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The Cult of Smart: How Our Broken Education System Perpetuates Social Injustice

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Leftist firebrand Fredrik deBoer exposes the lie at the heart of our educational system and demands top to bottom reform. Everyone agrees that education is the key to creating a more just and equal world, and that our schools are broken and failing. Preposed reforms variously target incompetent teachers, corrupt union practices, or outdated curricula, but no one acknowledge Leftist firebrand Fredrik deBoer exposes the lie at the heart of our educational system and demands top to bottom reform. Everyone agrees that education is the key to creating a more just and equal world, and that our schools are broken and failing. Preposed reforms variously target incompetent teachers, corrupt union practices, or outdated curricula, but no one acknowledges a scientifically-proven fact that we all understand intuitively: academic potential varies between individuals, and cannot be dramatically improved. In The Cult of Smart, educator and outspoken leftist Fredrik deBoer exposes this omission as the central flaw of our entire society, which has created and perpetuated an unjust class structure based on intellectual ability. Since cognitive talent varies from person to person, our education system can never create equal opportunity for all. Instead, it teaches our children that heirarchy and competition are natural, and that human value should be based on intelligence. These ideas are counter to everything that the left believes, but until they acknowledge the existence of individual cognitive differences, progressives remain complicit in keeping the status quo in place. This passionate, voice-driven manifesto demands that we embrace a new goal for education: equality of outcomes. We must create a world that has a place for everyone, not just the academically talented. But we’ll never achieve this dream until the Cult of Smart is destroyed. A Macmillan Audio production from All Points Books


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Leftist firebrand Fredrik deBoer exposes the lie at the heart of our educational system and demands top to bottom reform. Everyone agrees that education is the key to creating a more just and equal world, and that our schools are broken and failing. Preposed reforms variously target incompetent teachers, corrupt union practices, or outdated curricula, but no one acknowledge Leftist firebrand Fredrik deBoer exposes the lie at the heart of our educational system and demands top to bottom reform. Everyone agrees that education is the key to creating a more just and equal world, and that our schools are broken and failing. Preposed reforms variously target incompetent teachers, corrupt union practices, or outdated curricula, but no one acknowledges a scientifically-proven fact that we all understand intuitively: academic potential varies between individuals, and cannot be dramatically improved. In The Cult of Smart, educator and outspoken leftist Fredrik deBoer exposes this omission as the central flaw of our entire society, which has created and perpetuated an unjust class structure based on intellectual ability. Since cognitive talent varies from person to person, our education system can never create equal opportunity for all. Instead, it teaches our children that heirarchy and competition are natural, and that human value should be based on intelligence. These ideas are counter to everything that the left believes, but until they acknowledge the existence of individual cognitive differences, progressives remain complicit in keeping the status quo in place. This passionate, voice-driven manifesto demands that we embrace a new goal for education: equality of outcomes. We must create a world that has a place for everyone, not just the academically talented. But we’ll never achieve this dream until the Cult of Smart is destroyed. A Macmillan Audio production from All Points Books

30 review for The Cult of Smart: How Our Broken Education System Perpetuates Social Injustice

