Highlights From The Comments On Cult Of Smart

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DeBoer argued that charter schools succeed through selection effects: they only take the best students. Several commenters pointed out this was illegal. It is, but they’ve found loopholes. Here's Alexander H:

I attended a charter school all 4 years quite recently. Admissions was entirely by lottery, open to everyone in the district. I can tell you that even in freshman year, the student body was not even remotely close to representative of normal kids; it was basically an entire school of the kids who would normally be in gifted / accelerated programs. And by graduation, it was even more refined to super talented & smart people, because the students who left to go back to their local normal schools were mostly from the rear of the pack. I think that I got a lot better of an education there than I would have at my local school, and I would attribute more of that to the quality of my classmates than to the teachers or curriculum , though both of which were also better [...]

[Despite the lottery, admission was selected by] whose parents were involved enough, interested enough in education, valued education enough. Simple as that, I think.

Michael Pershan recommends his own review of a book on Success Academy. A key quote:

The meeting lasts just under an hour, but it opens a portal into the model and culture that explain in no small part the network’s consistent results across its schools. Suddenly it all makes sense: The common criticism leveled at Moskowitz and her schools is that they cherry-pick students, attracting bright children and shedding the poorly behaved and hardest to teach. This misses the mark entirely. Success Academy is cherry-picking parents. Parents who are not put off by uniforms, homework, reading logs and constant demands on their time, but who view those things as evidence that here, at last, is a school that has its act together. Parents who are not upset by tight discipline and suspensions but who are grateful for them, viewing Success Academy as a safe haven from disorderly streets and schools. Charter schools cannot screen parents to ensure culture fit, but the last hour in the auditorium is a close proxy for such an effort, galvanizing disciplines and warning off the indifferent and uncommitted. A the same time, there is something undeniably exclusionary about it. If you don’t have the resources to get your child to school by 7:30 and pick her up at 3:45  — at 12:30 on Wednesdays — Success Academy is not for you. Literally.

Pondiscio makes much of research showing that parental factors make a big difference on the success of low-income students. Parental involvement, two-family homes, strong religious faith are all factors that help. The claim is that Success Academy is essentially selecting for these families in low-income neighborhoods.

So it’s not curriculum, not the teaching, not the teachers? Not even the test prep? It’s just selection effects?

Well, mostly selection effects. There are a few other things in the secret sauce. The thing that’s well-known is the intense and systematic behavior management. What I didn’t know about was the entirely sensible division of labor. Principals focus entirely on teachers and students — they have an “ops” person for administrative stuff. The curriculum may not have impressed Pondiscio, but its existence does impress him. The curriculum meets whatever minimal threshold it needs to be to free teachers up to focus on going over student work, calling parents and working with kids. That’s good, in general!

And Freddie DeBoer himself shows up to say:

There are, in fact, many ways that lotteries can be gamed. Here's a taste.

There are others, such as refusal to backfill. Everything can be gamed. It is in the best interest of charter schools to manipulate the lotteries, very much including their financial best interest. And in many cases they are more or less operating on the honor system. To not assume fraud would be profoundly foolish.

The deeper question is this: if the charter advantage is as powerful as proponents claim, why would the schools that we know cheated have cheated at all? Why would they have felt the need, if the magic charter school dust was all it took?


Many people were confused by my description of experiencing school as torturous - see for example this thread. Other people were less confused. Selections from these people, to prove they exist:

DinoNerd:

For myself, Scott unashamedly referring to mandatory schools as "child prisons" was pretty much triggering - it reminded me of what it was like to be incarcerated in a school - where almost nothing was formally taught that I didn't already know - in part on the excuse that this imprisonment would magically instill social skills.

I learned a lot, particularly when I encountered concepts like habeas corpus (didn't apply to children) etc. etc. Or all those statements about liberty school teachers claimed our culture believed in, even though none of them applied to me at the time (or to any other child).

More importantly, I learned how to get bullies in trouble with the powers that be, how to figure out what answer was wanted and give that, rather than blurting out the truth, and how to manipulate authorities into doing what I wanted. Very useful skills, though I'd rather not have had to learn them by experimenting on the guards (teachers), trustees (prefects), and fellow prisoners (students). And I had so much better an experience than the one my government chose to inflict on those who'd committed the crime of being native Canadian children, rather than children of more favored demographics ("races" to an American). And then there were the unfortunate children who wound up in the care of social services. They were probably better off than the native children, but not always, and not by much.

