Book Review: The Cult Of Smart
Summary and commentary on The Cult Of Smart by Fredrik DeBoer
Oscar Wilde supposedly said George Bernard Shaw "has no enemies, but is intensely disliked by his friends". Socialist blogger Freddie DeBoer is the opposite: few allies, but deeply respected by his enemies. I disagree with him about everything, so naturally I am a big fan of his work - which meant I was happy to read his latest book, The Cult Of Smart.
DeBoer starts with the standard narrative of The Failing State Of American Education. Students aren't learning. The country is falling behind. Only tough no-excuses policies, standardization, and innovative reforms like charter schools can save it, as shown by their stellar performance improving test scores and graduation rates.
He argues that every word of it is a lie. American education isn't getting worse by absolute standards: students match or outperform their peers from 20 or 50 years ago. It's not getting worse by international standards: America's PISA rankings are mediocre, but the country has always scored near the bottom of international rankings, even back in the 50s and 60s when we were kicking Soviet ass and landing men on the moon. Race and gender gaps are stable or decreasing. American education is doing much as it's always done - about as well as possible, given the crushing poverty, single parent-families, violence, and racism holding back the kids it's charged with shepherding to adulthood.
But then how do education reform efforts and charters produce such dramatic improvements? DeBoer's answer: by lying. Programs like Common Core and No Child Left Behind take credit for radically improving American education. But DeBoer shows they cook the books: most graduation rates have been improved by lowering standards for graduation; most test score improvements have come from warehousing bad students somewhere they don't take the tests. When charter schools have excelled, it's usually been by only accepting the easiest students (they’re not allowed to do this openly, but have ways to do it covertly), then attributing their great test scores to novel teaching methods. Most of this has been a colossal fraud, and the losers have been regular public school teachers, who get accused of laziness and inadequacy for failing to match the impressive-but-fake improvements of charter schools or "reformed" districts.
All these reform efforts have "succeeded" through Potemkin-style schemes where they parade their good students in front of journalists and researchers, and hide the bad students somewhere far from the public eye where they can't bring scores down. The overall distribution of good vs. bad students remains unchanged, and is mostly caused by natural talent; some kids are just smarter than others. DeBoer reviews the literature from behavioral genetics, including twin studies, adoption studies, and genome-wide association studies. All show that differences in intelligence and many other traits are more due to genes than specific environment. This requires an asterisk - we can only say for sure that the contribution of environment is less than that of genes in our current society; some other society with more (or less, or different) environmental variation might be a different story. But at least here and now, most outcomes depend more on genes than on educational quality. Schools can't turn dull people into bright ones, or ensure every child ends up knowing exactly the same amount. But that means some children will always fail to meet "the standards"; in fact, this might even be true by definition if we set the standards according to some algorithm where if every child always passed they would be too low.
For decades, politicians of both parties have thought of education as "the great leveller" and the key to solving poverty. If people are stuck in boring McJobs, it's because they're not well-educated enough to be surgeons and rocket scientists. Give them the education they need, and they can join the knowledge economy and rise into the upper-middle class. For lack of any better politically-palatable way to solve poverty, this has kind of become a totem: get better schools, and all those unemployed Appalachian coal miners can move to Silicon Valley and start tech companies. But you can't do that. Not everyone is intellectually capable of doing a high-paying knowledge economy job. Schools can change your intellectual potential a limited amount. Ending child hunger, removing lead from the environment, and similar humanitarian programs can do a little more, but only a little. In the end, a lot of people aren't going to make it.
So what can you do? DeBoer doesn't think there's an answer within the existing system. Instead, we need to dismantle meritocracy.
DeBoer is skeptical of "equality of opportunity". Even if you solve racism, sexism, poverty, and many other things that DeBoer repeatedly reminds us have not been solved, you'll just get people succeeding or failing based on natural talent. DeBoer agrees conservatives can be satisfied with this, but thinks leftists shouldn't be. Natural talent is just as unearned as class, race, or any other unfair advantage.
One one level, the titular Cult Of Smart is just the belief that enough education can solve any problem. But more fundamentally it's also the troubling belief that after we jettison unfair theories of superiority based on skin color, sex, and whatever else, we're finally left with what really determines your value as a human being - how smart you are. DeBoer recalls hearing an immigrant mother proudly describe her older kid's achievements in math, science, etc, "and then her younger son ran by, and she said, offhand, 'This one, he is maybe not so smart.'" DeBoer was originally shocked to hear someone describe her own son that way, then realized that he wouldn't have thought twice if she'd dismissed him as unathletic, or bad at music. Intelligence is considered such a basic measure of human worth that to dismiss someone as unintelligent seems like consigning them into the outer darkness. So DeBoer describes how early readers of his book were scandalized by the insistence on genetic differences in intelligence - isn't this denying the equality of Man, declaring some people inherently superior to others? Only if you conflate intelligence with worth, which DeBoer argues our society does constantly. It starts with parents buying Baby Einstein tapes and trying to send their kids to the best preschool, continues through the "meat grinder" of the college admissions process when everyone knows that whoever gets into Harvard is better than whoever gets into State U, and continues when the meritocracy rewards the straight-A Harvard student with a high-paying powerful job and the high school dropout with drudgery or unemployment. Even the phrase "high school dropout" has an aura of personal failure about it, in a way totally absent from "kid who always lost at Little League".