  1. 5 out of 5

    James

    I received an advance copy of THE CULT OF SMART by Fredrik deBoer from St. Martin’s Press and agreed to provide a review. I did not care for THE CULT OF SMART. The first eight chapters make the case that humans are individuals with different abilities (some of them inherited from their parents) followed by one chapter calling for the Marxist revolution. None of this is groundbreaking nor enlightening. When I agreed to review this work, I knew the author was a self proclaimed “far-leftist,” which I I received an advance copy of THE CULT OF SMART by Fredrik deBoer from St. Martin’s Press and agreed to provide a review. I did not care for THE CULT OF SMART. The first eight chapters make the case that humans are individuals with different abilities (some of them inherited from their parents) followed by one chapter calling for the Marxist revolution. None of this is groundbreaking nor enlightening. When I agreed to review this work, I knew the author was a self proclaimed “far-leftist,” which I am not, although I have found many interesting and novel concepts in books written by far-left authors, and the question of intelligence distribution, especially with respect to reforming the US education system, is a long-held interest of mine, so I was hoping to find a new way of looking at the subject from a different perspective. Unfortunately, this book delivered nothing new. Yes, intelligence is heritable (this is not a new revelation) but my strong belief is we are neither captives nor assured beneficiaries of an inherited high intelligence. (Attend a few Mensa meetings to prove that last part if there’s doubt.) That some people have abilities others don’t should be a surprise to no one. Yes, the US education system is broken, possibly beyond repair. For one thing, and this is something on which the author and I agree, standardized achievement tests and the resulting “teach to the test” mentality these tests engender, are more than a waste of resources; they negatively affect the students they purport to help. Again, though, nothing new or revealing here. I also agree with the author that luck plays a much larger role in everyone’s life than they are likely to realize or admit. I disagree, however, that it is society’s responsibility or role to compensate the unlucky. We have to play the hand we’re dealt. The final chapter does nothing to suggest ways to fix the education system and address differences in intelligence. Instead it repeats Bernie Sanders’ campaign talking points and calls for a revolution and a complete destruction of the society and culture of the United States in favor of a society right out of Star Trek. I won’t go into a critique of the Marxist thinking that drives this call to arms for the simple reason that I try not to attack others’ religions, and Marxist socialism is indeed a religion, replacing belief in a wise, benevolent, all-powerful Deity with a wise, benevolent, all-powerful State. While the nature and existence of a Deity can be debated endlessly, humankind has repeatedly proved itself to be less than wise, benevolent or all-powerful. Finally, some detailed problems with the actual book: First, the build up is much too long, with a denouement that left me wishing I’d paid for the book so I could demand my money back. Second, the author displays a high degree of ineptitude with statistics and their use. Third, occasional grammar errors occur, as in chapter nine where the author writes, “I am viscerally opposed to means testing, in general; means-tested programs are less politically defensible, as they necessarily help less people....” I believe the author meant to write “fewer people” since he spent the preceding eight chapters arguing against the existence of lesser people. Fourth, throughout the book, the author simplifies and makes blanket statements about what others believe or want, especially conservatives and centrist liberals. This is a common tactic, but not very useful if true understanding of others’ perspectives is the desired goal. To conclude, I would only recommend this book to someone curious about the thought processes of the current generation of Marxists who seem to be driving the political debate in the US. For someone seeking a deeper understanding of the problems facing those trying to educate students with highly varied levels of intelligence, this book accomplishes nothing.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Andrea

    Thank you to the publisher and NetGalley for an ARC. The basic thrust of The Cult of Smart is that we are, as a society, unwilling to admit that people cannot reach the same echelons of intelligence through good education and sheer grit. People are just different, and we already acknowledge this in other spaces, such as athletic ability. The author repeatedly emphasizes that this is not based on race. As a consequence of this, we put most of our blame on already beleaguered public school systems Thank you to the publisher and NetGalley for an ARC. The basic thrust of The Cult of Smart is that we are, as a society, unwilling to admit that people cannot reach the same echelons of intelligence through good education and sheer grit. People are just different, and we already acknowledge this in other spaces, such as athletic ability. The author repeatedly emphasizes that this is not based on race. As a consequence of this, we put most of our blame on already beleaguered public school systems and teachers, which doesn't help anyone but wastes billions of dollars and causes endless frustration through additional testing, etc. Furthermore, we internalize that intelligence trumps all and that our current hierarchy is natural. But "no educational miracle is coming," and there's "no technology that will save our schools, no neoliberal reform that will raise of children out of the grips of poverty, no new model that will suddenly turn struggling students into flourishing ones." I think there are some really powerful ideas here. Here are some of my favorites: -We focus our educational reform efforts like someone looking for keys under a street light-- because our political levers most easily impact teachers and public schools, that's where we tend to fiddle instead of serious attempts to address root causes. -"There is no conflict in calling for political and social equality while denying that everyone is equal in ability." -We tend to think of diplomas of having value in and of themselves rather than as a symbol of learning. As deBoer puts it so well, "Diplomas have themselves been confused with the educational benefits that they are supposed to signal." -Degrees are a relative advantage rather than an absolute one-- the more people who have them, the less valuable they are. -We should consider loosening standards. While abstract mathematics are critical for human development, not everyone has to know them for a productive and happy life. The author makes no secret of his Marxism, and I think this outlook uniquely equips him to make some astute points about our current society. For example, in the ninth chapter, he remarks that "in contemporary society, we have more ways to be a loser than to be a winner" and he's certainly right. However, I think the last quarter of the book, and particularly the concluding vision of a Marxist utopia, is going to alienate a fair number of otherwise sympathetic readers. I say this as someone who is also pretty far left. My other big objection is that I didn't see mention of the benefit of this white lie about everyone being equal in intellectual potential: there are so many socioeconomic and other barriers to success that could be addressed first, and acknowledging that people just aren't equal in this space could make it really easy to justify not taking action at all. I'm rating this book 4 stars because, while I didn't agree with everything in it, I really enjoyed engaging with the ideas, and I left with a long list of other books and other resources to read. I hope that that others don't write the book off simply because of its Marxist leanings and it becomes an integral part of discussions surrounding educational reform. If you like this book, or like the idea of it, you may also enjoy Paul Tough's The Years that Matter Most: How College Makes or Breaks Us.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Silvia