As I write this, I'm still "triggered" - i.e. angry in retrospect, and more consciously cynical, mistrusting etc. than has been normal for me in adulthood. I don't know about "typical mind". But even if every day of your mandatory school attendance was consistently wonderful, I'm reasonably sure that wasn't true for many of your classmates, and some of them were likely outright miserable. All a bad school does is raise the overall level of misery; a good school (whatever that is) doesn't prevent it.

Only one of the four K12 schools I attended counted as especially bad. The final one had something like a 97% college attendance rate - and little brats throwing chewing gum at me/into my long hair from behind, regularly. (Things improved a lot when I beat up one young man very very publicly. But that was the year after the chewing gum problem.)

But let me reiterate again - it doesn't take a "bad" school to make some of its unwilling attendees miserable; it only takes a school that's unsuitable for them.

KevinDC:

Scott, your description of school-as-hell deeply resonated with me. I can say without exaggeration that my time in the public school system was more miserable to me, and left me with deeper scars and issues, than my time in Iraq.

JDDT:

One of my kids' schools had no doors on the toilet cubicles, because doors could be dangerous if misused. Parents were not allowed on-site at all and had to stand on the pavement because of the fear of on-site child abuse.

To use the monkey bars are another kids' school, they have to pass a monkey bar "driving test" to show they can safely use the monkey bars. My son one day was spotted going the non-prescribed direction on the monkey bars (I assure you they're symmetrical) and had his confiscated, banning him from the monkey bars.

This shouldn't be confused with over-protective instincts. One day my son screwed something up. So they decided to punish him by not feeding him. He was 5. We only found out when we picked him up. (We had words and they never did that again.) […]

One of my friends in London told me her daughter's school had a rule that children can only go to the toilet at break times. One lesson her 5 year old daughter forgot to go at break time, and was told she had to wait until the next break, and some time later wet herself.

All the teachers involved seemed like lovely people that decided to be teachers because they love kids... that somehow adopted these horrible ideas working in these places.

Mercurylant:

So, you can count me as someone who definitely relates, on a gut emotional level, to Scott's child prison metaphor. I went to a public school that could be considered uncommonly good by national standards; indeed it wasn't until years after I graduated that I started to realize how much better it was than the national average. I wasn't bullied or ostracized, I had friends and I don't think more than a small number of students particularly disliked me. My teachers, I think, mostly actually liked me. But the institution as a whole was so inimical to my emotional well-being that even now, about fifteen years after graduation, when I have nightmares, they're pretty much only ever about being in school again.

Scott refers to an average of about three hours of homework per day per student, which I know is more than a lot of people attest to in their own experience, but for me it would have been a dramatic underestimate. I have motor dysgraphia, and with the time it takes me to physically write things down, my daily homework load was roughly 5-6 hours worth, or rather, what would have been 5-6 hours worth if I could sit down and force myself to focus on it continuously without interruptions. I simply did not, and still don't, have the willpower to exert this sort of focus on a task which I knew perfectly well wasn't teaching me anything or providing any value to anyone. I was more or less constantly caught in a cycle of shame and lies, where I would conceal from my parents how much homework I really had, so that I could have time left over for recreation and a social life, and then go to school having to disappoint my teachers, who liked and cared about me, but who also felt obligated to assign me meaningless busywork and see me complete it, and who, in order to keep classroom order, had to keep me from doing anything I would have enjoyed doing with the time I spent in class, including actually learning.

I think it's entirely probable that I weathered the experience worse, emotionally, than Scott did. Although I did not spend my whole middle through high school years wanting to die, I did spend them very conscious that if I couldn't expect things to get better after they were over, I definitely would want to die, and I still regard the idea of a long term return to the quality of life I had at that age as a fate decisively worse than death. Although I know that I did experience happy times at that age, and do have some good memories associated with it, when I think of those years of my life even in my best moods, the bad memories overwhelm the good and I find them painful to dwell on.

Etc, etc, etc.

Again, many people also chimed in to say they had a great time at school. I’m not denying this. This is also the kind of thing I hear from people in psychiatric institutions. Some people say it saved their life and helped them begin the work of self-transformation, other people say it was abusive and traumatizing. People will have both sets of comments about the same institutions, same doctors, same nurses. Human beings different, more at eleven. I think this is one reason institutions are so bad: they’re a one-size-fits-all solution to how you’re going to spend your day, and that size will be right for some people and wrong for others. The potential solutions are things like offering more sizes (more diverse types of schools), having the sizes stretch (free-range schools where you can work yourself into the right niche for you) or having people not spend 30,000 hours of the most vulnerable period of their life in an institution.

