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.

The basic premise of the book is that American culture worships intelligence — which deBoer often calls “talent” — academic success, being “smart” — over other characteristics. The problem is that –and here is where deBoer wades into controversial ground — according to scientific research, a great deal of our intelligence is genetically inherited. We are not in fact the “blank slates” that educational institutions of all political stripes would have us all believe. deBoer thinks it’s unfair and ruinous to too many students that we act as though if they just worked harder, they could succeed in traditional academic classes at the same rate as their erstwhile more-able peers. For deBoer, intelligence is largely just another inherent characteristic we are born with and which we cannot change — akin to skin color or height. Given this, he thinks it’s hypocritical of the political left, on which he counts himself, to treat intelligence as something we can fundamentally alter about ourselves through effort and hard work, rather than as an unchangable genetic reality on the basis of which should not unduly determine our life outcomes. Yet too many on the left, in deBoer’s view, worship in the “cult of smart.” Instead, we must acknowledge the scientific reality of inherited genetic intelligence — which deBoer is always careful to add is individual and unique, not shaped in any way by one’s race or ethnicity — and use this to confront our hypocritical blank slateism in order to not only better educate our students, but in order to create a fairer society.

Here deBoer is especially perceptive on the disclarity of our educational goals, and also especially good about making immediate connections between our educational goals and their related political goals. In his view, we say we really want greater equality (or perhaps, today, “equity”), but in reality what we really are pursuing is meritocracy, which deBoer says is incommensurate with meaningful equality (in fact, it’s a generator of inequality). Much of our educational reform rhetoric sounds on the surface to be promoting greater equality of outcomes — for instance, the push to get more students in charter school lotteries into a “good” school. But in fact, what these advocates are really asking for is greater social mobility — for their chosen students to move up the educational ladder. But this in fact implies that other deserving students will not get into good schools instead. Anytime we wish that a certain group of students start achieving to a higher level relative to peers, this means other students will be moving down the rankings. Another useful distinction deBoer makes is between “absolute” learning (in which we learn more, objectively) and “relative” learning (in which we learn more relative to our peers). Again, deBoer notes our hypocrisy: we say we want *all* children to learn more, but what we really mean is that we want relative learning: we want certain groups or students to catch up to others. Here deBoer cites some interesting statistics to demonstrate that absolute learning has actually increased steadily in American schools, but he believes our schools are still considered “failures” by and large because we have not increased the relative learning — for instance between our students and those of other countries on international tests such as the PISA, or between different groups of American students. Anytime, he reminds us, that we talk about educational or achievement “gaps,” we’re talking about relative learning. Progressive reformers who want to end race gaps or racial educational “inequity” are really only asking that children of all races have the same opportunity to rise as anyone else — but this implies that there are still just as many students who fall. Yes, they’re perhaps evenly spread across races, but they’re still losers in our educational, social, political, and economic systems of competitions. Ultimately chasing relative learning as a goal implies one of two things, both of which are bad: either you’re aiming for all of our students to achieve at the same outcome (which is impossible), or you’re merely endorsing an underlying social and political vision of social mobility / meritocracy that by definition leaves many people behind.

Here deBoer supports his argument with a fascinating thought experiment that really cuts through so much of the hazy thinking I see in the debate around educational “equity.” He asks us to imagine a day sometime in the future when we have in fact “closed” all meaningful race and gender gaps in education, or those of any other ascriptive characteristic. Then we’re left with true meritocracy — true equality of opportunity. Each child is free to make just what they wish for themselves. But given the unequal natural ability inherent in individual students, much of it largely based, as deBoer has argued, on genetic inheritance — we will still have dramatic inequality. What we will find is “a rigid hierarchy of talent that constrains individuals as effectively as race and gender constrains groups now” (162). Because natural ability is such a determining factor, and because there is no easy way to mitigate for it, “equality of opportunity is an unrealizable dream” (162).

But isn’t this a fine system — an educational system that is one day free of any bias toward ascriptive characteristics, a system that rewards only ability? As long as a reasonably similar number of people of all demographic groups — the ones who are similarly talented and hard-working — achieve and prosper — and others of all groups simply don’t — isn’t that about the best system that we can ask for?