    As someone living in a socialist country and watching TV and reading the "media" from time to time I can only say two things about this book* and the author's ideas. As someone said sex is not about sex but about power, this as well education isn't about education at all but about power, about societal change. The author propo ses this idea of genetic formation where you are what you get; you're good at math or you're not . I don't know if I necessarily agree with this idea. I am more of a geneti As someone living in a socialist country and watching TV and reading the "media" from time to time I can only say two things about this book* and the author's ideas. As someone said sex is not about sex but about power, this as well education isn't about education at all but about power, about societal change. The author propo ses this idea of genetic formation where you are what you get; you're good at math or you're not . I don't know if I necessarily agree with this idea. I am more of a genetics + our home education + our parents home education + what we get in school (not just as classes but as people with interact with, colleagues and teachers). As an example I can offer you mine. I had a horrible math teacher in middle school and I hated math. Then, in high school there was a switch, the teacher was wonderful, kind, explained every little stuff, encouraged people, said jokes etc. Because of him I loved math and I still believe abstract thinking helps you advance in life. My other problem with this book is its focus on socialism, Marxism and communism. I hope one day a magazine pays an American writer to actually come to former communist countries and talk with people about their lives under it. I want people to read about socialist countries (the book The Almost Nearly Perfect People is a good start) and see their problems in general and their specificity in the field of education. Finally I think that because of the free market and the free speech and etc did the US attracted "start brains" from poor countries. I don't think, yet at least, that innovation in science, the arts, IT etc can happen in an egalitarian society. However I do believe societal change is the thing that will move all countries of the world to a better place so to speak. * - thank you to the publisher for offering me an ARC in exchange of an honest review.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Matthias