I remember two things hitting me especially hard. One was a sort of bodily unfreedom; needing to stretch, or pace, or use the bathroom, or pass gas, or scratch myself, and knowing I couldn’t do it for hours. This has become much less of a problem as an adult; I think young children (maybe just some young children?) haven’t figured out how to gate bodily sensations correctly or talk them down, so having to restrain them is extra painful.

The second was just an excruciating boredom and frustration. I remember my mind teeming with things I wanted to do - ride my bike, learn about geology, rebuild my Lego set for the n-thousandth time, invent constructed languages, memorize a poem, figure out a way to attach my dog to my wagon like a horse-and-buggy, write short stories. Instead, I was sitting in a classroom, for eight hours, listening to the teacher repeat material we had already learned three or four times and which hadn’t been very interesting the first time. When I got home, I would crash, exhausted, and sleep for the next 2-3 hours. Then I would wake up, get started on my homework, and repeat the same thing the next day. I won’t say I never got a chance to do any of the interesting childhood things I wanted to - just that time always felt like a scarce resource, little islands of freedom separated by vast seas of mind-numbing repetition and busywork.

People ask me what kind of terrible school I was in. I was in a very nice public school in a very nice suburb, which my savvy PTA-president mother had specifically redirected me into. I’m sure in a purely objective sense my experience was better than almost anyone else’s. It still sucked.

I vaguely remember Freddie saying somewhere that he liked school. I appreciate this. Let him stand up for his kind of people, and I’ll stand up for mine, and hopefully we can figure out some kind of system that serves everybody.


Many people took issue with how I used "meritocracy" - see eg gbear605's comment here. Most of these converged on the idea that meritocracy can mean either (1) "high-status jobs like 'surgeon' go to the most qualified applicant" or (2) "jobs for smarter people pay better than jobs for less smart people, and the smarter people deserve the extra pay because of merit". I definitely support 1, and I haven't seen anything to suggest DeBoer doesn't either (though I think there are real people who oppose this, and that it's a common focus of meritocracy debates - see eg the move to switch magnet schools from high-scorers to lottery-assignment). DeBoer is complaining about (2). I'm a bit annoyed that people use the same word for (1) and (2), since I think (1) is trivially good and (2) is more complicated and you can do a lot of mischief by equivocating them. I wish people would just use "income inequality" for (2) and then we can debate whether income inequality is good or bad. But I understand people are trying to talk about some specific purported justification for income inequality separate from the overall concept and that getting them to abandon the term will be a hard sell.

I think there's a weak straw-mannish version of (2) which is something like "because I'm smart, I naturally should get more money than dumb people, to reward me for being an inherently better person". I think the stronger version is something like "very few people can be surgeons, lots of people can be fast food workers, if someone is smart enough to do either one we want to incentivize them to become a surgeon, so surgeons should be paid more." If you take out a lot of steps, it looks like "smart -> pay more", but it's not quite as moralistic as the straw man.

So does that mean the surgeon "deserves" the extra money? I am really nervous about the word "deserve". In some cosmic sense nobody "deserves" anything - try to tell the universe you don't deserve to grow old and die, then watch it laugh at as you die anyway. The utilitarian's definition of "deserve" is almost equally cold - even a burger flipper making $15,000 a year doesn't “deserve” it; they're selfishly hoarding money that could do so much more good feeding starving people in Africa. And then all the way on the other side, there's the billionaire's favorite definition of deserve, the maximally boring one, "deserve within the current system" - if you didn't defraud anyone or break any laws when you made your fortune, you "deserve" it.

We act as if there is some other sense of "deserve" beyond these three, where everyone in the First World "deserves" a middle-class lifestyle, and maybe a few very likeable hard-working people like surgeons and inventors "deserve" just a little extra. I share this intuition. But I don't have a good sense for what kind of definition of the word "deserve" lands us there, aside from just storming the Merriam-Webster headquarters and forcing them to write the whole desired endpoint in by fiat.

