The Cult of Smart

I’ve just finished reading a provocative 2020 book about education by one of my favorite political and observational writers, Freddie deBoer. deBoer writes an excellent Substack, has been an influential and perceptive blogger and a presence writing online for many years, has a background in educational assessment, and is quite simply one of the most against-the-grain, thought-provoking writers working today. His articles about education are always interesting, and I regret it took me so long to get around to reading his first book, The Cult of Smart. It didn’t disappoint.

As I wrote about in my last post, the topic of educational equity is one that has become both incredibly influential in my profession, and something that absolutely tied me in knots trying to understand what it is. What frustrated me the most was the disclarity around the term; everywhere basic questions arose whenever I read some crazy new definition of “equity” — and it was as though no one had ever thought to try to answer them. There is, I believe, so much confusion in all of our thinking sometimes about politics and about a education, and that’s why I really appreciate it when a writer grabs the bull by the horns, cuts through the crap, (sometimes) grabs the third rail, and tries to go straight to the heart of the issue to make us all think clearly about what we’re really going for.

Freddie deBoer has always been that type of writer, and he certainly does this in The Cult of Smart.

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What is “Equity” in Education?

This is a first for me: I’ve spent — no joke — weeks researching a long post, gathering information, copying out pages and pages of notes, writing thousands of words, starting and restarting several different drafts . . . and I’m almost more confused than I was when I started.

What topic did this to me?

The topic of equity.

My goal originally was trying to ask: What is equity? And what does it mean in the context of education?

Turns out, there is very little agreement, and very little clarity. It reminds me of a few summers ago when I tried to unravel the roots of proficiency learning in Vermont and . . . I couldn’t do it. I just kept finding more and more roots the further down I went. Equity is similar. It’s just amazingly complex, this massive receptacle, this big moving target.

What I tried to do was to research as many definitions of equity as I could within education. But there was little agreement, and little in the way of consistent examples provided.

I think what I want to do then is quickly summarize some very, very general findings. Maybe this will help me to make sense of just what equity is . . .

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Rousseau’s Emile — This Time I Got It

“Let him see this necessity in things, never in the caprice of men.”

I had been thinking to myself that I ought to return again to Emile.  I have twice now attempted to read it, each time getting a little farther, but never pushing past the third of five books.  It is a long work – my no-nonsense (possibly counterfeit? – there doesn’t even appear to be a publisher’s name on it – !) edition clocks in at a dense, dense 428 pages. As I’ve written about before, it’s not only long, it’s frustratingly un-structured, digressive.  It is also very, very rich – there is so much to absorb on each page.  I got quite a lot from it even in my previous two aborted readings, but I had a feeling there was still some deeper key to unlocking what was really going on that I just wasn’t grasping.  I knew that I needed to return to Emile again because there was more there.  Over the last few weeks, I did.

What got me interested in it again this summer was actually my attempt to read The Social Contract.  Last winter I’d read and written about Rousseau’s second discourse, a truly fascinating and striking critique of the natural rights perspective of Hobbes and Locke, and I thought perhaps The Social Contract would follow on that work, by describing a way of moving from the state Rousseau described toward something approaching a more fair, representative, more “natural” society.  But as I started reading The Social Contract, it felt strangely disconnected from the Discourse, almost more of a manual for political society that a direct answer to the remarkable challenges raised in the Discourse, and I began to realize that it was actually Emile that was a more direct response to the earlier questions.

Here are my thoughts from a third reading.

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Susan Neiman: The Dangers of Tribalism

In my last post, I mentioned that I’d recently read two works in the same style, and the second one is the one I’ll write about here.

Susan Neiman’s book, Woke is Not Left, is a critique of “woke” ideas from a philosopher and academic who is unabashedly a lifelong leftist.  Neiman writes about how she and others she knows feel alienated from modern far-left progressive ideals, and in this book, she explains why.  The problem that alarms her is the way that the progressive left of this era has “abandoned the philosophical ideas that are central to any left-wing standpoint” (2).  She identifies and structures her book around three of these ideas:  a commitment to universalism over tribalism, a distinction between justice and power, and a belief in the possibility of progress.  All three characteristics represent key differences between the woke movement – which she says has rejected “the epistemological frameworks and political assumptions inherited from the Enlightenment” – and the traditional left, which embraces the Enlightenment ideals of universalism, justice, and progress.  “Contemporary rejections of the Enlightenment usually go hand in hand without much knowledge of it” (9).