    I won't be assigning this book a star review, partially because of (para?)social proximity to the author - we're not close or anything, but have hung out in the same circles, and he's open enough about human vulnerabilities that if the book did deserve a bad rating, I'd feel bad about giving it - and partially because I may not be the target audience for this book. Finally, I'm transitioning between two careers the book expresses opinions on (rich kid SAT tutor to public school teacher) and so m I won't be assigning this book a star review, partially because of (para?)social proximity to the author - we're not close or anything, but have hung out in the same circles, and he's open enough about human vulnerabilities that if the book did deserve a bad rating, I'd feel bad about giving it - and partially because I may not be the target audience for this book. Finally, I'm transitioning between two careers the book expresses opinions on (rich kid SAT tutor to public school teacher) and so may be fairly regarded as interested. Instead I'll just begin with the good and move onto the less good. The good of this book is the absolute core of it, which is just the following syllogism: 1) Not everyone has the same amount of academic ability; in particular, a lot of this differing academic ability is difficult to predict or control, either by teachers, policymakers, or the individuals themselves. 2) Our society rewards those with academic ability and punishes those without, often to absurd degrees. 3) If we must hold ourselves to basic standards of justice (not absurdly punishing and rewarding people for factors outside of their control) and equalizing academic ability itself is not within teachers or policymakers' ability, we must lower the stakes of academic perforance generally, from the college wage premium to the elite-recruitment functions of selective universities to the (admittedly also difficult to change with policy) cultural valorization of intelligence above all other traits. I think it would be difficult to object to any of these at least in a weak form (and all are at least defensible in a strong one), and, moreover, hardly anyone really emphasizes all three simultaneously. (DeBoer lays a lot of emphasis on genetics as the prime driver of (1), which is more contestable; but one can remain skeptical about some of the genetics claims while also admitting that a lot of this differentiation is random and uncontrollable, which is all that's really needed.) These are ideas that are worth discussing more widely, and more closely; though as I'll explain later, I think there are limits to how big a part of the ideological landscape they could ever be, at least in a beneficial way. As for the bad, I have one major superficial complaint and one major substantive objection. The superficial complaint is a bit snobbish, but, given all the emphasis on being frank and honest about comparative levels of intelligence, perhaps apropos: the whole thing is written at about the level of sophistication of an Atlantic article. This isn't to say its nice-liberalism-but-IQ-realism is written with intellectual honesty of an Andrew Sullivan - as noted, I'm not close with Freddie, but I've seen enough of him in more casual online environments to know he's more sincere than that. I also know that he can write with more nuance and verve than this format allows. As it is, and demanded by editors or not, it limits the persuasiveness and interestingness of any given section. On subjects I know something about, such as history of philosophy (one of those materially useless things deBoer argues we should value more; thanks!), I also noticed a few assertions that seem more grounded in received stereotypes than the relevant literature, such as a supposed link between early modern empiricism and a universalist/plastic sense of human nature (one has better luck finding early antiracism amongst the rationalists), or Marx's predictions on where socialism could arrive (which evolved over time and became more expansive in later writings.) Neither of these means much for his arguments, but they leave me skeptical of other assertions that do. The substantive objection is that for all he rhetorically hedges certain of his policy prescriptions - "perhaps these seem idealistic or impossible to you..." about Medicare for all, UBI, and eventually decommodifying the economy - he appears shockingly naive about something else: Acknowledging the inevitability of inequality in individual talent, as a society, would lead to the most profound change in consciousness imaginable: we would leave behind forever the myth of just deserts. The notion that we more or less receive what we deserve, that our station is determined by our work ethic and talent, is the lifeblood of capitalism, the stuff of the American dream. And that notion is a lie, one promulgated by those deluded by religion into believing in cosmic justice, by those who benefit from our exploitative economic system, and by those who suffer underneath that belief themselves, convinced by centuries of propaganda that they are to blame for their own misfortune. To recognize that our abilities lie outside of our control would be to strike the hardest possible blow against meritocracy. For it is that belief in the universal availability of success that underpins our entire system; it is the logic that convinces us that our suffering is fair. Tell the truth to people and show them that the deck was stacked against them the whole time, and support for the whole enterprise will collapse. Throughout the book, he remarks that it is surprising that realism and hereditarianism about IQ and their impact of life success are rejected by progressives and associated with the right, since it is the left, after all, that normally emphasizes the import of uncontrollable circumstances and generational advantage on our success. Throughout the book he also repeatedly cautions that he, and mainstream behavioral geneticists, believe that while intraracial intelligence differences are about halfway genetic, interracial intelligence differences are probably entirely environmental (due to systematic lead exposure differences, racialized test anxiety, what have you.) By why put so much effort into that note of caution? Well, those mainstream behavioral geneticists likely have good grounds for believing it's true. And certainly the racial aspect of IQ realism/hereditarianism is a position deeply stigmatized in polite liberal society, something that must surely motivate emphasizing this technical caveat over any number of other, less politically salient, ones. But accepting his other premises: hey, why not? Why worry if there are significant, essential interracial intelligence differences: if it happened that there were and we frankly acknowledged them, that would just heighten our sense of solidarity and basic fairness for those so disadvantaged, right? Well, no, of course not. Because the stigmatization of that position in polite liberal society has good reason behind it, not just the reasoned evaluation of the evidence that behavioral geneticists might offer (which hardly anyone is familiar with) but the fact (which everyone is very well familiar with) that doctrines of racial intellectual superiority and inferiority serve as justifying myths for social superiority and inferiority. Thus for race; mutatis mutandis, for class as well. You think that Harvard graduates would be less smug, college dropouts less ashamed, if both believed that their position was innate? (Asides in the book indicate that deBoer is well aware of the insufferable online hereditarian as a sort of social type one meets on the internet; so surely he should know this, or already does.) Not just interracial but intraracial strong hereditarianism was less stigmatized in the past, and is indeed less stigmatized outside of certain sectors of the professional class (since he works in a university, he may overestimate the role of wokeness for the present ruling class more generally,) and the results are not comforting for how much this acknowledgement of unearned advantage buttresses support for equality in material outcomes. Across an extremely wide variety of contexts there is a consensus that inborn differences in ability justify a strong social hierarchy, contra his vision. The utopia sketched out in the final chapters, then, is not just the "preexisting vision of a better world" which the "Marxist tradition articulates, across hundreds of texts," as he asserts, but one in which it is simultaneously regarded that (1) people act altruistically if socially encouraged (something endorsed by some, but not all, of that tradition) and that (2) there is a hierarchy of intellectual talent (and he is right to say that the Marxist tradition has never insisted on absolute equality in this sense) which is is fixed from at least early childhood and reasonably objectively measured. This is a society with a ready-made ruling class (roughly the same people as he says are in charge now, the busy beaver A students) and justifying ideology (their benevolent administration of society in the interests of their lessers.) This society might be limited in its viciousness by a certain degree of noblesse oblige, and the children of its elite would probably have to suffer through fewer violin classes, &c., but it is not one that we should suspect would be restrained in its application of bureaucratic, psychiatric, and ultimately physical control, especially not if the attitudes of the former B-F students was that they could not hope to run things as competently as their pedigreed "benefactors." Does acknowledging uncontrollable differentials, whatever their origins, preclude democracy (either the formal kind or a more robust kind?) No; deBoer emphasizes that learning in an absolute sense is happening and progressing (just not changing the fact that some students do better than others), and one can perfectly well assert that (1) virtually everyone is at the level required for participation in public deliberation and (2) governance is about settling differences of interest as much or more than differences in truth, and so just empowering the best truth-finders (if we are charitable to the A students in granting that that is ) will give us a leadership with lopsided interests. So I am onboard with the idea that a certain degree of "natural" (or at least uncontrollable) inequality is both silly to deny and compatible with democracy, including a much more democratic society than our own (one where most firms are cooperatives and/or run by the democratic state, where politicians are randomly selected or at any rate not bought, and so on.) But this would have to be constantly alleviated with equal or greater ideological emphasis on the facts that absolute differences are slight, and that people follow, even if they do not only follow, selfish material incentives (a point which itself is easy to state in an accidentally misleading way, &c.).

