education of tomorrow.

But despite my dismay, that is definitely how it goes. Everyone suffers from educational romanticism, as Charles Murray puts it:

Educational romantics of the Left focus on race, class, and gender. It is children of color, children of poor parents, and girls whose performance is artificially depressed, and their academic achievement will blossom as soon as they are liberated from the racism, classism, and sexism embedded in American education. Those of the Right see public education as an ineffectual monopoly, and think that educational achievement will blossom when school choice liberates children from politically correct curricula and obdurate teachers’ unions.

In public discourse, the leading symptom of educational romanticism is silence on the role of intellectual limits even when the topic screams for their discussion.

This silence from those who know better leaves the rest of the talking class, particularly those on the right, the ones who aren’t into policy, utterly unprepared for a serious discussion. They get very, er, uncomfortable with any mention of black underperformance that isn’t a de rigeur nod to shit teachers and corrupt schools. They haven’t really thought about it much or read the literature, but they quite like the basic GOP talking points (bad unions, bad! Charters! Choice!) and would much rather no one take away their comfort chew toys.

Fair to say I’d make Rob Long uncomfortable.

Notice that I did not (and do not) hold black culture  at fault for these academic results. As I mentioned once long ago when looking at the black/white gap in Praxis scores (teacher credential tests):

  • The white Millennial bonghitter with a 1.2 GPA who teaches sixth grade science after his parents booted him out of the basement ties the freshly-pressed hardworking black track star with a 3.8 GPA teaching special ed.*
  • The goofball wannabe [white] manicurist who loafed through Podunk U and went into teaching kindergarten after the tenth of her problematic boyfriends dumped her outscores the idealistic black welfare daughter success story on a full scholarship to Harvard who went into teaching sixth grade English to “give back” to her community.

Pace JD Vance, it ain’t culture. Your Middletown classmates who ended up dead or in dead-end jobs almost certainly outscored the rich black kids in, I don’t know, Delaware County, or wherever the wealthy black families live in Ohio.

As I’ve written before, all those placing great hope in KIPP are missing the big picture: the kids who need the hours of extra education and the forced discipline of No Excuses to get anywhere near 8th grade ability by 8th grade is simply not the same as the intellect that can eat Crispy Cocoa Puffs every day while watching TV or playing video games and bet at the 8th grade level by 4th grade.

MacDonald herself blames culture. In the podcast, she responded to Long’s plea with the offer of a thought experiment. If black kids have the same level of school attendance, same level of homework completion, and in ten years they still have lower achievement, she says, then and only then she’ll consider racism. Apparently MacDonald isn’t aware of the thought experiment known as Cambodians, Laotians, and Hmong who have the same dedication to education but wildly different academic results and graduation rates.

And given the frequency with which poor white kids outperform wealthier black kids, often at the same schools, it’s hard to reasonably argue that schools themselves are the result of black underperformance. Which doesn’t stop many people from unreasonably arguing it, of course.

What do I blame?


Look, it’s not a matter of “blame”.

But that’s an answer that gets one into hot water. People who talk about the test score gap without fingering responsibility–worse, who argue against the usual culprits–are giving the impression that there’s nothing to fix. Which isn’t true, but it’s closer to true than any hope of closing the racial achievement gap.

The discomfort has wasted billions to no real avail. Despite the demands to increase college readiness, we are sending far more students to college who are less prepared than ever. Colleges have responded not by tightening standards, but by ending them, giving college credit for classes teaching middle school skills. Employers routinely call for more unskilled immigrants to take on the tasks  “Americans won’t do” when in fact they mean jobs that won’t pay enough for Americans to do, and thus create more low-skilled populations we can let down in future generations–populations that are beginning to outnumber American blacks of slave ancestry, the people to whom America owes a great debt.

And yet. I can think of so many ways that accepting performance gaps and modifying education policy could create more problems–like, say, Bryan Caplan’s notion to end public education.

So it goes.  Bryan Caplan gets a book deal and fame for seriously arguing in favor of a policy that would block most blacks and many Hispanics from all advanced education. I’m anonymous, unpaid, and unbook-dealed, writing in favor of continuing public education for all. But Caplan ignores race, and I’m blunt about black academic results while refusing to blame acceptable scapegoats.

Despite his pose as a controversial intellectual, Caplan will never make Rob Long uncomfortable.

I wish I knew how to distill all this into something pithy. But I’m bottom up, not top down. Or is it the other way round?

About educationrealist

12 responses to “Making Rob Long Uncomfortable

  • Jim

    Our society has lost almost any capacity for a rational discussion of race. Instead we have an obsessive hunt for demons, such as “racist teachers”, to place the blame on for our racial problems. We are becoming steadily more insane in this regard.

  • C

    Someday people will get over this whole issue of education being imperfect, and racial groups being imperfectly differentiated. In the meantime, everyone should just do their jobs and help people in their own lives – like what education realist is doing. I’m glad you stay anonymous so you can keep doing what you love, and I will do the same. I help every person I meet, regardless of race, income, gender, political beliefs, or appearance. I think we can all keep to that while navigating this imperfect world. Once people get that the world is imperfect, and never can be, then they start doing their jobs in their own spheres of influence, and the world becomes the best of all possible worlds. Life is beautiful, and certainly better than in past decades and centuries.