DeBoer isn't convinced this is an honest mistake. He draws attention to a sort of meta-class-war - a war among class warriors over whether the true enemy is the top 1% (this is the majority position) or the top 20% (this is DeBoer's position; if you've read Staying Classy, you'll immediately recognize this disagreement as the same one that divided the Church and UR models of class). The 1% are the Buffetts and Bezoses of the world; the 20% are the "managerial" class of well-off urban professionals, bureaucrats, creative types, and other mandarins. Opposition to the 20% is usually right-coded; describe them as "woke coastal elites who dominate academia and the media", and the Trump campaign ad almost writes itself. But some Marxists flirt with it too; the book references Elizabeth Currid-Halkett's Theory Of The Aspirational Class, and you can hear echoes of this every time Twitter socialists criticize "Vox liberals" or something. Access to the 20% is gated by college degree, and their legitimizing myth is that their education makes them more qualified and humane than the rest of us. DeBoer thinks the deification of school-achievement-compatible intelligence as highest good serves their class interest; "equality of opportunity" means we should ignore all other human distinctions in favor of the one that our ruling class happens to excel at.
So maybe equality of opportunity is a stupid goal. DeBoer argues for equality of results. This is a pretty extreme demand, but he's a Marxist and he means what he says. He wants a world where smart people and dull people have equally comfortable lives, and where intelligence can take its rightful place as one of many virtues which are nice to have but not the sole measure of your worth.
...but he realizes that destroying capitalism is a tall order, so he also includes some "moderate" policy prescriptions we can work on before the Revolution. First, universal childcare and pre-K; he freely admits that this will not affect kids' academic abilities one whit, but thinks they're the right thing to do in order to relieve struggling children and families. Second, lower the legal dropout age to 12, so students who aren't getting anything from school don't have to keep banging their heads against it, and so schools don't have to cook the books to pretend they're meeting standards. Third, lower standards for graduation, so that children who realistically aren't smart enough to learn algebra (it's algebra in particular surprisingly often!) can still get through. Fourth, burn all charter schools (he doesn't actually say "burn", but you can tell he fantasizes about it). And fifth, make it so that you no longer need a college degree to succeed in the job market.
(the astute among you will notice this last one is more of a wish than a policy - don't blame me, I'm just the reviewer).
I'm Freddie's ideological enemy, which means I have to respect him. And there's a lot to like about this book. I think its two major theses - that intelligence is mostly innate, and that this is incompatible with equating it to human value - are true, important, and poorly appreciated by the general population. I tried to make a somewhat similar argument in my Parable Of The Talents, which DeBoer graciously quotes in his introduction. Some of the book's peripheral theses - that a lot of education science is based on fraud, that US schools are not declining in quality, etc - are also true, fascinating, and worth spreading. Overall, I think this book does more good than harm.
It's also rambling, self-contradictory in places, and contains a lot of arguments I think are misguided or bizarre.
The Part About Meritocracy
I've complained about this before, but I can't review this book without returning to it: deBoer's view of meritocracy is bizarre. The overall picture one gets is of Society telling a new college graduate "I see you got all A's in Harvard, which means you have proven yourself a good person. To reward you for your virtue, I grant you the coveted high-paying job of Surgeon." Think I'm exaggerating? He writes (not in this book, from a different article):
I reject meritocracy because I reject the idea of human deserts. I don’t believe that an individual’s material conditions should be determined by what he or she “deserves,” no matter the criteria and regardless of the accuracy of the system contrived to measure it. I believe an equal best should be done for all people at all times. More practically, I believe that anything resembling an accurate assessment of what someone deserves is impossible, inevitably drowned in a sea of confounding variables, entrenched advantage, genetic and physiological tendencies, parental influence, peer effects, random chance, and the conditions under which a person labors. To reflect on the immateriality of human deserts is not a denial of choice; it is a denial of self-determination. Reality is indifferent to meritocracy’s perceived need to “give people what they deserve.”
At the time, I noted that meritocracy has nothing to do with this. The intuition behind meritocracy is: if your life depends on a difficult surgery, would you prefer the hospital hire a surgeon who aced medical school, or a surgeon who had to complete remedial training to barely scrape by with a C-? If you prefer the former, you’re a meritocrat with respect to surgeons. Generalize a little, and you have the argument for being a meritocrat everywhere else.