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The Liberals are Coming

One trend I’m happy about over the past six months or so has been increase of critiques of progressive philosophies of the far left on the part of – not the right – but the center-left, and even from the left itself.  Readers of this blog know that I have spent time trying to understand and to flesh out the difference between, for example, critical thinking and critical theory, and to identify for myself a coherent philosophy of education amidst a profession that, at its highest levels, seems to have been captivated by a theory – Critical Theory – that I believe has major shortcomings.  

As I’ve written before, I think that critical thinking – and the associated liberal science, fallibilism, empiricism, and the like – is a far more coherent and far more promising goal and approach than what I’ve begun calling Criticality – a slippery word from the first that, in its various guises (critical pedagogy, critical (fill in the blank theory, etc.) represents a combination of postmodern skepticism, Marxist conflict theory, and identity-based political activism.  As I’ve written before, I think Criticality is a valuable lens, but it is just one lens.  It needs to be named, labeled, and, as best as it can be, tested by critical thinkers and old-fashioned (small-L) liberals to see if its claims are logically consistent and true.  I’ve often had the sense over the past six years that what needs to happen is for all of the far-left Critical Theory – the “woke” movement, in shorthand – to finally come under the microscope of good, old-fashioned liberal science – that is to say, for Criticality to be tested against real philosophers and real inquiry.  It’s time for the real liberals to get ahold of this stuff and to see what it’s actually made of.

Recently, I’ve read two outstanding examples of this – Alan Sokal’s journal article, which I’ll describe below, and philosopher Susan Neiman’s Left is Not Woke, which I’ll analyze in a subsequent blog post.


The recent journal article by Alan Sokal is called “The Implicit Epistemology of White Fragility” and represents to me exactly what academic journals should be doing right now: slowing down the work of a popular and influential critical theorist and teasing out the philosophical grounding of her thinking in order to evaluate it.  

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John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty”: The Importance of Free Expression

This winter, as I have written about previously, I had been on a quest to read a number of the classics of western political thought, fueled by my desire to identify for myself a coherent understanding of the type of political goals that our society – and by extension, our schools – should be aiming toward.  For a variety of reasons that quest has been more difficult this spring than it was during the winter, but nevertheless I have continued it, albeit slowly, with my most recent (partial) reading.

John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty” represents a unique place in the western liberal canon.  It was only written in 1859 – almost 200 years after John Locke’s most famous work: closer to Kennedy and Reagan than to Locke or Hobbes.  As a result, it’s a book that takes up its starting point as the period of post-Lockean natural rights-based democratic rule.  Mill kicks of the first chapter by establishing this fact: the notion of self-rule being the dominant mechanism in the societies toward which he is aiming his message in this book.  At first, he writes, self-rule seems immune from tyranny; after all, you can’t be tyrannical over yourself, right?  But you can have – as de Tocqueville knew – a tyranny of the majority, the repression of the minority on the part of one’s fellow citizens – a repression based in formal law and informal social coercion.  

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Norm-Referenced vs. Criterion-Referenced Grading: A Key Window into Our Ed Values

One especially useful way to think about standards-based grading – and its various offshoots (outcomes-based learning, competency-based education, proficiency-based learning [as we call it in Vermont]) is the distinction between criterion-referenced assessments and norm-referenced assessments. It’s also a reveal way to examine into what we value about education.

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Does John Dewey Care About Subject Matter?

Last week, writing my post about John Dewey’s morality, which frankly has completely disappeared from my brain even after I spent so much time trying to understand it, I made a comparison that I wanted to revisit.  I was talking about the big difference that emphasis, not factual interpretation, can have on a thinker’s import.  I was comparing Burke and Dewey – two thinkers who both ostensibly value a balance between impulse and custom (to use Dewey’s phrases), but whose contrasting emphases make all the difference: Dewey’s faith in impulse and scientific deliberation to refresh and improve society against Burke’s faith in custom and institutions to buffet against human impulse.  

I was also making the point that although I agreed with Dewey’s point that moral knowledge can be generated the same way as scientific knowledge, I thought it important that Dewey was most interested in repeating this point in order to steer us away from dogma, rather than to focus on what this wisdom of the past (on which we can build) includes.  