  • Jay

    Thing is, the idea of progress toward equality is a load-bearing component of American culture, especially but not exclusively on the left. If you accept the research results, then equality is fundamentally limited; this leaves a hole at the center of American political ideology on a magnitude that makes one start quoting Nietzsche.

    • educationrealist

      Equality isn’t limited. Equal distribution of opportunity and income is.

      • Jay

        If that’s how you want to phrase it, then I’m fine with that. The upshot is that we don’t have an answer to Rob Long’s questions other than “we don’t know how to fix it, sorry”. And without equality of opportunity, the American Dream (as generally understood) is seriously compromised.

  • Joel

    I like Heather MacDonald. I don’t know who Rob Long is but a friend of Ed’s is a friend of mine so I listened to the podcast interview. Also, I wanted to hear a toenail-shrieking tile-stop. As a public service for anyone else who is curious to hear the original exchange, the MacDonald segment runs from about 45:48 to 1:12:28; she veers off into the uncomfortable stuff at 1:06:00, with the Long comment following shortly. The whole interview is worth listening to, if only as bias-confirming background for “Making Rob Long Uncomfortable.”

    I like Megan McArdle. I like her for about the same reasons that I like Ed Real, she takes on the hard subjects with insight and humor. But she is employed at The Washington Bezost and writes under her real name. In a Russ Roberts interview on Econ Talk (recommended) “Internet Shaming and Online Mobs” she identifies the main problem, that what should be a civil disagreement becomes a demand to de-platform and financially ruin anyone daring to question current orthodoxy. “When you threaten someone’s economic livelihood, you are threatening pretty close to killing them.”

    Race is currently a favorite taboo, but it’s the ubiquitous surveillance and coercion enforcing taboos that undermine healthy civic discourse. A pseudonym is a flimsy shield against a motivated true believer.

    Thanks, Education Realist, for your deep dives into discomforting but essential subjects. Education is the nexus of psychology, economics, politics, culture, technology, philosophy, mathematics, and even molecular biology. We are fortunate that you choose to do the work that other public intellectuals shirk.

    Finally, in the certain knowledge that you always post several weeks apart, Happy New Year.

    • educationrealist

      This is a great comment. Thank you for confirming the toenail-shrieking tile stop! And you’re most welcome. It is my goal to get something done before year end, but thank you! Hope you read the most recent post before Christmas ends.

  • Roger Sweeny

    I think Caplan’s reasons for not mentioning race are the same as your unnamed reviewer. Though the book calls for wildly reducing schooling, Caplan doesn’t believe that is imminent. In fact, he has bet real money that the proportion of young people attending college ten years from now will be at least 90% of what it is today.

    That may be cowardly but I think Jay is absolutely right, ” If you accept the research results, then equality [of opportunity] is fundamentally limited; this leaves a hole at the center of American political ideology on a magnitude that makes one start quoting Nietzsche.” One of the great motivators of the Civil Rights Movement for white people was the seen opportunity to correct a wrong and go back to a more “basic” American ideal (“… all men are created equal …”) which would lead to equal outcomes. Martin Luther King, of course, used a lot of similar rhetoric. If it can never happen …

    One of the most unpleasant things I ever did was to force myself to finish Robert Weissberg’s Bad Students, Not Bad Schools. That was probably the major reason.

  • Figuring Out Podcasts | educationrealist

    […] Ricochet Podcast: Rob Long, Peter Robinson, James Lileks. This was one of the first podcasts I began listening to in the garden. It’s very funny, very wry, and a nice mix of geography, political opinions, and personality. Peter Robinson sounds like ChooChoo on Top Cat and boy, does that make me sound old. They’re all interesting, but while Peter Robinson is by trade an interviewer, Rob Long, who began life as a comedy writer, is a pretty thoughtful analyst. Lileks is an op-ed guy.  They alternate between interviews and conversations; I generally prefer the conversations. I wrote about a particular podcast. […]

  • Ten Most Read, Ten You Should Read | educationrealist

    […] Making Rob Long Uncomfortable–December 24, 2018 Silly title, but you can listen to the podcast and see what I mean. It’s well-written, and captures a certain mindset among the centrist conservative punditocracy. As I wrote: “You could practically hear Rob’s toenails shrieking against the tiles as he braked to a stop.  This was not the conversation he’d signed up for. He was there to lightly mock feminists and social justice nuts, not crack witty, on-the-nose jokes with Heather about the racial skills deficit.” ignore me, lazy way to space […]

  • Murray/Sailer on Powerline Podcast | educationrealist

    […] by a frank reference to race and education was written in response to a podcast as well: Making Rob Long Uncomfortable in which Heather MacDonald goes off on a rant about black underperformance. Rob’s response is […]

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