The above does away with any notions of "desert", but I worry it's still accepting too many of DeBoer's assumptions. A better description might be: Your life depends on a difficult surgery. You can hire whatever surgeon you want to perform it. You are willing to pay more money for a surgeon who aced medical school than for a surgeon who failed it. So higher intelligence leads to more money.
This not only does away with "desert", but also with reified Society deciding who should prosper. More meritorious surgeons get richer not because "Society" has selected them to get rich as a reward for virtue, but because individuals pursuing their incentives prefer, all else equal, not to die of botched surgeries. Meritocracy isn't an -ocracy like democracy or autocracy, where people in wigs sit down to frame a constitution and decide how things should work. It's a dubious abstraction over the fact that people prefer to have jobs done well rather than poorly, and use their financial and social clout to make this happen.
The Part About Reform Not Working
The book sort of equivocates a little between "education cannot be improved" and "you can't improve education an infinite amount".
DeBoer admits you can improve education a little; for example, he cites a study showing that individualized tutoring has an effect size of 0.4. Although he is a little coy about the implications, he refers to several studies showing that having more intelligent teachers improves student outcomes. Also, everyone who's ever been in school knows that there are good teachers and bad ones. So even if education can never eliminate all differences between students, surely you can make schools better or worse. And surely making them better is important - not because it will change anyone's relative standings in the rat race, but because educated people have more opportunities for self-development and more opportunities to contribute to society.
I think DeBoer would argue he's not against improving schools. He just thinks all attempts to do it so far have been crooks and liars pillaging the commons, so much so that we need a moratorium on this kind of thing until we can figure out what's going on. But I'm worried that his arguments against existing school reform are in some cases kind of weak.
DeBoer does make things hard for himself by focusing on two of the most successful charter school experiments. If he'd been a little less honest, he could have passed over these and instead mentioned the many charter schools that fail, or just sort of plod onward doing about as well as public schools do. I think the closest thing to a consensus right now is that most charter schools do about the same as public schools for white/advantaged students, and slightly better than public schools for minority/disadvantaged students. But DeBoer very virtuously thinks it's important to confront his opponents' strongest cases, so these are the ones I'll focus on here.
Success Academy is a chain of New York charter schools with superficially amazing results. They take the worst-off students - "76% of students are less advantaged and 94% are minorities" - and achieve results better than the ritziest schools in the best neighborhoods - it ranked "in the top 1% of New York state schools in math, and in the top 3% for reading" - while spending "as much as $3000 to $4000 less per child per year than their public school counterparts." Its supporters credit it with showing "what you can accomplish when you are free from the regulations and mindsets that have taken over education, and do things in a different way.”
DeBoer will have none of it. He thinks they're cooking the books by kicking out lower-performing students in a way public schools can't do, leaving them with a student body heavily-selected for intelligence. Any remaining advantage is due to "teacher tourism", where ultra-bright Ivy League grads who want a "taste of the real world" go to teach at private schools for a year or two before going into their permanent career as consultants or something. This would work - many studies show that smarter teachers make students learn more (though this specifically means high-IQ teachers; making teachers get more credentials has no effect). But it doesn't scale (there are only so many Ivy League grads willing to accept low salaries for a year or two in order to have a fun time teaching children), and it only works in places like New York (Ivy League grads would not go to North Dakota no matter how fun a time they were promised).
I'm not sure I share this perspective. Success Academy isn't just cooking the books - you would test for that using a randomized trial with intention-to-treat analysis. The one that I found is small-n, short timescale, and a little ambiguous, but I think basically supports the contention that there's something there beyond selection bias. Teacher tourism might be a factor, but hardly justifies DeBoer's "charter schools are frauds, shut them down" perspective. Even if Success Academy's results are 100% because of teacher tourism, they found a way to educate thousands of extremely disadvantaged minority kids to a very high standard at low cost, a way public schools had previously failed to exploit. That's not "cheating", it's something exciting that we should celebrate. If it doesn't scale, it doesn't scale, but maybe the same search process that found this particular way can also find other ways? Surely it doesn't seem like the obvious next step is to ban anyone else from even trying?
And we only have DeBoer's assumption that all of this is teacher tourism. Success Academy itself claims that they have lots of innovative teaching methods and a different administrative culture. If this explains even 10% of their results, spreading it to other schools would be enough to make the US rocket up the PISA rankings and become an unparalleled educational powerhouse. I'm not claiming to know for sure that this is true, but not even being curious about this seems sort of weird; wanting to ban stuff like Success Academy so nobody can ever study it again doubly so.