Not for deBoer. And it is here that I give him real credit for not just sitting back and being content to criticize, but for proposing his own solution. This sentence in particular stopped me cold: “Rather than working to develop a system of greater mobility, or of greater equality of opportunity, I believe in a far simpler, more humane, and actually more achievable goal: equality of economic and social outcomes” (157). Here deBoer is saying out loud what I believe many people won’t: he wants true equality of outcomes. I recall when Kamala Harris posted a controversial tweet in 2020 calling for greater “equity” and labeling equity as when “everyone ends up in the same place,” many conservatives took her to task for promoting communism. I don’t believe that is what she was doing — I think she was trying to essentially say what deBoer was saying — she wanted everyone of different races who share an ability level to come out in the same place. She wanted equality of opportunity, defined as social mobility and meritocracy. But that conservative caricature of “equity” — equality of outcomes — that’s exactly what deBoer is proposing, and he is calling our bluff by telling us that if we really mean to take the question of equality — real equality — seriously, we need to not just reform but dramatically restructure our political system. “[T]o truly reconcile our egalitarian impulses with the reality of genetic predisposition, we will have to remake society from top to bottom” (164).

Earlier in the book a few times, deBoer had labeled himself a “socialist,” and I thought perhaps that was just political signaling, or a kind of rhetorical stance allowing him to critique the left from the left, but it’s not. He actually spends an entire chapter toward the end of the book outlining his political and educational vision of honest-to-goodness socialism, and explaining why it is a better alternative than liberal capitalism / meritocracy.

Actually, before he outlines his favored socialist prescriptions, he seems to admit that what he’s going to tell us later about this dramatic change isn’t really possible, so he throws a chapter of “limited reforms” 165) at us. Most of them are standard political-left fare: universal childcare and afterschool care, eliminating charter schools, Medicare for all, student loan forgiveness, Universal Basic Income. Then he has some provocative, unorthodox ideas: lowering the drop-out age to 12, loosening academic standards, for instance. Then in the final seven pages he describes “genuine socialism” — the actual equality of outcomes that he believes comprises true equality, and the only true way to kill the “cult of smart.”

I’ll be honest: The socialist prescription he describes struck me on a page-by-page, sentence-by-sentence basis as nothing short of ridiculous and implausible, for all the reasons that true socialism (which in his description sounds a lot like communism) always sounds implausible. I knew what I was in for when deBoer dismisses “human nature” (which he puts in scare quotes) as merely “a construct whose boundaries are defined by whatever is convenient at the moment” (229). For a writer who has just spent several hundred pages describing to us why we need to take seriously the notions of inherited characteristics, that’s a puzzling dismissal of inherited and shared biological characteristics. Well, then. The rest of his description is more of the same.

But again — I really appreciate his boldness and frankness in calling our bluff as to what true equality really entails — not that of opportunity, but of outcomes — and of taking that to its logical conclusion in a socialistic system. And I also really appreciate his understanding of how educational visions are always underlaid by political visions — he really cuts through a lot of BS by flatly stating that any educational system in a capitalistic society is always going to generate inequality.

Let’s be clear, deBoer is aiming his argument at the left; he is arguing first that the left is fooling itself about what it’s going for, and second that, if they really were thinking clearly, they would — like the unborn participant behind John Rawl’s veil of ignorance — choose socialist equality of outcomes, even in a society free of all ascriptive discrimination, given the imbalance in inherited talent, and the link between natural talent and success.

That said, I disagree with deBoer’s Rawlsian argument. I simply don’t think that’s true that humans would choose socialism if they thought more clearly. Instead, I think humans would believe that the costs of socialism would be too high, that they’d want to gamble that they would do well in such a society; they would make all of the classic Smith-ian and Lockean arguments in favor of the foresight, efficiency, and prosperity-creation of markets, and they would make the argument that surely markets can be mitigated by judicious regulation and careful redistribution to cushion the blows of inequality — while keeping in place the generative power of incentives.

Then there is the matter of deBoer’s conception of “talent.” It struck me, on this first reading, that he often seemed to use the word “talent” as a stand-in for the genetic inheritance of intelligence — IQ, ability to reason quickly, etc. But surely talent — that which creates material, social, or political success — is comprised of far more than simple intelligence. I think we worship “smart” less than we worship “success” — especially self-made. And there is so much hostility to traditional notions of intelligence coursing through the American bloodstream — we deride “book smarts” in favor of a kind of “street smarts” — charisma, the ability to read people, persistence, ambition, and even competitiveness — which Americans often revere precisely because it (not pure intelligence) seems to lead to economic and material success. I get deBoer’s point about our veneration of the Harvard graduate and the upper-middle class creative types, but there’s still a lot of resentment toward those people, and there are still so, so many American success stories of people who haven’t attended the Ivy League, and in many ways, these are more roundly celebrated.

