[Cross-posted to In Medias Res]

Wichita, KS. This past summer a book was published, with little fanfare, that made what was, in retrospect, an argument that millions of middle-class, public-schooling parents everywhere–my wife and I included–desperately needed to hear. The argument was, in essence: don’t worry about your kids and the inconsistent online education they are likely receiving thanks to the pandemic; just remember that while teachers matter a great deal, and the information which teachers have to impart to our children matters as well, the actual structure of the “schooling” received by students really doesn’t matter much at all, or at least not in the way most successful members of our society have come to believe.

That’s an unfair and reductive description of Frederik deBoer’s fine (if somewhat overlong and scattered) The Cult of Smart: How Our Broken Education System Perpetuates Social Injustice, but it’s not fundamentally inaccurate. The primary target of deBoer’s book is the American educational meritocracy and those who, because they benefit most from it, are among the last to see its harms, and thus who most frequently push hard against both common sense and scientific data in their efforts to keep it going. But in surveying all that aforementioned data, and explaining how it reveals the very small role that certain types of formal education–however expensive or expert–ultimately play in expanding minds and developing talents, deBoer’s attack on meritocratic elites also serves as a consolation to parents and caregivers worried about what their children, and students all across America, may be missing out on. As he writes at the end of his chapter on school quality–following paragraphs of delightfully vicious swipes at Harvard, Yale, and the Gates Foundation–even when we synthesize data from “more than a hundred studies over a 15-year period” looking at the “benefits of…afterschool programs, behavioral interventions, computer-assisted teaching, and more,” the results are undeniable: “most things didn’t work.” He concludes that “[t]his is not an argument that school does not matter” (he notes, for example, the limited yet real impact that small group tutoring can have); rather, “it is instead a question of how school matters” (pp. 120-121). Hence the succor that can be found in The Cult of Smart: if online learning often seems to consist, at least in part, of far too many poorly delivered, incoherently received make-work assignments–and as a college professor myself, I assure you: I am entirely familiar with the pressures which have led struggling instructors around the world to arrive at these far from engaging assignments!–then rest easy; if you’re still taking the time to help your kids out around the dinner table, then you’re already doing the thing that matters most to their education anyway.

It is unfortunate that “doing homework at the dinner table” is so commonly–however inaccurately–coded as “conservative”; I promise you (again, speaking from personal experience) that left-leaning parents make use of such family schooling traditions just as much as right-leaning ones do. Still, perhaps that coding was inevitable. All through last year, it was solely conservative media outlets which gave deBoer’s book any attention; reviews of the book–all of which praised different parts of his argument, if not the whole thing–appeared in National Review, the Wall Street Journal, Business Insider, and the Washington Examiner. It’s possible that deBoer–a self-described revolutionary socialist, and a writer who has an equal reputation for thoughtfulness and contrariness–takes some pleasure from being ignored or misunderstood by his own ideological compatriots, but missing his provocative claims is a loss for the American left. It’s also possible that, on some deep, inarticulate level, these conservative outlets thought deBoer’s book was worth engaging with because the reviewers recognized in it some parallel with Ivan Illich‘s anarchist classic Deschooling Society, which they learned about from some hippies that sneaked into a home-schooling conference they attended once. In all likelihood, though, none of the above applies; rather, the more likely answer is that the media outlets which took the book seriously were those who like running features that challenge, as they see it, the aims of public education, and the media outlets which dislike challenging the those premises didn’t. (In the interests of full disclosure, let it be known that earlier versions of this review were submitted by me to Dissent, Jacobin, and The Nation, all without success–which may be a reflection of the quality of my writing, but I suspect there is more to it than that).