DeBoer's second tough example is New Orleans. Hurricane Katrina destroyed most of their schools, forcing the city to redesign their education system from the ground up. They decided to go a 100% charter school route, and it seemed to be very successful. Unlike Success Academy, this can't be selection bias (it was every student in the city), and you can't argue it doesn't scale (it scaled to an entire city!). But DeBoer writes:
After Hurricane Katrina, the neoliberal powers that be took advantage of a crisis (as they always do) to enforce their agenda. The schools in New Orleans were transformed into a 100% charter system, and reformers were quick to crow about improved test scores, the only metric for success they recognize. Whether these gains stand up to scrutiny is debatable. But even if these results hold, the notion of using New Orleans as a model for other school districts is absurd on its face. When we make policy decisions, we want to isolate variables and compare like with like, to whatever degree possible. The story of New Orleans makes this impossible. Katrina changed everything in the city, where 100,000 of the city's poorest residents were permanently displaced. The civic architecture of the city was entirely rebuilt. Billions of dollars of public and private money poured in. An army of do-gooders arrived to try to save the city, willing to work for lower wages than they would ordinarily accept. How could these massive overall social changes possibly be replicated elsewhere? And how could we have any faith that adopting the New Orleans schooling system - without the massive civic overhaul - would replicate the supposed advantages?
These are good points, and I would accept them from anyone other than DeBoer, who will go on to say in a few chapters that the solution to our education issues is a Marxist revolution that overthrows capitalism and dispenses with the very concept of economic value. If he's willing to accept a massive overhaul of everything, that's failed every time it's tried, why not accept a much smaller overhaul-of-everything, that's succeeded at least once? There are plenty of billionaires willing to pour fortunes into reforming various cities - DeBoer will go on to criticize them as deluded do-gooders a few chapters later. If billions of dollars plus a serious commitment to ground-up reform are what we need, let's just spend billions of dollars and have a serious commitment to ground-up reform! If more hurricanes is what it takes to fix education, I'm willing to do my part by leaving my air conditioner on 'high' all the time.
I also have a more fundamental piece of criticism: even if charter schools' test scores were exactly the same as public schools', I think they would be more morally acceptable. I'll talk more about this at the end of the post.
The Part About Race
DeBoer spends several impassioned sections explaining how opposed he is to scientific racism, and arguing that the belief that individual-level IQ differences are partly genetic doesn't imply a belief that group-level IQ differences are partly genetic. Some reviewers of this book are still suspicious, wondering if he might be hiding his real position. I can assure you he is not. Seriously, he talks about how much he hates belief in genetic group-level IQ differences about thirty times per page. Also, sometimes when I write posts about race, he sends me angry emails ranting about how much he hates that some people believe in genetic group-level IQ differences - totally private emails nobody else will ever see. I have no reason to doubt that his hatred of this is as deep as he claims.
But I understand why some reviewers aren't convinced. This book can't stop tripping over itself when it tries to discuss these topics. DeBoer grants X, he grants X -> Y, then goes on ten-page rants about how absolutely loathsome and abominable anyone who believes Y is.
Remember, one of the theses of this book is that individual differences in intelligence are mostly genetic. But DeBoer spends only a little time citing the studies that prove this is true. He (correctly) decides that most of his readers will object not on the scientific ground that they haven't seen enough studies, but on the moral ground that this seems to challenge the basic equality of humankind. He (correctly) points out that this is balderdash, that innate differences in intelligence don't imply differences in moral value, any more than innate differences in height or athletic ability or anything like that imply differences in moral value. His goal is not just to convince you about the science, but to convince you that you can believe the science and still be an okay person who respects everyone and wants them to be happy.
He could have written a chapter about race that reinforced this message. He could have reviewed studies about whether racial differences in intelligence are genetic or environmental, come to some conclusion or not, but emphasized that it doesn't matter, and even if it's 100% genetic it has no bearing at all on the need for racial equality and racial justice, that one race having a slightly higher IQ than another doesn't make them "superior" any more than Pygmies' genetic short stature makes them "inferior".
Instead he - well, I'm not really sure what he's doing. He starts by says racial differences must be environmental. Then he says that studies have shown that racial IQ gaps are not due to differences in income/poverty, because the gaps remain even after controlling for these. But, he says, there could be other environmental factors aside from poverty that cause racial IQ gaps. After tossing out some possibilities, he concludes that he doesn't really need to be able to identify a plausible mechanism, because "white supremacy touches on so many aspects of American life that it's irresponsible to believe we have adequately controlled for it", no matter how many studies we do or how many confounders we eliminate. His argument, as far as I can tell, is that it's always possible that racial IQ differences are environmental, therefore they must be environmental. Then he goes on to, at great length, denounce as loathsome and villainous anyone who might suspect these gaps of being genetic. Such people are "noxious", "bigoted", "ugly", "pseudoscientific" "bad people" who peddle "propaganda" to "advance their racist and sexist agenda". (But tell us what you really think!)
Earlier this week, I objected when a journalist dishonestly spliced my words to imply I supported Charles Murray's The Bell Curve. Some people wrote me to complain that I handled this in a cowardly way - I showed that the specific thing the journalist quoted wasn’t a reference to The Bell Curve, but I never answered the broader question of what I thought of the book. They demanded I come out and give my opinion openly. Well, the most direct answer is that I've never read it. But that's kind of cowardly too - I've read papers and articles making what I assume is the same case. So what do I think of them?