Specifically, I compared Dewey’s stance here to his stance in his educational writing – specifically his emphasis on skills and process over traditional subject matter.  

This is all in the context of a broader critique that I was writing about pragmatism: first, that it’s relativist; second, that it is based on a hyperbolic vision of change; third, that its vision of growth for growth’s sake is strange; fourth, that it’s a method but not a goal, a corrective philosophy, but not a foundational one.

Dewey was famously critiqued for starting an entire movement that was hostile to traditional subject matter; he has also been well-defended against these charges by critics who seem even more knowing.  In fact, I have read this apparent defense of Dewey probably more times than I’ve read the attacks on him.  I am thinking here of E.D. Hirsch’s surprising defense of Dewey in his 1996 The Schools We Need.  I myself have read and written a lot about Dewey – most of it positive – and yet I’m not sure I ever remember him talking about subject matter or specific content.  

So this made me curious – is Dewey agnostic on content, as his critics allege?  Or is he a supporter of some content, and I just hadn’t picked up on it?  

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Dewey’s Morality: Human Nature and Conduct

I have just finished reading John Dewey’s Human Nature and Conduct – one of the toughest books I have ever found my way through.  I had naively thought that being an experienced reader of Dewey I’d be able to pick things up right away.  Oh, no!  While I found the introduction reasonably comprehensible, I found the lengthy first section almost impossible to understand.  It was replete with the usual Deweyisms: ludicrously abstract/eccentric terminology, quasi-evolutionary jargon, passive sentence construction, unweeded syntax, downright unclear referents in sentences, ambiguous language, repetitiveness, even digressiveness.  I almost gave up reading the book after struggling through this first section.  A description I read in some secondary research on Dewey kept sticking in my head: his writing is like the cannon fire from a nearby town – you can tell there is something important going on, but it’s impossible to say just what.  Fortunately the rest of the book went much better and I did finish, but I was deeply frustrated by the disclarity of his writing, which I sometimes began to associate with the disclarity of his ideas, or at least with a certain coyness about stating just what he really means.

That said, I learned a lot.  I think my main takeaway is that while I like pragmatist ethics in part, I still find this approach incomplete.


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Pragmatism:  Provisional Truth, or Relativism?

Pragmatism:  Provisional Truth, or Relativism?

I’ve just started reading Dewey again.  This time – “Human Nature and Conduct.” Given my current interest in all things “human nature,” this seemed like the right choice.  Reading this book – which I’ll write about more at length once I’m done – has given me a new perspective on Dewey the Pragmatist.  It has got me thinking about Dewey beyond his educational views, which are important, but seeming him more in his philosophic context.  And, frankly, it has me asking some new questions about him: For instance, is Dewey a relativist, a historicist?  Does he really believe in truth, or even the scientific approximation of truth – or just a shallow notion of “whatever works”?  Does he, as a Pragmatist, believe that reality is so changeable that truth is therefore changeable?  I’ve long admired Dewey’s educational thought, but now I’ve started wondering:  Are there epistemic or political underpinnings of his educational philosophy that should concern me?

It all started a month or two ago as I was reading a book about the major challenges to American constitutional thinking.  In one chapter, devoted to Pragmatism, there was an extensive analysis of Dewey’s challenge to the Lockean tradition of natural rights.  According to the author of the chapter, James H. Nichols, JR., Dewey’s political goal is not Hobbesian self-preservation, or Lockean protection of sanctified natural right, but the ideal of growth for its own sake: more testing, hypothesizing, adapting to the environment, and improving.  Growth leading to further growth, as Dewey put it in many of his best educational writings.  Nichols equates this with Aristotle’s definition of the good life as activity, but without the notion of a completed, perfected state of the ideal man that such activity may attain, and which accompanies Aristotle’s conception of humans as a distinctive and unchanging species with fulfillable ideals.  For Dewey, it really is about the process, since there’s no ultimate aim, no final end point, no ideal “good man” or “good life” that one can aspire to, other than the fairly loosely-defined one of experimentalism and pragmatic problem solving, which is by definition of-the-moment, and therefore historicist (the ideal conduct in one era is necessary different than that in another one because times and situations change).

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