  5. 4 out of 5

    Jakub Sláma

    The basic argument of the book is as follows: just like we acknowledge that e.g. being good at sports is somewhat inherent and we don't punish people for not being good at sports, we should acknowledge that academic talent and differences in intelligence are heritable (and not punish people for lacking the brains). Therefore, if people get paid more money after graduating from college and so on and so forth, this is actually a far cry from just and we-all-are-equal-y. Also, meritocracy (in acade The basic argument of the book is as follows: just like we acknowledge that e.g. being good at sports is somewhat inherent and we don't punish people for not being good at sports, we should acknowledge that academic talent and differences in intelligence are heritable (and not punish people for lacking the brains). Therefore, if people get paid more money after graduating from college and so on and so forth, this is actually a far cry from just and we-all-are-equal-y. Also, meritocracy (in academia or anywhere else) is wrong, because if academic ability is heritable, by taking part in the academic meritocracy we are not really practising the everyone-is-equal policy that we preach. (Similarly, according to the author, if you marry someone who is from the same social class like you, again, you are not really practising the everyone-is-equal-and-should-have-a-shot-at-social-mobility mantra, because by marrying someone from your own class you are taking away from someone lower class the opportunity to marry you and climb the social ladder! Boom! In your face, woke millenials!) Similarly, the author asks why our policies should be made by educated people, and why our newspapers should be written by educated people – and some other questions like that. Simply put, the point is, the primacy of smarts should not be the great criterion of human worth. Then, in the final chapters the author sort of goes berserk and instead of talking about what REALISTIC changes should be made in the field of education, for instance, he spends pages talking about Bernie Sanders and Medicare for All, jobs guarantee programs, and universal basic income, which sort of has nothing to do with the previous points. Instead, the author should focus on some questions that an average reader like me might grapple with. For instance, what I cannot quite swallow is why, from all the "cults" we should talk about, the author wants to kill the Cult of Smart, and not the others. I should get no benefits from being "naturally" smart? Then why should other people get benefits based on the Cult of Pretty (oh yes, the pretty privilege is a thing) or the Cult of Extroverted (yes, the extrovert privilege is a thing), or the Cult of Athletic or the Cult of Heterosexual or the Cult of Young or the Cult of Non-Disabled or the Cult of You Fucking Name It? It seems that by ignoring all these Cults and just making the Cult of Smart and academic meritocracy seem as the worst evils imaginable and by proposing to kill the Cult of Smart, the author is, unawares, proposing to actually add one huge-ass inequality to the bunch of the existing ones, unbothered about the simple question of why smart people should not benefit from the Cult of Smart while pretty people benefit from the Cult of Pretty, the athletic people benefit from the Cult of Athletic, and so on. I didn't get an aswer to this question – just like I didn't get the answer to the question of why it is wrong that intelligence is something that people benefit from in their lives. Sure, treating someone poorly because they might not be the next Einstein is wrong. But why is it wrong that people can benefit from their intelligence, and, possibly, contribute to the society? Why is it wrong that our policies are created by educated people, who are, incidentally, typically (in our context) chosen by a vote, in which every single person, no matter their intelligence, may participate? And, finally, from a very self-centered perspective, as someone who was born to a poor family of people with no extra education and no or low-paid jobs, where even going to a high school was sort of out of question, what would I have in the dream world of deBoer, where people are not allowed to benefit from the Cult of Smart? Not sure about the answer, but it sure would not be two grad degrees, a position at the university, and another at the Academy of Sciences. One final note: on the last pages, the author muses about an idyllic future where "No longer will 'smart' be the sole criterion of human worth." That sounds lovely, but once again, it quite misses the simple point that not even today, 'smart' is the sole criterion of human worth. In sum, while the book is an interesting and stimulating read, the author seems to quite frappantly ignore some obvious questions, and prefers to go on a rant about how communism is cool at the end, instead of addressing these questions, which is the main problem of the book for me. Update: Just got my hands on this (from this book) – I wonder what the Fredrik deBoer would have to say about that, since it is of major importance for his arguments that studies have shown how intelligence is heritable? To a lesser extent, a problem with heritability study samples is that they tend to consist of more middle- and upper-class individuals than a representative sample would have. This is especially true of adoption studies because the poorest families in industrialized nations are usually not allowed to adopt children, nor are parents who have a history of violence, drug problems, or other dysfunctional behaviors. Therefore, the range of environments in these studies is reduced (Mackintosh, 2011), which makes the influence of genetics appear inflated (Nisbett et al., 2012). Adoption studies also cannot investigate the impact of abuse, neglect, and threats to physical safety because governments and adoption agencies try to prevent children from being placed into these extremely negative environments. Therefore, when behavioral geneticists produce a study that genes are a powerful influence on intelligence, it is important to consider the population and the environment that the study was conducted on. Often, the results of behavioral genetics studies will indicate that genes are important – if a person already lives in an industrialized nation in a home where basic needs are met. It is not clear how well these results apply to individuals in severe poverty or in highly unfavorable environments.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Winston Plum