This is far enough from my field that I would usually defer to expert consensus, but all the studies I can find which try to assess expert consensus seem crazy. A while ago, I freaked out upon finding a study that seemed to show most expert scientists in the field agreed with Murray's thesis in 1987 - about three times as many said the gap was due to a combination of genetics and environment as said it was just environment. Then I freaked out again when I found another study (here is the most recent version, from 2020) showing basically the same thing (about four times as many say it’s a combination of genetics and environment compared to just environment). I can't find any expert surveys giving the expected result that they all agree this is dumb and definitely 100% environment and we can move on (I'd be very relieved if anybody could find those, or if they could explain why the ones I found were fake studies or fake experts or a biased sample, or explain how I'm misreading them or that they otherwise shouldn't be trusted. If you have thoughts on this, please send me an email). I've vacillated back and forth on how to think about this question so many times, and right now my personal probability estimate is "I am still freaking out about this, go away go away go away". And I understand I have at least two potentially irresolveable biases on this question: one, I'm a white person in a country with a long history of promoting white supremacy; and two, if I lean in favor then everyone will hate me, and use it as a bludgeon against anyone I have ever associated with, and I will die alone in a ditch and maybe deserve it. So the best I can do is try to route around this issue when considering important questions. This is sometimes hard, but the basic principle is that I'm far less sure of any of it than I am sure that all human beings are morally equal and deserve to have a good life and get treated with respect regardless of academic achievement.
(Hopefully I’ve given people enough ammunition against me that they won’t have to use hallucinatory ammunition in the future. If you target me based on this, please remember that it’s entirely a me problem and other people tangentially linked to me are not at fault.)
That last sentence about the basic principle is the thesis of The Cult Of Smart, so it would have been a reasonable position for DeBoer to take too. DeBoer doesn't take it. He acknowledges the existence of expert scientists who believe the differences are genetic (he names Linda Gottfredson in particular), but only to condemn them as morally flawed for asserting this.
But this is exactly the worldview he is, at this very moment, trying to write a book arguing against! His thesis is that mainstream voices say there can't be genetic differences in intelligence among individuals, because that would make some people fundamentally inferior to others, which is morally repugnant - but those voices are wrong, because differences in intelligence don't affect moral equality. Then he adds that mainstream voices say there can't be genetic differences in intelligence among ethnic groups, because that would make some groups fundamentally inferior to others, which is morally repugnant - and those voices are right; we must deny the differences lest we accept the morally repugnant thing.
Normally I would cut DeBoer some slack and assume this was some kind of Straussian manuever he needed to do to get the book published, or to prevent giving ammunition to bad people. But no, he has definitely believed this for years, consistently, even while being willing to offend basically anybody about basically anything else at any time. So I'm convinced this is his true belief. I'm just not sure how he squares it with the rest of his book.
(Feel free to talk about the rest of the review, or about what DeBoer is doing here, but I will ban anyone who uses the comment section here to explicitly discuss the object-level question of race and IQ.)
The Part About Social Mobility Not Mattering Because It Doesn't Produce Equality
DeBoer is skeptical of the idea of education as a "leveller". Instead, he thinks it just produces another hierarchy - maybe one based on intelligence rather than whatever else, but a hierarchy nonetheless. He scoffs at a goal of "social mobility", pointing out that rearranging the hierarchy doesn't make it any less hierarchical:
I confess I have never understood the attraction to social mobility that is common to progressives. Mobility, after all, says nothing about the underlying overall conditions of people within the system, only their movement within it. From that standpoint the question is still zero sum. What is the moral utility of increased social mobility (more people rising up and sliding down in the socioeconomic sorting system) from a progressive perpsective? For conservatives, at least, there's a hope that a high level of social mobility provides incentives for each person to maximize their talents and, in doing so, both reap pecuniary rewards and provide benefits to society. This makes sense if you presume, as conservatives do, that people excel only in the pursuit of self-interest.
The appeal for the left is much harder to sort out. Why should we want more movement, as opposed to a higher floor for material conditions - and with it, a necessarily lower ceiling, as we take from the top to fund the social programs that establish that floor? Individual people (particularly those who think of themselves as talented) might surely prefer higher social mobility because they want to ascend up the ladder of reward. But why would society favor the interests of the person who moves up to a new perch in the 1 percent over the interests of the person who was born there? Why should we celebrate the downward mobility into hardship and poverty for some that is necessary for upward mobility into middle-class security for others?
As a leftist, I understand the appeal of tearing down those at the top, on an emotional and symbolic level. But if we're simply replacing them with a new set of winners lording it over the rest of us, we're running in place...as a socialist I see no reason to desire mobility qua mobility at all.