The best I can do is: on the one hand there's the utilitarian perspective, which is summed up well enough by "from each according to their ability, to each according to their need". On the other hand, there's the god's-eye-view, where the economy is a giant computer calculating efficient distribution of resources, and money is some kind of electrical fluid that drives the calculations. From the god's eye view, if some transistor complains that the other transistor is getting a stronger charge than it is, and whines that it's unfair, you tell the first transistor to shut up - you've already decided the fluid should flow along the paths corresponding to the algorithm that performs the calculation most effectively. But then you go back to the human-level view and you see that the second transistor is a kid who's starving to death, and you're actually prepared to add quite a bit of noise to the calculation and make it a lot less accurate if it means that kid gets fed. "Deserve" is what you call it when you balance those two perspectives and get some muddled thing that isn't quite either of them.

This is a dead-boring, standard-issue capitalist argument and wouldn’t surprise DeBoer one whit. But it’s why I get confused when other people who aren’t obvious Marxists complain about “meritocracy” in the second sense. If you think incomes should be a little more equal but it still makes sense for a surgeon to earn more than a janitor, being against “meritocracy” seems like an especially bad way to frame your complaint.


Philippe Saner (great name!), writes:

Wait, hang on a second. You're acting like DeBoer is trying to make school more mandatory. But it sounds like he's just trying to make it more available.

Did he also propose banning homeschooling or something? Is the universal childcare supposed to be mandatory?

Or would your anti-school response be equally applicable to any non-abolitionist educational position, with this rant just landing on DeBoer because you happened to be reading his book?

I mostly accept this criticism. DeBoer wants kids to be able to leave school early, and never says that the universal pre-K will be mandatory (although these kinds of things have a way of getting culturally entrenched to the point where they might as well be). The part that got me seeing red was just the part about getting kids off the street, away from screens, and out of empty homes. I live in an otherwise-empty home! That doesn't mean I want someone to force me to go to their stupid building all day where they watch me every waking second and don't let me microwave burritos! I know I'm an adult now, but I felt the same way as a kid and I’m still mad.

But aside from this one sentence I am probably being overly harsh on DeBoer personally. Aside from the thought process that produced that specific sentence, I think what he wants might very well be better than what we have now.


From jmk789:

I think Scott’s missing a fundamental tension here between his libertarian-ish desire for more student freedoms and the realities of the need for order within schools, including at the much-lauded charters that Scott wants other schools to emulate.

First, the kinds of charter schools that often get all the press about their “success” tend to be extremely militarized and have all kinds of strict rules governing student behavior. If you dislike regular public schools for being rigid, may I introduce you to the creepiness that is the “Teach Like a Champion” toolkit (and similar systems of its ilk) that’s become the Bible for all kinds of charter school chains as well as a number of public school systems? See here for a sample, including a student berated for insufficient eyes on the speaker:

While perhaps a few special charters (and even some--gasp--public schools!) might have more of this Montessori-esque system that Scott seems to want in education, the reality is that most of these successful charter schools are extremely controlled and disciplinarily harsh environments. Plus, the students who can’t fit into this environment get filtered out back to their neighborhood public schools or don’t even apply to the charter in the first place (hence the DeBoer critique).

Extremely fair!

As I mentioned above, part of why I experienced school as suffering was the sheer uselessness of it. Medical residency was technically more unpleasant, but every midnight overtime shift I worked there, I felt like I was either saving someone's life or learning important skills that would help me do that later. It made my suffering feel meaningful. In school, not only did I have to sit doing basically nothing for eight hours, but the teacher was always repeating something we'd learned last year, or droning on about some personal story, or having us do some dumb collage project that didn't teach anything. I developed split fantasies: in one, I was allowed to stay home and do whatever I wanted; in the other, I was in some kind of high-powered Ender's Game style school where harsh-but-fair taskmasters flooded me with information until I was a master of every subject.

If charter schools can actually turn the poorest and most marginalized students into top 1% performers, I imagine them as doing the Ender's Game thing; their suffering is made meaningful by personal growth. Montessori schools seem more like staying at home and having fun while still technically keeping to the letter of the law saying you have to be in school. I can imagine children wanting either, and in my ideal system they’d be able to choose.

This runs into the obvious flaw that kids don’t choose their school - at best, their parents do. I’m suitably concerned by this - I would support letting kids make this decision, but I realize any government order to this effect would be useless compared to the amount of pressure parents exert on kids.

So I’m split. I don't want to make a rule that nobody can go to / send their kids to a tough no-excuses school - a lot of the parents who do this are poor minorities who think it's their only ticket out of the ghetto, and I don't want to second-guess their understanding of their own situations.