    Fredrik deBoer is a socialist and thus by definition a Marxist. If you read this book and think in any way whatsoever to the tiniest or most infinitesimal level deBoer is arguing that some groups of people are more intelligent than others then you need to stop, go back, and read the book again because you've utterly failed to comprehend what he is saying. He goes to great pains, repeating over and over, that he 100% in no way believes any ascriptive group is inherently more intelligent than anot Fredrik deBoer is a socialist and thus by definition a Marxist. If you read this book and think in any way whatsoever to the tiniest or most infinitesimal level deBoer is arguing that some groups of people are more intelligent than others then you need to stop, go back, and read the book again because you've utterly failed to comprehend what he is saying. He goes to great pains, repeating over and over, that he 100% in no way believes any ascriptive group is inherently more intelligent than another, e.g. white smarter than black, black smarter than white, men smarter than women, women smarter than men. He has no truck with any argument that purports to come to those conclusions. What deBoer is arguing, built on years in the classroom as a teacher and out of the classroom in various administrative capacities, is that individuals do not all share the same intellectual capabilities. Individuals qua individuals--not as members of an ascriptive group--are not all genetically predisposed to excel at the intellectual rigors of school. Beyond just the intellectual and computational power that individuals possess to varying degrees, deBoer also argues (this is one part of the book I would have liked him to delve deeper into) that dispositionally, emotionally, psychologically and whatever other metric one can think of to denote how we exist in the world we are also genetically different and because of these genetic differences are more or less prone to succeed or fail in an educational situation. To me this is all very intuitive. These are conclusions I've come to myself as a community college professor for the last 11 years, and also the conclusions I would have come to if I had never set foot in a classroom as an instructor. To me this is common sense. Perhaps it's just socialist common sense. Regardless, the conclusions deBoer comes to about behavioral genetics (via extensive research that is accessibly conveyed to the reader) seem unarguable. So what is the book about beyond the consequences for us in the classroom as a result of the findings of behavioral geneticists? The book is about the ways in which we are told as a society that if we just got rid of all forms of discrimination, poverty, over-worked parents, underfunded schools, poor teachers, over-zelaous and short-sighted nefarious teachers' unions--in other words if we as a society got rid of all the things that create inequality of opportunity for students in America then we'd have a situation in which we'd have a perfectly meritocratic playing field. Or rather, we'd have set the stage where everyone would no longer have any encumbrances to potentiating all of their latent ability. So what's the problem? Wouldn't it be great is we could create this cleansed and pristine egalitarianism of opportunity? Sure, that would be great (keeping in mind we're about as close to creating that as we are fully-automated space communism). But deBoer's major point is that even if we did create that perfectly egalitarian basis for opportunity some students would still rise to the top and some students wouldn't be able to keep up for all the reasons deBoer has already stated. Why? Because now success is perfectly hemmed to the actualization of one’s given talent and as deBoer has correctly argued, talent is not apportioned equally. Do we want to live in a society like that? One that "punishes" those that are aren't smart enough or capable enough in the classroom and as a result of this lack of talent are consigned to lives without the ability to earn a living wage; where the ascertainment of medical care is difficult and the maintenance of it precarious at best. If all the "just deserts" of society are apportioned by talent, what of the untalented? And this is the radical part of deBoer’s project. This is exactly the type of the world conservatives want to live in. Where the strong, talented, innovative, charming, driven, and intelligent get everything they can possibly get and those who don’t possess the talent, intelligence and other attributes one needs to succeed get the scraps. The problem however when examining our current political landscape is that liberals, if they don't conceptually apprise things the same way, materially set things up so that the results are the same. The quest for total equity of opportunity was Obamaism in a nutshell. I highly recommend Thomas Frank's "Listen Liberal" as a great accompaniment to deBoer. In about 250 pages Frank gives a thorough and devastating critique of how millions of American have been left behind and failed by the meritocratic creed. Frank aims his critique at the Democratic Party, the party that in i's quest for an identarian framing of society has abandoned any robust critique of political economy. And why wouldn't they? They are now the party of the elite. The economy is working great for them. They're the best and the brightest. The meritocratic dream described above (to the most talented --brightest, most driven, most ambitious, most focused, most articulate, most organized, most humorous, best looking, most athletic, etc--go the riches) is part and parcel with the neoliberal era in which we're living. With the deterioration of the social safety net that started in the mid-70s and accelerated through the 80s and has been covered with dirt by Clintonism, the vast majority of Americans live in a hellscape created by the instantiations of austerity (deregulation, privatization, atomization). deBoer states very eloquently and very simply what needs to be stated and what is almost never stated in public discourse. Every single human being is of equal worth regardless or whatever talent or intellectual ability he or she possess. This is the stance of the socialist and one that I agree with completely. The last part of the book feels like a self-contained essay that offers policy suggestions (UBI, JG, M4A, free college, college debt forgiveness, universal childcare and after-school care). In other words, with a few differences the social-democratic project of the Sanders campaign. These are all wonderful tings and things I support completely, but unfortunately we’re a long way from them. This is a great book, especially if you’re an educator. I don’t like being a sorter for capital. This books gives you a lot to think about whether you’re in the classroom as a teacher or not. deBoer is a talented writer. He asks all the right questions; he comes to all the right conclusions; his prescriptions for a sane, humane, and sustainable world are the right ones. Will they happen tomorrow? No. Will they happen in a hundred years? Who knows. But he is right.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Russell Fox