This is a compelling argument. But it accidentally proves too much. If white supremacists wanted to make a rule that only white people could hold high-paying positions, on what grounds (besides symbolic ones) could DeBoer oppose them? After all, there would still be the same level of hierarchy (high-paying vs. low-paying positions), whether or not access to the high-paying positions were gated by race. It seems like rejecting segregation of this sort requires some consideration of social mobility as an absolute good.
I think I would reject it on three grounds. First, the same argument I used for meritocracy above: everyone gains by having more competent people in top positions, whether it's a surgeon who can operate more safely, an economist who can more effectively prevent recessions, or a scientist who can discover more new cures for diseases. Social mobility allows people to be sorted into the positions they are most competent for, and increases the general competence level of society. I don't think this is a small effect - consider the difference between competent vs. incompetent teachers, doctors, and lawmakers. I don't know if this is what DeBoer is dismissing as the conservative perspective, but it just seems uncontroversially true to me.
Second, social mobility does indirectly increase equality. Spreading success across a semi-random cross-section of the population helps ensure the fruits of success get distributed more evenly across families, groups, and areas. A world in which one randomly selected person from each neighborhood gets a million dollars will be a more equal world than one where everyone in Beverly Hills has a million dollars but nobody else does. Many more people will have successful friends or family members to learn from, borrow from, or mooch off of. More schools and neighborhoods will have "local boy made good" type people who will donate to them and support them. I don't think this one is a small effect either - a lot of "structural racism" comes from white people having social networks full of successful people to draw on, and black people not having this, producing cross-race inequality. If high positions were distributed evenly by race, this would be better for black people, including the black people who did not get the high positions.
Third, some kind of non-consequentialist aesthetic ground that's hard to explain. Even ignoring the effect on social sorting and the effect on equality, the idea that someone's not allowed to go to college or whatever because they're the wrong caste or race or whatever just makes me really angry. It is weird for a liberal/libertarian to have to insist to a socialist that equality can sometimes be an end in itself, but I am prepared to insist on this. Even if it doesn't help a single person get any richer, I feel like it's a terminal good that people have the opportunity to use their full potential, beyond my ability to explain exactly why.
The Part About There Being A Cult Of Smart
"Smart" equivocates over two concepts - high-IQ and successful-at-formal-education. These concepts are related; in general, high-IQ people get better grades, graduate from better colleges, etc. But they're not exactly the same.
There is a cult of successful-at-formal-education. Society obsesses over how important formal education is, how it can do anything, how it's going to save the world. If you get gold stars on your homework, become the teacher's pet, earn good grades in high school, and get into an Ivy League, the world will love you for it.
But the opposite is true of high-IQ. Society obsessively denies that IQ can possibly matter. Admit to being a member of Mensa, and you'll get a fusillade of "IQ is just a number!" and "people who care about their IQ are just overcompensating for never succeeding at anything real!" and "IQ doesn't matter, what about emotional IQ or grit or whatever else, huh? Bet you didn't think of that!" Science writers and Psychology Today columnists vomit out a steady stream of bizarre attempts to deny the statistical validity of IQ.
These are two sides of the same phenomenon. Some people are smarter than others as adults, and the more you deny innate ability, the more weight you have to put on education. Society wants to put a lot of weight on formal education, and compensates by denying innate ability a lot. DeBoer is aware of this and his book argues against it adeptly.
Still, I worry that the title - The Cult Of Smart - might lead people to think there is a cult surrounding intelligence, when exactly the opposite is true. But I guess The Cult Of Successful At Formal Education sounds less snappy, so whatever.
The Cult Of Smart invites comparisons with Bryan Caplan's The Case Against Education. Both use largely the same studies to argue that education doesn't do as much as we thought. Caplan very reasonably thinks maybe that means we should have less education. DeBoer...definitely doesn't think that:
As a socialist, my interest lies in expanding the degree to which the community takes responsibility each all of its members, in deepening our societal commitment to ensuring the wellbeing of everyone. One of the most profound and important ways that we've expanded the assumed responsibilities of society lies in our system of public education. Only 150 years ago, a child in the United States was not guaranteed to have access to publicly funded schooling. (Even 100 years ago it was not uncommon for a child to spend his days engaged in backbreaking physical labor.) When we as a society decided, in fits and starts and with all the usual bigotries of race and sex and class involved, to legally recognize a right for all children to an education, we fundamentally altered our culture's basic assumptions about what we owed every citizen. We did not make this profound change on the bais of altering test scores or with an eye on graduation rates or college participation. We did so out of the conviction that this suppot of children and their parents was a fundamental right no matter what the eventual outcomes might be for each student.
