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Back to February Ed Reporter

Education Reporter
NUMBER 217 THE NEWSPAPER OF EDUCATION RIGHTS FEBRUARY 2004

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Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences 800 B.C. to 1950, Charles Murray, HarperCollins Publishers, 2003, 458 pps. (exclusive of lengthy appendices), $29.95.

This audacious rebuke to academic political correctness uses the instruments of social science to compose a paean to Western civilization, and specifically the dead white European males (DWEMs) who overwhelmingly contributed to the arts and sciences. In the process, it implicitly refutes the reigning dogmas of contemporary universities, so many of which have chosen to de-emphasize DWEMs in favor of trendy ethnic and gender studies.

Human Accomplishment employs persuasive statistical techniques to list the most significant historical figures in the arts and sciences, including a top-20 ranking in each field. The author constructed his data from the proportion of space accorded to the figures in encyclopedias and biographical dictionaries concerning the sciences and technology, and Western and non-Western philosophy, music, literature and visual art. Graphs and lists are interspersed with historical summations, analyses, anecdotes and cogent arguments to give the reader the big picture of progress and the phenomenon of genius.

More interesting than the rankings, however, are the discussions of the conditions that gave rise to genius. Murray concludes that the "giants" overwhelmingly emerged between 1400 and 1900 from four countries in Europe, aided by such factors as prosperous cities with good schools and universities and some political freedom. He insightfully analyzes the resilience of accomplishment amid adverse conditions such as warfare and plague; the dearth of female significant figures; the flowering of Jewish achievement after anti-Semitic restrictions were lifted; and the more recent rise of U.S. accomplishment. But why did Western Europe predominate and not Asia, Russia or the Arab world, all of which made valuable contributions?

Murrays answer turns out to hinge on Christianity. The ancient "Greek miracle" hatched Western individualism, but it took the Christian doctrine of the equality of all people in the eyes of God, plus Thomas Aquinass exaltation of reason as pleasing to God, plus the Reformations assertion of the individuals direct relationship with God and Scripture, to foster the sense of purpose and autonomy that best enable genius to flourish. Brilliant people in the East had to contend with cultures showing far more deference to clan, tradition and authority, and aversion to debate and innovation, than prevailed in the West.

The author, whose best-known books are Losing Ground and The Bell Curve, concludes that even as political and economic freedom have rapidly improved the human condition, the rate of accomplishment in the arts and sciences has been declining at least since the 19th century, especially in the arts.


 
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