The one extensive exception to this (and boy, is it ever extensive) came from Nathan J. Robinson of the very left-leaning Current Affairs, who wrote a massive, purposefully exhausting response to The Cult of Smart, claiming in essence that it is correct both that the right has looked positively upon the book and that the left has ignored it, since deBoer’s arguments, according to Robinson, embrace the same racist assumptions which Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray infamously wove into their arguments over a quarter-century ago in The Bell Curve, only repurposing their old genetic judgments about the heritability of intelligence for anti-meritocratic ends. Robinson’s overlong effort to bury his earlier, pre-publication enthusiasm for deBoer’s book is, I think, almost entirely mistaken. The Cult of Smart, despite its flaws, does have something distinct to contribute to the development of a socialist vision of education–and, in that such a vision exists in opposition to that which is presumed by our liberal meritocratic bureaucracies, to a localist, even anarchist, vision of education as well. While it is fair to push back against some of the ideas which deBoer’s consideration of cognitive science leads him to, his is absolutely a left (maybe left conservative?) argument, and not a repackaging of Herrnstein and Murray. The challenges which cognitive psychology and neuroscience have already posed to numerous fields–education in particular–will not go away any time soon; leftists and anarchists and localists of all stripes, so long as they accept that education is a public good, need an appropriate framework to develop the sorts of answers to those challenges which will advance their ideals. DeBoer’s book, whatever its limitations, is an excellent place to start doing so, granting it a value far beyond simply reminding parents like my wife and I not to worry too much about what their daughters may have missed out on as their teachers struggled to make physical education, forensics, and culinary arts classes work online.

DeBoer’s primary two-part thesis is simple. First, he asserts that the role which genetic differences play in any given person’s cognitive ability and academic inclinations, while not determinative in any final sense–as deBoer writes in his introduction, “the relationship between genes and behavioral traits is neither perfect nor fixed; environment does matter, to a varying degree, and there are interventions that can ameliorate some of the impact of genes” (p. 23), a caveat which Robinson seems to have missed entirely–ought to accepted as a matter of policy. But second, he notes that as much as we may causally acknowledge the ordinary reality of these differences, the “cult of smart” prevents us from fully accepting these differences for what they are. Instead, we find ourselves institutionally driven to maximize access to the meritocracy of contemporary life, telling ourselves that education–assuming the opportunity for such can somehow, someday, finally be fully guaranteed to all–will be the great equalizer. But as any educator who looks at the data honestly can tell you, that is always, at best, a partial truth. What deBoer sees, not unreasonably, as the denial of this fact simply infuriates him: “The Cult of Smart, for the people who excel within it, is more than a political platform or a vision of success. It is a totalizing ideology that colors everything they buy, say, and do” (p. 32).

All of the debates about educational outcomes which deBoer introduces in the early chapters are controversial, and his approach to them is often uneven. Still, deBoer’s slaying of various cows sacred to the education establishment in America is kind of a delight. It’s hard to deny that progressive efforts to make schools both more effective and more egalitarian have often relied upon data which only masks how much the results of America’s unequally funded education system often simply entrench income inequality. Similarly, it is clear that many articulations of equality of opportunity implicitly posit students as “blank slates,” ready to compete, which only increases the pressures on both students and teachers to come up with evidence to prove to legislators and donors the supposedly transformative outcomes of learning. As much as more than a few philosophical liberals–of both progressive and conservative varieties–may be loath to admit it, our reluctance to be honest about differences in natural academic talent (in contrast to our uncomplicated acceptance of most differences in natural athletic or artistic talent, which are generally seen as obvious) does seem to be a contributor to our constant expensive experiments with school quality, test scores, teacher accountability, and more, giving us along the way such arguable misfires as No Child Left Behind, Common Core, and various other “ed-tech boondoggles,” in deBoer’s wonderful phrase.