    The heart of this very good book is an excellent--and vitally important, or so I think--academic article or other long-form essay; everything else added to bring it to book length is good, and sometimes quite insightful, but it doesn't all gel to make the strong book-length argument which the central thesis deserves. That thesis, and the article-length set of scientific arguments and sociological observations which buttress it, is pretty straightforward: there is consistent, reputable, and clear The heart of this very good book is an excellent--and vitally important, or so I think--academic article or other long-form essay; everything else added to bring it to book length is good, and sometimes quite insightful, but it doesn't all gel to make the strong book-length argument which the central thesis deserves. That thesis, and the article-length set of scientific arguments and sociological observations which buttress it, is pretty straightforward: there is consistent, reputable, and clearly demonstrated data which shows that individual variation in basic intelligence, as revealed through one's childhood and into the school-age years, is almost entirely ineliminable from any and all future academic success, so why have we built a whole educational system premised upon the equal possibility for everyone to achieve excellence when we know it's not true? That's his question, and in answering it, deBoer covers a lot of important territory. Much of that territory could be sneeringly described as cover-your-ass-type of stuff, but I understand why he does it: the ugly history of intelligence tests and their use to stigmatize different racial groups as mentally deficient or women as incapable of critical thinking is real, and deBoer rightly spends a great deal of time explaining why insisting upon paying attention to individual variation in basic cognitive aptitude is not the same as claiming to have discovered some fundamental group variations in intelligence. Some of that territory involves a deep dive into Western philosophy, as he attempts to build an argument for divorcing education from such meritocratic ideas as "equal opportunity" (even if it were possible to eliminate all of the socio-economic and cultural obstacles to truly providing everyone with the same "fair chance" at success or failure in any given task, wouldn't the resulting meritocracy be an ever greater horror show, with the "merit"--or lack thereof--of every person being demonstrated by their grades and college admissions?) and "just deserts" (the whole idea of justice in a liberal society is contractual, with you being considered of deserving of something because of your performance in regards to some moral scheme which you consented to, but how can someone consent to a scheme when their performance is so fundamentally beyond their control?). And some of that territory is pretty wonky (as a long-time educator and education data-cruncher, deBoer has very significant opinions about standardized tests, charter schools, and much more). Not all of it holds together as well as it might, but it was more than convincing to me (if only because deBoer's project is really a matter of getting people to think critically about something plainly obvious to everyone: some people are smarter than others). In the end, deBoer doesn't have a really good solution for how to move beyond the "Cult of Smart" in our conception of education. Or rather, he has a very good solution, but it's a solution that involves a deconstruction of the capitalist system, and it's replacement a fully socialized socio-economic environment where being smart, in an academic sense, is just one of thousands of possible specialties and skills, none of which guarantee any kind of dominance over any other. As a socialist myself, I'm on board with that solution, but it's one he falls to because he doesn't have anywhere else to do in his argument, rather than one he builds to organically, showing, for example, how "smarts" can be redefined into something more amenable to our actual physical and cognitive conditions. Still, overall, a strongly argued book, which I will share at least parts of with many others.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Cynthia

