Book review: The Cult of Smart, by Fredrik deBoer.
The Cult of Smart is a sporadically thoughtful book about education politics, sometimes rising above tribal politics, and sometimes repeating tired old tribal rants.
The book’s main target of concern is an obsession with academic credentials, and with the financial success which those credentials tend to produce.
Meritocracy needs to brand some people as failures. That’s cruel, pretty much by design. At least to the people striving within it – deBoer doesn’t pay much attention to whether meritocracy better serves citizens / customers.
No Child Left Behind epitomizes an attitude which exacerbates meritocracy: the cult-like belief that every student has the potential to rise to the top of a hierarchy. A hierarchy for which being smart is quite important.
On top of that, many ideologues insist that schools fix the disparities between racial groups.
These expectations are cruel to students who don’t have the talent to be the best at academic learning, and cruel to the teachers who fail to produce results that are barely more realistic than Lake Wobegon.
Should I believe that such a cult has taken nearly full control over schools? I see plenty of hints that something like that is happening, but I don’t see strong evidence. Maybe he’s targeting readers who know enough about modern schools for it to be obvious. It’s plausible enough that I’ll tentatively assume he’s correct.
I found deBoer’s discussion of genetics distracting.
Genes are ostensibly important to his arguments, due to a common myth that any trait which has been caused by genes is immutable, and all other traits are presumed to be under the control of teachers and/or parents. He admits in the epilogue that this myth is inaccurate. Yet his main chapter on the topic asks us to believe that genes cause differences in talent, therefore schools can’t equalize academic achievement.
To see a flaw in this myth, consider vitamin D. For fairly straightforward reasons, dark skinned people in the US are more likely to be deficient in vitamin D. This causes a wide variety of problems, most of which are pretty minor. They could contribute to racial IQ differences.
The genetic influence doesn’t imply that we should give up on fixing those problems. In fact, I suspect that part of why the deficiencies haven’t been fixed is that it’s too easy a problem – there’s little prestige, perceived virtue, or money to be gained from convincing people to take a cheap pill.
Height is an example of a trait that’s influenced by genes, and hard for teachers to influence. Suppose a cult starts demanding that schools fix the problem of graduating students having unequal heights.
You could try pointing to the evidence that height is partly inherited, but it could be a real pain in the ass to marshal enough evidence to convince a skeptic that, no, height isn’t determined purely by some combination of nutrition and motivational lectures.
If I wanted to convince that cult to not hold schools responsible for student heights, I’d forget about genes, and focus more on common sense and on evidence from schools that have tried to equalize student heights.
deBoer is, of course, right to treat academic achievement more like height than like vitamin D, and he does cite other evidence for this position. I’d say that common sense is almost enough by itself, and I wish that deBoer had emphasized that a bit more, and emphasized genes less.
Equality of Outcomes
Height illustrates some of why it’s hard to agree about, and to achieve, equality of outcomes.
There’s likely a lot of sentiment for rejecting any connection between a person’s height and their worth. Yet in practice there’s a large effect of height on perceived worth. E.g. height seems to be one of the most important influences on who gets elected president.
How can Pygmy-Americans achieve equal outcomes with Kenyan-Americans if we’ve got a system, such as democracy, that awards high-status jobs to tall people?
There’s a serious theory saying it would make sense to tax the tall. Yet approximately nobody cares about the egalitarian benefits of that. I’m not too eager to tax the tall (even though I’m fairly short), because I consider equality of outcomes to be a rather low priority. But it sure looks like there are a number of egalitarians who oppose the tax even though it would help their alleged goals.
deBoer wants some moderately expensive government programs. Yet his arguments about why we can afford them seem confused.
He says the US could raise marginal tax rates back to levels of the 1950s. Sigh. Just look at Piketty’s graph of tax revenues by decade, and see that those high rates raised less revenue than do the lower tax rates we’ve had since then.
deBoer thinks the US can just print more money. That’s occasionally a great free lunch, when deflation has caused pointless unemployment. The past 12 years have tempted people to conclude that such a free lunch is normal, but history says it’s fairly uncommon.
None of that is enough to conclude we can’t afford his programs; I’m merely saying that readers should look elsewhere to figure out what we can afford.
First, for eugenics fears – a regime of eugenics would require far more precision in our scientific instruments than we are capable of bringing to bear.
Humans have been selectively breeding other organisms for something like 30,000 years. And Yao Ming seems to be a result of a program that was slightly successful at something like eugenics. Maybe deBoer means something like “the scary versions of eugenics won’t work”?