Suffice it to say that I am appropriately nervous about all of this. I would support strong government restrictions on how bad schools (including charter schools) can be, of a sort that I wouldn’t support in some other domain where people are choosing freely. Otherwise, I don’t know what to do other than trust that parents will have something approaching their children’s best interests at heart. I think that either optimizing for results or optimizing for comfort would be better than how things work now, which seem to optimize for amount of time spent in the building and nothing else.


Continuing with jmk789:

The “bathroom pass” complaint is an excellent illustration of a similar kind of tension between order and liberty that seems to be quite common online, especially from people who were well-behaved students and found such tyranny to be unconscionable (I felt much the same way as a student). Let’s walk through what would happen in practice though if libertarian idealist Scott became a teacher.

Teacher Scott has just entered the classroom of 35+ students for his first day at a typical urban public school. The moment the bell rings to begin class, the hands start to go up. Student A: “Mr. Alexander, I gotta go, BAD.” Student B: “Mr. A, I need to go to the bathroom.” Student C: “Can I please go to the bathroom please I really need to go it’s so bad”. Teacher Scott, being a nice guy who’s committed to his libertarian ideals in education, tells all the students they’re welcome to go to the bathroom and that he will never dare to stop them from fulfilling such a basic requirement of nature.

Student A takes off in the direction of the bathroom, but then decides to run up and down the hallways as fast as possible. Student B is off to visit her friend in in-school suspension and waves into the windows of other classrooms along the way, disrupting numerous other classes. Student C goes to the bathroom, but then decides that the paper towel dispensers seem like they’d be fun to tear off the wall and comes back to the classroom armed with plenty of wet crumpled paper towels to throw at other students. Students D and E, now that it’s clear Teacher Scott isn’t going to stop them, decide to ignore the amazing, engaging lesson Teacher Scott is trying to pitch to them and have wandered out of the classroom and are now engaging in some kind of inappropriate conduct in the stairwell.

Now perhaps Teacher Scott is proud of the fact that he’s just unleashed anarchy against the evil prison-like environs of public education in the first five minutes of his time in the classroom, but he’s also not going to be Teacher Scott for much longer. Even the hated teacher’s unions would likely not support a rookie teacher who made life worse for everyone else in the school. This is why, in fact, both the evil public schools and the beloved charters likely share similarly strict bathroom rules as well as other rules governing student behavior that seem absolutely maddening to the well-behaved students, but are in fact there for a reason. One might call them Chesterton's Bathroom Passes. At the $40k a year elite private school though, I’m sure you can get up whenever you like and go to the bathroom.

Scott is making a lot of idealistic assumptions here and I’d respectfully encourage him to spend some time volunteering in or at least visiting local public and charter schools in his neighborhood to see just how much his ideals would match up to reality.

I actually spent a year as a public school teacher (in Japan, but their system is a lot like America’s). I agree with jmk's critique - I briefly tried funner, more freeform lessons, failed, and then did more or less the same thing as everyone else.

I want to emphasize that I'm not saying "teachers are dumb and evil". Teachers are trying to do the best they can in a bad situation (also a few of them are dumb and evil, but you get that in every profession). Nor do I have anything against principals, superintendents, or the Secretary of Education.

It’s definitely true that if you don’t have a strong bathroom pass system in place, kids might use the opportunity to escape. I think the mistake comes several steps earlier, when you started confining kids in a place they were desperate to escape from.

I admit I’m doing the cowardly thing of condemning the existing system, refusing to accept any criticisms because “my reforms are so radical that this problem could never even come up”, then refusing to say what my reforms are. Partly this is because I am cowardly - I’m nervous to shake up the existing system too much in case school teaches some kind of important academia or discipline or something that helps people escape poverty. Partly it’s because I don’t know how to implement this in a democratic society where there’s strong pressure from parents to have exactly the current system.

In a completely utopian society I was building from the ground up, I would want a law that no child over (let’s say) 6 can be involuntarily confined anywhere, any more than any adult can. If a child wants to stay at home, they can stay at home. If they want to wander the streets, they can wander the streets. If they commit a crime, courts can limit their movement, same as if adults commit crimes. Schools get converted to nice community centers where children can spend the day and go to classes if they want. If parents need some time off, they can ask their kids to get out of the house, which would probably (but not necessarily) mean they go to the community center. If children don’t want to go home to their parents, there are other options available, like living at the community center or finding a foster family. Community centers don’t have to take children who are violent or disruptive, but there are some “community centers of last resort” that do, since these kids need somewhere to be too. There are no grades, but some sort of College-Board-like company offers take-whenever-you-like pass-fail tests that certify kids as being educated a certain amount (eg “an eighth-grade education”). Children know what will be on these tests and can study for them however they want. Most jobs will ask for the equivalent of a twelfth-grade education to work there, so children are incentivized to study enough to reach that level. The community centers offer a wide variety of classes aimed at a wide variety of learning styles to make that happen.