It is the book’s middle which gets to the meat of the argument, however: the “heritability of academic ability” means there is a very real possibility that “the range of the possible in the classroom is dramatically smaller than conventionally assumed. . . [with a] large portion of the variation in academic outcomes . . . remain[ing] permanently out of the hands of schools and teachers” (p. 121). Robinson sees this claim as a criminal reduction of the always unknown potential lurking in the relationship between students and their environment, or even students and their past selves. But even if deBoer’s examples aren’t always as careful as they could be, his presentation of the science around them is succinct and clear. His efficient summary of numerous studies in behavioral genetics, as well as critiques of those studies, leads to the carefully stated conclusion that “the impact of genetic ancestry on human behavioral traits seems indisputable” (p. 137). Despite his penchant for picking fights, deBoer is uncharacteristically sympathetic to the challenge which this information puts to those who have fought so long for what they generally accepted as the true “ideal” of public education (simplistically put, that literally any student can achieve literally anything they put their mind to) but neither does that understanding cause him to pull back:

It’s understandable . . . that many progressive people have decided to wash their hands of the topic of genetics and intelligence altogether. Understandable, but disturbing. Disturbing because by avoiding these subjects, good people have essentially ceded the conversation to bad. . . . I believe that we can engage in the fight against bigotry in all forms while acknowledging the overwhelming evidence that intelligence, like all cognitive traits, is significantly influenced by genetic parentage. In fact, we need to do to so. . . . [W]e need to separate a belief in claims about individual genetic difference from claims about group genetic differences. Through grappling with the data, we can craft better arguments against those who would misuse it to advance their racist and sexist agendas. Or we can ignore the data, dismiss the subject entirely, cede the field to the worst people imaginable, and suffer the consequences (pp. 140-141).

What, in deBoer’s view, are those better arguments? Central to them is a recognition of how the meritocracy, and its roots in a libertarian reading of the equality of opportunity, should have no place is any actually democratic public school system. DeBoer makes good use of John Rawls’s concept of the “veil of ignorance” as a tool for intellectually justifying the creation of a social contract–and, for that matter, a public school system–where we shape circumstances without any cognizance of our natural assets, abilities, or intelligence. As a socialist, though, he goes beyond Rawls’s assumption that a redistributive principle can ameliorate the differences which will nonetheless result from the purely opportunistic (and thus invariably luck-influenced) choices in our resulting lives, and he instead suggests that our insights into cognitive differences should point us away from the glorification of equality of opportunity entirely. In the educational sphere especially, “opportunity” is often tied to specific academic measurements, which different people with different genetic traits, insofar as deBoer’s argument points, can probably never realistically give full and equal consent to. Consequently, the aim of education should instead be to accommodate the widest possible range of dispositions among students. The goal should be empowerment and plurality, rather than equality and uniformity.

That many educators already know this, and have leaned hard in its direction in the midst of the pandemic-related disruptions experienced in many of the (perhaps sometimes too restrictive) patterns which govern much public school teaching, is important to emphasize. And it is something parents like myself have needed to hold onto as well: the idea that the ability of kids is variable, as is the number of paths open to them, and that such variability will not be much changed by however much schooling itself changes (or, sometimes, simply fails). While any number of civic goods or socializing experiences might be more tied to one particular form of public education or another, whatever empowering academic potential which schooling itself has almost certainly is not.

These realizations and experiences do not on their own, however, amount to an alternative–a leftist, localist, or anarcho-socialist alternative–to deBoer’s “equality of opportunity” canard. While I think deBoer is correct that it is a misunderstanding of classic Marxist thought to enshrine “equality” as a central socialist goal, he doesn’t do enough in the book’s final chapters to really develop what alternatives to it would involve. This is unfortunate. DeBoer’s exploration of diverse reforms (including the intriguing suggestion that compulsory schooling end and children be allowed to drop out of school after age 12–something which more that a few parents dealing with pandemic-related school closings probably think they’ve already experienced!), as part of his drive to undermine the Cult of Smart and “save us from our smart-kids-take-all economy” (p. 227), are thoughtful but hardly systematic. By failing to more consistently consider the character of a truly socialist and pluralistic education model, and instead engaging in yet another attack on charter schools (as well as a passing swipe at the anti-communism of Michael Harrington and the Democratic Socialists of America), deBoer doesn’t provide a theoretical structure to support his conclusion: that the aim to “achieve [academic] equality of any meaningful kind is to deny our nature,” while using education to recognize that “we have fundamentally different abilities and talents…is the first step in [our] liberation” (p. 239). 