[DeBoer goes on to recommend universal pre-K and universal after-school childcare for K-12 students, then says:] The social benefits would be profound. For one, we'd have fewer young people on the street, fewer latchkey children forced to go home to empty apartments and houses, fewer children with nothing to do but stare at screens all day. Children who live in truly unhealthy home environments, whether because of abuse or neglect or addiction or simple poverty, would have more hours out of the day to spend in supervised safety. And the benefits to parents would be just as large. Today, many parents face an impossible choice: give up their career in order to raise young children, and lose that source of income and self-actualization, or spend potentially huge amounts of money on childcare in order to work a job that might not even pay enough to cover that care.
I try to review books in an unbiased way, without letting myself succumb to fits of emotion. So be warned: I'm going to fail with this one. I am going to get angry and write whole sentences in capital letters. This is one of the most enraging passages I've ever read.
School is child prison. It's forcing kids to spend their childhood - a happy time! a time of natural curiosity and exploration and wonder - sitting in un-air-conditioned blocky buildings, cramped into identical desks, listening to someone drone on about the difference between alliteration and assonance, desperate to even be able to fidget but knowing that if they do their teacher will yell at them, and maybe they'll get a detention that extends their sentence even longer without parole. The anti-psychiatric-abuse community has invented the "Burrito Test" - if a place won't let you microwave a burrito without asking permission, it's an institution. Doesn't matter if the name is "Center For Flourishing" or whatever and the aides are social workers in street clothes instead of nurses in scrubs - if it doesn't pass the Burrito Test, it's an institution. There is no way school will let you microwave a burrito without permission. THEY WILL NOT EVEN LET YOU GO TO THE BATHROOM WITHOUT PERMISSION. YOU HAVE TO RAISE YOUR HAND AND ASK YOUR TEACHER FOR SOMETHING CALLED "THE BATHROOM PASS" IN FRONT OF YOUR ENTIRE CLASS, AND IF SHE DOESN'T LIKE YOU, SHE CAN JUST SAY NO.
I don't like actual prisons, the ones for criminals, but I will say this for them - people keep them around because they honestly believe they prevent crime. If someone found proof-positive that prisons didn't prevent any crimes at all, but still suggested that we should keep sending people there, because it means we'd have "fewer middle-aged people on the streets" and "fewer adults forced to go home to empty apartments and houses", then MAYBE YOU WOULD START TO UNDERSTAND HOW I FEEL ABOUT SENDING PEOPLE TO SCHOOL FOR THE SAME REASON.
I sometimes sit in on child psychiatrists' case conferences, and I want to scream at them. There's the kid who locks herself in the bathroom every morning so her parents can't drag her to child prison, and her parents stand outside the bathroom door to yell at her for hours until she finally gives in and goes, and everyone is trying to medicate her or figure out how to remove the bathroom locks, and THEY ARE SOLVING THE WRONG PROBLEM. There are all the kids who had bedwetting or awful depression or constant panic attacks, and then as soon as the coronavirus caused the child prisons to shut down the kids mysteriously became instantly better. I have heard stories of kids bullied to the point where it would be unfair not to call it torture, and the child prisons respond according to Procedures which look very good on paper and hit all the right We-Are-Taking-This-Seriously buzzwords but somehow never result in the kids not being tortured every day, and if the kids' parents were to stop bringing them to child prison every day to get tortured anew the cops would haul those parents to jail, and sometimes the only solution is the parents to switch them to the charter schools THAT FREDDIE DEBOER WANTS TO SHUT DOWN.
I see people on Twitter and Reddit post their stories from child prison, all of which they treat like it's perfectly normal. The district that wanted to save money, so it banned teachers from turning the heat above 50 degrees in the depths of winter. The district that decided running was an unsafe activity, and so any child who ran or jumped or played other-than-sedately during recess would get sent to detention - yeah, that's fine, let's just make all our children spent the first 18 years of their life somewhere they're not allowed to run, that'll be totally normal child development. You might object that they can run at home, but of course teachers assign three hours of homework a day despite ample evidence that homework does not help learning. Preventing children from having any free time, or the ability to do any of the things they want to do seems to just be an end in itself. Every single doctor and psychologist in the world has pointed out that children and teens naturally follow a different sleep pattern than adults, probably closer to 12 PM to 9 AM than the average adult's 10 - 7. Child prisons usually start around 7 or 8 AM, meaning any child who shows up on time is necessarily sleep-deprived in ways that probably harm their health and development.
School forces children to be confined in an uninhabitable environment, restrained from moving, and psychologically tortured in a state of profound sleep deprivation, under pain of imprisoning their parents if they refuse. The only possible justification for this is that it achieves some kind of vital social benefit like eliminating poverty. If it doesn't, you might as well replace it with something less traumatizing, like child labor. The kid will still have to spend eight hours of their day toiling in a terrible environment, but at least they’ll get some pocket money! At least their boss can't tell them to keep working off the clock under the guise of "homework"! I have worked as a medical resident, widely considered one of the most horrifying and abusive jobs it is possible to take in a First World country. I can say with absolute confidence that I would gladly do another four years of residency if the only alternative was another four years of high school.