Some advantages of this system: children aren’t stuck at home if home is abusive. They aren’t stuck at school if school is abusive. They can study however seems best for them. If they're not getting anything from school, they can “drop out”; if they regret the decision, they can restart at any time, no hard feelings. There are a variety of classes available, including gifted classes, remedial classes, wide-diversity-of-ability-level classes, no-excuses classes, Montessori classes, etc, which students take or don’t take in a way that isn’t completely legible to / controllable by their parents. Nobody has to fret about grades - take the test, if you pass, great, if you fail, take it again next month.

Realistically I want whatever is closest to this but achievable within our current system, which is probably “if you beg really hard you can start a charter school which is 1% different from the public school it shares a building with”.


I enjoyed Oligopsony's comments in the previous incarnation of this blog, so I was happy to see he found his way over here. He says:

Freddie is a mensch, but one concern I have with his vision of socialism is that it’s almost exclusively moralistic. The smart people who run society (unlike Scott, I don’t see him as contesting that they would do so) will graciously look after their dumber brethren, because it’s the tight thing to do.

I think Freddie is right that this is morally right, but I’m much less sanguine that 1) morality alone can persuade here or that 2) even well-motivated managerial authority will not be practically malevolent.

What you need is counter-power, which means a mix of organization and indeed intelligence for self-government and pressing for collective rights. You can be an IQ realist and agree that even say IQ 80 people have this, organized rightly, but I feel like the *gist* of much IQ realism is that no, people who perform poorly on these tests must be ruled by others, and that’s why IQ realism leaves a bad taste in most leftists’ mouths. Certainly that’s the takeaway I get from the Bell Curve, even once you take away the spicy race stuff.

Forget about IQ realism - whether we think of things in terms of IQ or not, how do we ensure that people who just aren't very good at the kind of skills you need to assert and wield power, are equally able to assert and wield power? This sounds kind of paradoxical, but to his credit Oligopsony had an answer ready:

I would like to give this a more thorough answer after some thought, but here are some things that can increase the power of people who don’t pay close attention to politics, hated school, and are in menial jobs, which regardless of what you think about IQ is a significant portion of the population.

1) Circular answer: more unions, more civil society in general, more democracy (where we accept that “are you better off than you were four years ago?” produces better incentives for state managers than any alternative method.) Deprofessionalize activism. This isn’t entirely circular; people can talk to each other about how much work sucks and try to unionize right now, and they’ve done it in the past when the state was even more hostile and information even less available (though tbf civil society was stronger) and even when they fail it will build capacity.

2) Answer that’s paternalist itself (though not necessarily collectively so, since it can achieve mass support): more mandatory meetings. Compulsory voting, conscription into militias (give everyone guns and the training to use them), compulsory Quaker meetings, compulsory PTA meetings, compulsory unionization of all workplaces (and if the union votes to set dues at zero and not go on strike ever, okay, at least that’s what they chose.) Anything that increases capacity while getting each other to talk to each other about their interests.

3) The dodge answer: less lead in gasoline, more schooling again, more whatever you think causes Flynn effects.

4) Less meritocracy, even in your sense. If we segregate people by capacity then we’ll find people with a lot of capacity having more interests in common with each other, and poor communities with fewer leaders in their midst. I think the case for this is stronger the more you think IQ/capacity/whatever you want to call it is highly heritable.

5) Meta answer: I think Taleb is right that IQ doesn’t predict as much as is popularly assumed if you take out clinical populations and look at non-narrowly nerdy problems. IQ may gate understanding of quantum physics or Hegel or whatever the fuck but just be a lot less predictive of things like navigating collective social situations, finding friends, object-level moral reasoning, refusing to stand down for a good cause, and so on, which is most politics that matters. I believe that people that others would down on as dull, that I myself would at least instinctually look down on as dull, are capable of insight and creativity that surprises arrogant nerds like me and most of the other commenters here, especially when it comes to practical, non-nerd shit.

Also, having a more riot-friendly culture, like France. This is one of those things where public discussion has become stupid (a stupid discussion held largely by technically-high-IQ people, mind) because of the effervescent amnesia of the news cycle, with people’s views on this just being a function of who held a riot last, but the important thing is the long-term incentives, not the particular effect of this or that riot, which indeed are often pointlessly counterproductive even when they are for The Right Side, etc.