Here, deBoer’s arguments can be fruitfully compared with a similarly radical attack on our educational meritocracy from two decades ago, one which lacks deBoer’s insight into cognitive research (and his accidental pandemic relevance!), but which shares his radical passions. In 2000, Michael W. Apple, a well-known Marxist educator and scholar, published Educating the “Right” Way: Markets, Standards, God, and Inequality (a second edition came out in 2006). It was a furious broadside against what he called “conservative modernization,” which philosophically was a misnomer, since what he was attacking was the neoliberal meritocracy, not anything actually conservative, properly speaking. But whatever the best label for the interest groups and educational entrepreneurs and reformers who crowded around the Bush I and Clinton administrations, Apple saw them all as blaming the lack of educational accomplishment in American public education on the supposedly stifling uniformity and secularity of the schools themselves. Their proposed solutions, as he saw them, involved undermining both teachers unions and the traditional (and, from our perspective today, distinctly non-high-tech) standards-enforcing bureaucracies which those unions had complicated opinions about, and replacing both with various market-based and localizable educational options (charter schools, public school vouchers, religious schools, home schooling, etc.) which would use cultural and economic competition (serviced by centralized corporate interests, to be sure) to generate excellence.

Needless to say, Apple found all of this appalling. But he also recognized that the ideas contained within this movement connected with the hopes and fears of many parents. To counter that connection, a new and “truly public school ideal” needed to adopt “a somewhat more populist set of impulses,” including “tactical alliances” with distinct religious, linguistic, and cultural groups, such as might be best served by properly constructed–that is, genuinely community-based, as opposed to corporately astroturfed–charter schools, or whatever else might best enable educators to respect “the cultures, histories, and experiences of these students and their parents and local communities.” The point being that, in confronting what he saw as a profound threat to the democratic possibilities of public education in America, Apple’s socialist suggestions made room for difference and proceeded to think about how to make available to all something that needed to be shaped differently for all. (Educating the “Right” Way, pp. 100, 224-226, 228-229).

Apple’s arguments are two decades old, but the concepts they reflect–like the mature thought of Michael Harrington’s anti-bureaucratic decentralist socialism, in fact–are relevant to the arguments which deBoer engages. Harrington, like many other socialist theorists, came to acknowledge that a truly democratic socialization of the economy–and, it seems reasonable to assume, of public education as well–would be the exact opposite of the totalizing meritocracy which we have today and which deBoer rightly condemns. Instead, it would partake of something almost republican in the civic sense: that is, distinct and at least partly autarkic communities of learning, work, leisure, and political participation. DeBoer touches on one aspect of this idea briefly, when he insightfully points out that when progressives rely on decreasing social mobility in America to attack income inequality, they actually implicitly license the disruption and meritocratic sorting–in other words, the “mobility”–which generates so much inequality in the first place (p. 156). But his insight that mobility (moving to find the best school district! competing to hire the best teachers!) is at best orthogonal, if not in some ways actually in opposition, to a genuinely egalitarian educational environment, is never connected to the larger theoretical question of a model that sustains people in all their various different creations of the good life in the places they are. Given deBoer’s rejection of any form of the charter school idea which Apple saw as potentially a component in a populist front against supposedly-free-but-actually-corporatized educational “reforms” (assuming that such charters could be designed around a difficult balance of non-discrimination and real local pluralism, rather than around fake promises of efficient, competition-driven results), it would at least have been good to see deBoer present other alternatives for building a truly differentiated public schooling movement–like the formal enlistment of home schooling, or attaching educational institutions to local guilds of apprenticeships, perhaps. (Something for those 12-year-olds who, having learned the basics of reading and writing, dropped out!)