Then there is the question of to what extent intelligence is in fact inherited. I just didn’t feel as though deBoer really fleshed this section out. He’s often vague about just what inherited behavioral traits really means (again, much more than basic intelligence — itself a complex notion — contributes to success and well-being) — he often labels the whole notion “talent” without describing in detail just what he means and to what extent all of this is in fact inherited. Then there’s the question of to what extent the twin studies and genome studies really do point toward the supremacy of genetics in determining intelligence — something that (per Dan Willingham’s book, Why Don’t Students Like School, which I’ve just started) is far less conclusive than deBoer, who is not an expert in the field like Willingham, suggests it is. It’s complex, but it’s not settled science.

Then there is the question of to what extent intelligence is fixed or changeable. This is a question of mindsets and beliefs which is very familiar to most educators (the “growth mindset” was a big reform term last decade in schools), but one which deBoer seems to largely gloss over; in his view, what matters is the relative fixity of intelligence (and which becomes more of a regression to the genetic mean as we age) and that it is largely determined by your genes — an interpretation that Willingham strongly rejects. deBoer mentions the Flynn Effect, for instance — an increase in IQ scores for the population over time — and nods to the notion that this may demonstrate the effect of environments, but he does not take this to mean that specific local environments (such as schools!) can increase intelligence — only that it’s wide, society-wide environmental factors that effect our society as a whole, raising everyone’s intelligence level somewhat equally. Again, this appears to be the opposite conclusion that Willingham draws.

If anything, it feels as though deBoer skates over this issue, taking intelligence to be fairly fixed, fairly well determined by inheritance, and fairly well just another “unchangeable” inherited characteristic, just like race or ethnicity, in order to buttress his broader critique of the Left’s hypocritical worship of this single innate and unchangeable component of one’s identity.

It’s always hard to know what to do with these arguments in favor of heritability, as an educator. I love the cut-through-the-mindless-Blank-Slatism aspect of deBoer’s thought, but even though he doesn’t explicitly suggest a kind of biological determinism, he doesn’t exactly highlight the importance of the role of schools to nurture and foster and most importantly improve students’ outcomes. That’s just not his focus here, so that’s certainly hard to know just what to do with as a teacher myself.

But it’s almost as though he doesn’t really need any of that to make a compelling point. Nature versus nurture debates aside, it’s clearly impossible to get all students to achieve at the exact same level (true equality of outcomes); even if they did, American colleges would still find a way to act as a sorting mechanism to separate the absolute cream of the crop from the regular cream. So too would competitive jobs — and everything else about our competitive market economy. Honestly, so would high schools, in all likelihood; they’d surely have to find some way to rank or sort even an otherwise homogenous group of students (this was certainly the case with my high school, a private school full of entirely high-achieving students that nevertheless had tracked classes and many opportunities for extra achievement). So it doesn’t matter whether a child succeeds based on nature or based on nurture — we’re still in a place, as deBoer points out, that’s going to ask schools to select winners and losers — while at the same time castigating them for not producing meaningful equality (and then not being clear whether they’re describing equality of outcome or equality of opportunity!).

And the nature/nurture stuff doesn’t matter either for his memorable thought experiment, for the same reason as above — even if we get rid of all identity-based achievement “gaps,” there will still be (in any realistic setting) major gaps *within* these groups based on some mixture of intelligence, family background, environment, hard work, etc., etc. Again, it all leads back to our social ideal of meritocracy, a system that guarantees someone will go up and someone will go down, and which therefore by definition precludes equality of outcome and which instead actively generates inequality. Any time we talk about “leveling the playing field,” we’re describing a contest that someone *will lose.* Sure, we can try to make it more “fair,” but still someone *will lose.*

That’s where deBoer is admirably clear, and admirably brave in actually daring to say what needs to be said: either we’re in favor of a kind of halfway equality — equality of opportunity — embodied in a meritocracy that selects winners and losers, or we need to change the system to something that guarantees (what he considers) true equality — equality of outcomes — by advancing real, live, true socialism.

It’s a great book, a great argument, and while I disagree completely with the solutions, I really appreciated deBoer’s analysis and clarity and courage.