Joshua writes:

I'm not the best person to make this case, but my impression of the argument against the idea of endorsing charter schools as ways to help at least some kids goes like this:

We have lots of publicly provided goods in society - national defense, mass transit, food inspection, schools, roads, etc. Some of it can be opted out in various ways (mass transit and schools), some less so (national defense). Much of the political dynamic over the last 40 years has involved the conservative view that if you tear down / open up these systems, everyone can choose what they want and will be better off. The liberal response is that approach is a way to dismantle the aspects of society that help the least fortunate, so no. The conservative rejoinder is that public schools are a lost cause, and we should save who we can.

The liberal objections to charter schools is that they represent a deliberate effort to dismantle the common project of public schooling by peeling off exactly the children with parents with the most power and resources, and consigning everyone else to an even worse life because the charter schools drain both money and common political will from the effort to improve them. It is like saying the roads are bad and filled with potholes, so we're going to build a tollways next to it so at least people who can afford to pay will have safe travel. Now if you think that even fixing the roads is a bad idea (i.e. schools are prisons), then exiting to a different path is great, but I don't think that's how most people see it. Liberals think the point is to fix the damn roads, and if only poor people use the roads, they will never be fixed.

The real question is, what are the realistic politics? If you keep charter schools out and force people to attend the public schools, will they improve? If people who can't afford private school and have to use the local public school have to either live with a bad school, or participate in the PTA, run for school board, pay attention to and vote for school levies, will that do the trick? I doubt that has actually worked, and I think liberals have a lot of arguments that conservatives have deliberately starved public education of funds for many ulterior reasons, but I think that is the core issue.

On the other hand, if you fundamentally believe that public primary education is helplessly broken, then this argument misses the point. But a lot of people think that school is a net positive, even for kids, and want it to be as good as it can for as many people as possible.

The purely financial issues seem solvable; if the cost of public education is X, give kids who want charter schools a voucher for 0.75X, and donate the extra 0.25X to the public school system. The charter school will be fine with less money, and every kid who leaves for charter schools will make the public schools better instead of worse.

In terms of non-financial issues, Joshua focuses on concerned parents. I agree this will be an issue, but I'm equally concerned about good students as a resource in themselves. There are studies finding extreme negative effects from having disruptive kids in your class; I'm a little skeptical of this kind of research, but being stuck with unmanageable classmates is definitely no fun. I haven't seen the research, but it wouldn't surprise me if having lots of overachievers in your class was helpful - good role models, inspiration, whatever (see also this comment for some brief discussion of this). So if all the smart kids go to charters and all the dull kids stay in public, the smart kids will do better and the dull kids will do worse. How should we think about this?

The Rawlsian perspective would be that we have to concentrate on helping the least fortunate. Helping the smart kids get a $500K/year finance job instead of a $400K/year one is less important than helping the dull kids get a decent job that can keep a roof over their heads.

The Thielian perspective would be that all progress comes from a tiny minority of elites. Helping the dull kid go from a $15/hour burger flipper to a $16/hour burger flipper is less important than helping the smart kid go from "almost smart enough to cure cancer" to "exactly smart enough to cure cancer". Helping the dull kid go from writing totally valueless fanfiction to mostly valueless fanfiction is less important than helping the smart kid go from writing a pretty good novel to writing a brilliant novel that perfectly expresses the human condition for the ages.

The Vonnegutian perspective is - well, a lot of commenters brought up Harrison Bergeron. (1 , 2) . This is Vonnegut's famous story about a society that enforced equality by mutilating the gifted until they were back down at the same level as everyone else. Forcing kids to spend their childhood sitting in an uncomfortable room where morons shout weird taunts at them as they're trying to study isn't exactly mutilation, but I can see why so many people would make the comparison.

I get even worse Harrison Bergeron vibes when I think about a comment by Konstantin :

One key point is that however bad school is, some home environments are worse. Some parents abuse or neglect their children, some foist adult responsibilities onto kids too young to handle them, some simply don't have the knowledge or tools to teach their children anything at all. There is value in having a place where kids are treated well, and we should make sure that all children that need such a place can go there, regardless of their parents. However, families should be able to opt out if they can show they are providing a better environment than a traditional school.