His long-term goal is a Marxist utopia. People there will want schools, without wanting the competition for credentials that dominates current higher education.
We must move to a vision of human equality based on the equal right of all people to live the good life. We must leave the idea of “deserves” behind.
However, he admits that we first need a period of capitalism and liberal democracy, to provide the affluence that will enable this utopia.
I can imagine that within a few decades our AI or em overlords will be able to provide many parts of his utopia (though I’d rather not bet on whether they’ll want to do so).
But deBoer overlooks key resource constraints. E.g. if we let the Amish be Amish, their population will keep expanding at exponential rates. We can’t create new land at exponential rates. So there’s something unstable here.
I’m sure there’s a decent solution (and we don’t need to solve the population explosion this century), but it won’t be fully compatible with the utopia that deBoer describes.
Will deBoer’s utopia produce much technological progress? If not, is that grounds for rejecting it?
Would the most talented people go into cancer research without some important sense in which doing so makes them worth more?
There may be multiple senses of “worth more” that are good enough: money, Nobel prizes, political power, or number of sexual partners. Those aren’t the same meanings of worth that deBoer means when he talks about people having equal worth.
But curing cancer involves enough tedious, thankless work that it’s hard to motivate people to do it without also generating the pressure to climb a smartness-oriented hierarchy.
It seems valuable to aim for some separation between the meaning of worth that drives cancer research, and the meaning that deBoer likes. Yet as long as we’re plagued with problems such as cancer, we can’t fully eliminate the sometimes cruel pressure for success without condemning some people to cruel death by cancer.
We can, however, make more progress at focusing that pressure on those who can succeed at hard jobs. That is part of deBoer’s message.
Is there a Marxist Utopia Nearby?
Now that I think about the Amish, I’m having trouble figuring out what parts of deBoer’s Marxist utopia are missing from Amish life.
As far as I can tell, Amish youth mostly aim for careers that can be learned by most humans, with little pressure for credentials, and with relatively low risk of being branded a failure, or experiencing financial stress.
I don’t see any direct evidence about the Amish attitude toward any Cult of Smart. But their religious emphasis on humility, and many other hints, suggest attitudes that are pretty close to the opposite of the helicopter-parent attitudes that underlie much of what bothers deBoer.
Suicide rates for the Amish of Lancaster County were 5.5 per 100,000 in 1980, about half that of the general population. Attempts at better estimates of Amish happiness have produced confusing results. Around 85 to 90% of Amish choose to commit to Amish life when they reach adulthood – that says something useful, but inconclusive, about their quality of life.
Would deBoer complain about their limited access to schooling? Maybe, but I don’t know how he’d make a strong argument that they’d be more satisfied if they got more schooling.
How about their limited use of medicine? Amish life expectancy hasn’t quite kept up with the rest of the US, but that seems mostly due to a reluctance to prolong terminally ill lives. By other measures, they sure seem healthy.
But deBoer doesn’t seem to be evaluating medical care by health outcomes. He’s more focused on financial stress due to medical expenses, and job lock-in caused by depending on employers for insurance.
I suppose Amish do have significant job lock-in, possibly almost as constraining as in pre-capitalist societies. Yet I have some difficulty feeling much concern about how this enables their employers(?) to exploit them (I’m a bit unclear whether many Amish have employers).
The evidence on financial stress seems murky. Amish community support systems appear to minimize the stress on any one individual, but the US medical system sometimes creates stress on Amish communities. This aspect of Amish life seems a bit far from utopia, but still noticeably less stressful than what a typical low-income person experiences in the US.
Yet in spite of apparently being closer to deBoer’s utopia than most parts of the US, the Amish aren’t anywhere close to being overwhelmed by people trying to join their culture. If I were having less than average success at handling life in regular US society, I think I’d be very tempted to join the Amish.
Why isn’t there someone with a vision like deBoer’s advocating the Amish approach? Maybe the main reason is that any such person would have already joined an Amish community, and lost interest in the competition for national attention that’s needed to usefully market such a lifestyle?
You can get at least half of the book’s value by reading Scott Alexander’s The Parable of the Talents (H/T deBoer for reminding me of it).
Reading The Cult of Smart provoked me to think new thoughts on this topic. Maybe that’s due to my habit of writing about most non-fiction books that I read, but not about many blog posts. Or maybe it’s because deBoer wrote plenty of wrong but not blatantly thoughtless ideas.
The book was mildly unpleasant to read because it was too political, and 2020 caused me to pay more attention to politics than I’m comfortable with. Some of the book’s political focus was inherent in the topic. Some of it was gratuitous.