I don’t want to condemn deBoer’s book for failing to flesh out all its own theoretical parameters and implications. The Cult of Smart is deeply entrenched in most modern systems of public education around the world, and the increasingly clear reality of cognitive and genetic differences between different human beings poses not just a practical challenge to educators committed to giving everyone an idealistically equal opportunity to prove their merit, but also a painfully sharp one to some liberals whose membership in the Cult makes them want to deny this reality entirely, since it threatens the usual justifications of the meritocracy which gave them the positions they enjoy. By forcing his readers to recognize the Cult for what it is, and why neuroscience and behavioral genetics should be opportunities for critics of the meritocracy–whether from a socialist or a localist or yet some other ideological direction–to make the case for an education that empowers rather than vainly strives to homogenize, deBoer has performed an important service. And, not incidentally, as 2020 draws to a close, he has given parents and caregivers obsessing over what their students may be missing out on something different to worry about. As an educator myself, I want to do the best I can in terms of teaching my students. But it’s helpful, as I close the books on the fall 2020 semester, to be reminded, as this book does implicitly, of something that every teacher and parent ought to remember as well: that basically, more often than not, the kids, in all their variety and abilities and interests, are, and likely always will be, pretty much all right.

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  1. Russell Arben Fox always writes excellent and thoughtful pieces, and I almost always agree with him. That is, mostly, the case with this piece. We on the egalitarian left will always have a harder time developing policies to account for the fact that human abilities vary. This task is much easier for artistic or athletic aptitude — make sure all schools have vigorous arts and physical education programs, and make sure those programs are not restricted to the exceptionally talented in a few narrow areas that win trophies for the school. In these areas, the only problem is money, because being clumsy and tone-deaf and colorblind won’t stop anyone from making a living as an adult.

    The problem with students who don’t like academics is that being dumb* is an insurmontable handicap in modern life. Some specific mental disabilities that harm one’s academic career can be addressed by better mental health care — see the large number of Ritalin prescriptions and ADHD interventions in my wealthy suburb and the new attention to anxiety in students — but others can’t be. Someone who doesn’t like to read will have no real opportunities in life as we automate all the grunt-work jobs. Granted it will be a long time before robots can replace home health aids, but how many home health aids can be employed? There are more opportunities for developmentally-delayed adults than there are for those who are above the IQ for disability but can’t manage the complex reading that any office or technical job requires now.** I don’t have the answers, and I don’t know anyone who does.

    *I don’t like using that word to describe anyone. We’ve had movements to reclaim almost every other negative assessment from ‘queer’ to ‘fat,’ but I don’t see anyone mounting such a campaign for ‘dumb’ or ‘stupid.’ I taught my sons that ‘stupid’ was worse than ‘shit.’ Defeating the ‘cult of smart’ is going to require someone to invent a vocabulary for ‘not interested in complicated intellectual arguments’ and ‘unable to comprehend highly technical instructions’ that isn’t also insulting.

    **I do legal work related to building trades and any time someone suggests trade school as an alterative to college, I cringe. The skills required of an AC installer or electrician today are, among others, lots and lots of math beyond my abilities. (Expert witnesses are useful for more than testimony.) Unless one wants to be an apprentice forever, anyone in these trades will have to develop rather good academic skills, even if they never intend to own their own business in which academic skills are even more salient. These aren’t even the most technical jobs now. Schools don’t have auto shop class anymore because cars are entirely too complicated to be handed over to 15-year-olds.

    • If someone likes to work with their hands, along with building, and taking apart things, then trade school is a better option. College is extremely expensive, and will leave someone in debt for a long time. An electrician or AC installer will start at the bottom as a helper, and can learn as they go.They will need to take some courses , and learn more skills, but they will still have a related job, which will make learning easier. To keep a trade job, all one has to do is show up for work on time, listen, ask questions, and focus on what they are being told to do. It’s the beginning of a journey.

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