Konstantin is too nice to put it this way, but think of school as a moderately abusive environment. If you're coming from a great environment, a moderately abusive environment will be worse. If you're coming from a severely abusive environment, a moderately abusive environment might be a life-saving respite. Is it a worthwhile trade? If there were some group of men who were guaranteed to beat their wives only occasionally, and not that hard, would you force women to marry them, since it would save some of them from marrying somebody even worse? I feel bad for giving such emotionally loaded examples - saving the really abused kids is an important goal, and school accomplishes it. I don't know what to think here other than hope for Konstantin's optimistic world where the kids who need school get it and the ones who don't can stay away.


Peter Shenkin describes how things used to work:

We have regressed in providing a range of public schools that cater to multiple tastes and aspirations. When I was growing up in NYC in the '50s & '60s, more such paths were provided. Bronx Science, Stuyvesant and Brooklyn tech educated the technical elite. (I'm not afraid of that term.) The HS of Music and Art trained talented musicians and artists, at least in the "classical" arts and music; but it's worth noting that these days, even places like Juilliard have strong jazz programs and more than a whiff of hip-hop and even country music in the air. We had a HS of Printing Trades, a HS of maritime trades (which was located on a ship moored at a pier, and I envied the kids who went there). There was a HS of Performing Arts for aspiring actors and a HS of Fashion Trades. Except for the "elite"schools, these were called "vocational schools."

And in "ordinary" high schools, there were two kinds of degrees: a "general" degree and an "academic degree", which was intended for the small (compared to now) number of students who expected go on to college. The "general" degree fed a large demand for accountants, clerks, retail employees, firemen, policemen, bus drivers, subway workers, etc. Some of the above jobs are gone, but not all of them. And the office buildings whose corner offices house the 20% (or 10%, anyway) employ large number of plumbers, electrical workers, building engineers, maintenance workers, security guards; and tend to hire outside carpenters and decorators for renovations and outside janitorial agencies for cleanup.

In the buildings where I spent most of my career, the folks who provided these services in the buildings where I worked were really good at what they did. Those who did have college degrees probably didn't need them for their jobs but may have appreciated their ability to have gone. Those who did not probably did not suffer for their lack. I respected them all; or at least, if there were those whom I respected less, it wasn't because they had less education than I did. And quite a few were very smart, college degrees or not.

Cherry-picking students makes sense. Birds of a feather should be allowed to flock together and the flock should be catered to and nurtured. Musicians are going to do better around other musicians, actors around other actors, athletes among other athletes. It is as ridiculous to take a genuinely talented young athlete whose heart is in soccer, hocky, basketball or baseball and make him take algebra (unless he wants to take it), just as it would be ridiculous to send me to a program specializing in any of those sports.

Finally, problem kids: [mentally disabled], or disturbed, or blind, or deaf, were taken out of the regular classrooms and put into special programs. Kids who always acted out and kept others from learning were put into the "600" schools (like, say, PS 612). There is a residue of that still left, but for the most part, "mainstreaming" has taken over, that this to me is a terrible idea. To me, this past diversity of educational paths was humane and generous. My elementary school in the Bronx had a little garden plot fenced off from the recess area. It was very pretty. I once asked a teacher what that was for. It turned out to be a place where the [mentally disabled] kids could learn to plant flowers and maybe vegetables and get some joy of satisfaction in their lives instead of bitter tears of failure. At the age of say, 9, when I learned this, I thought it very sweet.

Thus, a lot of what DeBoer advocates used to be in place. It's true that the job market has changed, and it is also true that all of a sudden in 1957 we threw huge amounts of money into scientific and technical programs in order to "beat the Russians." I actually owe my ability to get through college and grad school with very little debt due my good fortune in being talented (or at least interested) in such things, but somehow it became the thing that now "everybody" should be learning. Not!


Totally tangential to all these issues, but it was in the comments (from Internaut) and I couldn’t resist highlighting it. I haven’t verified if this story is true, so caveat lector:

Perhaps SSC readers know of Harry Nyquist — as reported in The Great Idea Factory, the Bell Labs patent lawyers wanted to know why some people were so much more productive (in terms of patents) than others. After crunching a lot of data, they found that the only thing the productive employees had in common (other than having made it through the Bell Labs hiring process) was that “… Workers with the most patents often shared lunch or breakfast with a Bell Labs electrical engineer named Harry Nyquist. It wasn’t the case that Nyquist gave them specific ideas. Rather, as one scientist recalled, ‘he drew people out, got them thinking.” (Pg. 135)

Internaut says Freddie is valuable in the same way, and I agree. May we all be Harry Nyquists to each other!