If I have children, I hope to be able to homeschool them. But if I can't homeschool them, I am incredibly grateful that the option exists to send them to a charter school that might not have all of these problems. I'm not as impressed with Montessori schools as some of my friends are, but at least as far as I can tell they let kids wander around free-range, and don't make them use bathroom passes. DeBoer not only wants to keep the whole prison-cum-meat-grinder alive and running, even after having proven it has no utility, he also wants to shut the only possible escape my future children will ever get unless I'm rich enough to quit work and care for them full time.
When I try to keep a cooler head about all of this, I understand that Freddie DeBoer doesn't want this. He is not a fan of freezing-cold classrooms or sleep deprivation or bullying or bathroom passes. In fact, he will probably blame all of these on the "neoliberal reformers" (although I went to school before most of the neoliberal reforms started, and I saw it all). He will say that his own utopian schooling system has none of this stuff. In fact, he does say that. He sketches what a future Marxist school system might look like, and it looks pretty much like a Montessori school looks now. That just makes it really weird that he wants to shut down all the schools that resemble his ideal today (or make them only available to the wealthy) in favor of forcing kids into schools about as different from it as it's possible for anything to be.
I am so, so tired of socialists who admit that the current system is a helltopian torturescape, then argue that we must prevent anyone from ever being able to escape it. Who promise that once the last alternative is closed off, once the last nice green place where a few people manage to hold off the miseries of the world is crushed, why then the helltopian torturescape will become a lovely utopia full of rainbows and unicorns. If you can make your system less miserable, make your system less miserable! Do it before forcing everyone else to participate in it under pain of imprisonment if they refuse! Forcing everyone to participate in your system and then making your system something other than a meat-grinder that takes in happy children and spits out dead-eyed traumatized eighteen-year-olds who have written 10,000 pages on symbolism in To Kill A Mockingbird and had zero normal happy experiences - is doing things super, super backwards!
I don't have great solutions to the problems with the educational system. I am less convinced than deBoer is that it doesn't teach children useful things they will need in order to succeed later in life, so I can't in good conscience justify banning all schools (this is also how I feel about prison abolition - I'm too cowardly to be 100% comfortable with eliminating baked-in institutions, no matter how horrible, until I know the alternative).
But I think I would start with harm reduction. The average district spends $12,000 per pupil per year on public schools (up to $30,000 in big cities!) How many parents would be able to give their children a safe, accepting home environment if they got even a fraction of that money? If they could get $12,000 - $30,000 to stay home and help teach their kid, how many working parents might decide they didn't have to take that second job in order to make ends meet? How many kids stuck in dystopian after-school institutions might be able to spend that time with their families, or playing with friends? Or if they want to spend their entire childhood sitting in front of a screen playing Civilization 2, at least consider letting them spend their entire childhood in front of a screen playing Civilization 2 (I turned out okay!)
Some parents wouldn't feel up to teaching their kids, or would prove incompetent at it, and I would support letting those parents send their kids to school if they wanted (maybe all kids have to pass a basic proficiency test at some age, and go to school if they fail). I would want society to experiment with how short school could be and still have students learn what they needed to know, as opposed to our current strategy of experimenting with how long school can be and still have students stay sane. Did you know that when a superintendent experimented with teaching no math at all before Grade 7, by 8th grade those students knew exactly as much math as kids who had learned math their whole lives? Sure, cut out the provably-useless three hours a day of homework, but I don't think we've even begun to explore how short and efficient school can be. Obviously I would want this system to be entirely made of charter schools, so that children and parents can check which ones aren't abusive and prefentially go to those.
(if we ever figure out how to teach kids things, I'm also okay using these efficiency gains to teach children more stuff, rather than to shorten the school day, but I must insist we figure out how to teach kids things first.)
If parents had no interest in having their kids at home, and kids had no interest in being at home, I would be happy with the government funding afterschool daycare for those kids, as long as this is no more abusive on average than eg child labor (for example, if children were laboring they would be allowed to choose what company to work for, so I would insist they be allowed to choose their daycare). But as with all institutions, I would want it to be considered a fall-back for rare cases with no better options, much like how nursing homes are only for seniors who don't have anyone else to take care of them and can't take care of themselves. It shouldn't be the default first option.
I think people would be surprised how much children would learn in an environment like this. Certainly it is hard to deny that public school does anything other than crush learning - I have too many bad memories of teachers yelling at me for reading in school, or for peeking ahead in the textbook, to doubt that. I don't think totally unstructured learning is optimal for kids - I don't even think Montessori-style faux unstructured learning is optimal - but I think there would be a lot of room to experiment, and I think it would be better to err on the side of not getting angry at kids for trying to learn things on their own than on the side of continuing to do so.
Together, I believe we can end school. Until DeBoer is up for this, I don't think he's been fully deprogrammed from The Cult Of Successful At Formal Education (formerly known as The Cult Of Smart).