Reading “Coming Apart” with college students

For the last few semesters, I’ve had the chance to teach online “book club” courses at our college.  Like an in-person book club, we all read the same book – but our conversations and gatherings are all electronic. These are part of the Honors program at the college, so the students are articulate, interested, and willing to try new things.  For the first two semesters, I chose intriguing books that probably wouldn’t be part of any usual classroom offering.

What about controversial books like Coming Apart ?

Charles Murray‘s book, Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010 was published just as I was choosing books for the fall semester book clubs.  The reviews were heated: Murray has provocative libertarian beliefs and likes to make a case for them grounded in data — often in a way that draws the wrath of progressive politicians.  At first, I didn’t even consider the book: I suspected that most students would not like his style, would disagree with his political perspective, and would find the data hard to slog through.

On further reflection, this seemed like an excellent text for an Honors course.

We’re just coming to the end of our third book club meeting.  It’s been a real treat to read the students’ reactions to this book. I’m proud to say that they gave him a fair hearing and went away with a lot of ideas to chew on.

Students encounter Charles Murray

As expected, they didn’t much like Charles Murray early on.  In addition to the book, I posted videos of interview so students would have a sense of his persona — to be able to hear his voice as they read his words.  They found him a bit pompous and supercilious, and didn’t like the “stereotypes” — as they perceived them — presented in the opening chapters of the book.

The book club format allows me to inject bits of evidence into the discussion. As they discussed the first chapters of the book, several generalized their distaste of the picture Murray painted of the elite to the sources of his information. One psychology major wrote “all he has is census data, not something from a real experiment.” After some discussion about small-sample experiments and census data, and the way that profiles (constructed statistically) can seem like stereotypes, students decided not so dismiss the arguments out of hand.

Non-elites read Coming Apart

To students at a college classified as “regional” rather than “national” by US News and World Report, with a ranking a bit below the top 20 schools in that 2nd tier, reading about the gap between elite education and all the rest can be galling and even offensive. There was a lot of silence in the course about the picture Murray paints of the elite universities – Harvard, Stanford, Chicago – along with colleges like Haverford, Carleton, and Amherst.

In contrast, they had a lot to say about Murray’s portrayal of “Fishtown” – his name for the lower or working class areas in America.  One (female) student wrote “why would anyone want to marry a non-working low-achieving man anyway?” while others wrote, “maybe there aren’t any jobs for them to get.”  Some students are the first generation in their family to go to college – but the values of industriousness and marriage/family run strong in their background. The gap in Murray’s book becomes apparent: the elite may be rising out of sight and “Fishtown” descending into social chaos but – at least in northern Minnesota – there is still a middle ground.


I am grateful for the chance to read this book with Honors students.  At the end of the course, they did not like Murray’s tone any better than they had at the start – and some did not like his positions.  All had come to grips with the empirical situation — any other explanation and policy proposal would need to explain the same data, although other information (such as economic data suggested in one video interview we watched) might be needed to supplement it.

Surprisingly, no heated disputes broke out. I’m almost disappointed! The students were willing – with Minnesota hospitality – to let Murray have his say and then debate the ideas.  All told, it bodes well for the next generation to be more ready to listen to differing viewpoings and then make up their mind.



  1. I did not read the book, but Murray gave a presentation with Q& A on the book for 1 hour on CPSAN BookTV. I found it riveting. It is on Youtube. While I tend to agree with Murray, I think neither the causes nor the solutions are simple or obvious. I am a little surprised that your students were taken aback. I think that Murray is not saying that all of the white working class is socially dysfunctional, only that the percentage is much higher than in the past. What I find more interesting is the question of why that might be. I would look at trends in American society since the end of WWII, especially the trends of the 1960’s–moral relativism, nihilism, greatly expanded government entitlement programs tending to cause government dependency, orders of magnitude greater acceptance and use of recreational drugs, and materialism that says your human dignity is based on how much money you have.

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