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The Cult of Smart

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The Cult of Smart: How Our Broken Education System Perpetuates Social Injustice
by Fredrik deBoer
All Points Books, 2020
276 pages

What is the Cult of Smart? According to Fredrik deBoer, who has been for much of his adult life an educator,

It is difficult to overstate how thoroughly the collegiate arms race dominates the life of ambitious teenagers. Young people invest manic effort in their scrambles up the academic ladder, and cannot avoid their culture’s insistence that this is all that matters, that to fail to achieve academically is to ruin your own life and to give up on your dreams…they hear it in the causal way that intelligence is over and over again equated with overall human value. This is the Cult of Smart. (p. 5)

Is this true? No doubt for some students academic success exceeds all else in value, and to fail to be admitted to an elite university, ideally among the Ivy League, is a fate hardly to be borne, but surely Americans value many other things besides academic “smarts.” Aren’t athletes, entertainers, and successful entrepreneurs admired for their various achievements rather than for their grade point averages at top schools? Many years ago Robert Nozick wrote a paper on “Why Intellectuals Hate Capitalism,” and his answer was that intellectuals excel in school but must face the fact, which they resent, that those they regard as intellectual inferiors do far better financially than they manage to. A top professor in the humanities may earn over $200,000 a year, and a few graduates from Harvard and Yale Law Schools over $1,000,000, but the members of the Kardashian family, no Einsteins, are worth enormously more.

Though deBoer exaggerates the importance of the pursuit of academic success, he makes some very useful points about education. The government spends vast amounts of money on educational programs that aim to give “equal opportunity” to those deemed disadvantaged, but there is little or no evidence that these programs achieve anything. For example,

Few educational initiatives are treated with as much unrestrained optimism as pre-kindergarten, or pre-K, academic programs that serve children from ages three to five who are too young to take part in the public school system….Unfortunately, pre-K does not have nearly the revolutionary impact that its proponents often claim….There’s similar bad news when it comes to afterschool programs, which are designed to give students safe, academically enriching places to stay after school while their parents are still at work….It seems neither pre-K nor afterschool programs can be justified on the basis of the research record. (pp. 165–67)

Not only are these programs without much effect: the point extends more generally. Academic success to a large extent rests on innate abilities, and schools by comparison have little impact. The author rejects what he calls “plasticity of outcome,” the view that “there are truly no limits to how much education molds students” (p. 87). To the contrary, deBoer says, behavioral genetics firmly establishes the innatist position. As a Marxist in good standing, he hastens to assure us that he rejects racism: it is not innate racial differences, but innate individual differences in academic ability, which he accepts. He concludes that “[e]quality of opportunity, in light of our modern understanding of the world, is impossible. It’s a dream that can’t be realized in a world where different individual human beings have profoundly different academic potential” (p. 162).

We need to recognize, the author goes on, that higher education is not for everybody. Some teenagers will gain nothing from high school, and they should be allowed to drop out at the age of twelve.

The simple fact of the matter is that not everyone is meant for school, for reasons of desire as much as ability…there will always be a portion of adolescents who have no interest in continuing formal schooling, and forcing them to do so not only impinges on their freedom but wastes time, energy, and resources better spent on those who want to learn. (p. 170)

Employers often rely on credentials from universities, especially from institutions of high rank, as a proxy for intelligence. Firms are often forbidden by law to administer intelligence tests directly, but if you have graduated from Harvard, you must be smart. Accordingly, students from Harvard do much better in their careers than graduates from lower-ranking universities, but this does not show, deBoer suggests, that gaining entrance to Harvard is the road to success. The causation goes the other way. Harvard and other top-ranking universities take great pains to admit students whose test scores and other qualifications indicate their innate ability, and that is why their graduates have higher success rates than others. The author is no opponent of higher education. Far from it: he defends universities as places of learning. But the pursuit of degrees as a way to show superiority to competitors on the job market is wasteful and unnecessary.

Some readers may be inclined to say, “If this is Marxism, it is a Marxism we can live with.” But deBoer does not propose to get the government out of education and allow the free market to proceed unhindered by the false goal of equal opportunity. He recognizes unequal ability but thinks it should not affect how much money people make. People do not deserve their superior intelligence any more than they deserve other “natural assets.” These arise from “moral luck” and this should not be the basis of superior economic position.

But in the great sorting system of our society, in the progression through school and the rewards and opportunities afforded there, I believe we should fully recognize the vagaries of chance. With our contemporary understanding of how profoundly our genetic heritage shapes our outcomes, it’s past time that we tear down a system of human reward that is based on a naïve blank-slate philosophy. (p. 153)

DeBoer appeals to the “veil of ignorance” of John Rawls. If we didn’t know our own abilities, wouldn’t we choose a social system that made the position of the worst off as good as possible, rather than one that allowed those of higher abilities to seek as much as they could, without regard for the poor? After all, when we exit the veil, we might turn out to be among the less able. The author thus favors, in ideal circumstances, economic equality. At present, we should approach this goal as closely as we now can through high taxes on the rich and massive aid programs to the poor.

To cite Mises and Rothbard in opposition to this would leave deBoer unmoved, but his proposals can be found wanting by using the veil of ignorance to which he appeals. Rawls recognizes that if inequalities benefit the worst off, the resulting situation is better than equality. That is the point of his “difference principle.” Indeed, Rawls goes further. If you prefer equality to a situation in which others having more than you makes you better off, you are irrational. (There are some complications to this that I shall here pass by.) DeBoer would, I am sure, deny that the free market does make the poor better off than the redistributionist programs he favors, but he does not support his claims with careful argument. He conjures into existence with a wave of a hand the money to pay for these programs. This is what socialist morality requires, so they must be affordable and beneficial! Many of us will find this insufficient.


Contact David Gordon

David Gordon is Senior Fellow at the Mises Institute and editor of the Mises Review.

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