    This thought provoking book asks deep, transformational questions about the American educational system and whether it truly serves all students. The thesis of the book is that not everyone is "smart," and that's okay. Intelligence is inherited, and no matter how much particular students try to make good grades, they will still come up short. The book includes an excellent history of recent American educational initiatives - useful to those of us too young to remember them or who didn't have chi This thought provoking book asks deep, transformational questions about the American educational system and whether it truly serves all students. The thesis of the book is that not everyone is "smart," and that's okay. Intelligence is inherited, and no matter how much particular students try to make good grades, they will still come up short. The book includes an excellent history of recent American educational initiatives - useful to those of us too young to remember them or who didn't have children in public schools in the late twentieth century. As a mother of a dyslexic child who struggles with school (but who is nonetheless quite "smart" when it comes to non-academic endeavors), this book resonated with me. I agreed with most of his criticisms of the current system. I really wished the author had spent more time on possible solutions to the problems, however. There's a huge need for more vocational education and job training, along with services for children and teens with learning disabilities. I would have liked more content on these needs. Instead, the author bent over backwards to assure us of his liberal credentials and spent the last part of the book on Marxism. I think if he had stuck to reforms of the educational system, he would have been more likely to get consensus - not to mention readers - from those of more moderate and even conservative leanings.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Individualfrog

    On the Appeal to Science Science will not save you. Our culture doesn't like to believe that. Ask someone why they believe in the things they believe in and they will probably give you a list of "scientific facts". Studies show. Science proves. This goes for everybody on the political spectrum. Darwinian science proved to the ultranationalists of a hundred years ago that the nations of the world were locked in a merciless war to prove the fittest and dominate the world's resources. To Marxists hi On the Appeal to Science Science will not save you. Our culture doesn't like to believe that. Ask someone why they believe in the things they believe in and they will probably give you a list of "scientific facts". Studies show. Science proves. This goes for everybody on the political spectrum. Darwinian science proved to the ultranationalists of a hundred years ago that the nations of the world were locked in a merciless war to prove the fittest and dominate the world's resources. To Marxists history is a science showing that a predictable dialectic process of class struggle is leading towards a new synthesis. Some conservatives may point to the Bible for justification, but only very rarely anymore, and they generally would rather, if anything, justify scripture with science. Science is our Bible now. Science says there are two genders, they say; facts don't care about your feelings. Liberals retort that science shows that people are "born this way". New Agey people have endless, bewildering reams of "scientific proof" of the power of crystals or herbs or whatever it might be. Fat activists say science proves their metabolisms work differently; fat hate groups (these exist, somehow) insist that science shows that "calories in equal calories out". On and on and on and on. Some of these are purely ignorant category errors. Science cannot say anything about "how many" genders there are, because the question is not a scientific one but a social one. Some are pseudoscience using sciencey words but no real "science" (though which ones probably depends on your point of view.) And in some situations, like "is human activity causing climate change?" the question is indeed a scientific one, and science can indeed answer it. But for so many moral and political questions, I would argue, regardless of what you think "science says", science is a very, very slender reed on which to build your castle. It has to be. It always will be. Because the entire point of science is to continually re-examine and re-interpret, and its conclusions are always liable to be changed. It was actually Freddie deBoer, author of this book, who first really brought this home to me in a blog post years ago. He was pushing back on the idea that gay rights should be based and defended on the "born this way" genetic argument. If there is a "gay gene", he asked, what does that mean? Are only people with the "gay gene" allowed to be gay? Should people have to have their DNA sequenced for it before they could get gay-married? Obviously not. Everyone should be able to marry the partner they want to, and live the life they want, whether they "made a choice" or were "born this way". The same goes, for example, for the Fat Activists. Their metabolisms are entirely irrelevant to the fact that they should and must be treated with equal dignity, get quality health care, not be discriminated against. Because they are human. Leaving it up to this "scientific fact" only makes them more vulnerable to the fat-haters, because what if a new study reveals some new fact? What deBoer does in this book is, essentially, present an analogous set of new facts which argue against one of the tenets that almost all of us profess to: that if you dream it, you can be it; that you can achieve anything, if you work hard, particularly when it comes to academics. If you fail to achieve academically, the problem is either with your character or your school or your environment -- not any inborn talent. (Yes, there are a few racists who believe race determines intelligence; but this is about individuals, not groups. Indeed, the idea that intelligence is "genetic" is totally ancillary to the point, just a consequence of our more general knowledge of biology as a whole. Being "heritable" is not important, being inborn is. After all, even people who believe they're "born this way" don't think you must have gay parents to be gay.) And, as deBoer argues, the idea that we are born with an innate level of intelligence and talent that we can do little to change is disturbing because of what he calls the Cult of Smart: the idea that intelligence and human worth are the same thing. This is ubiquitous in our culture. But if intelligence is entirely out of our control, and we believe morality is based on choice and control (that is, we think it's worse to intentionally harm someone than to accidentally do so), how can we justify this? What I like about the book is that, in presenting this "new scientific fact", deBoer does not make his argument dependent on it. It's not so much "this is true, therefore I am right!", but more like "what if this is true?" DeBoer evokes Rawls's "veil of ignorance", saying we should not only judge our society with the assumption that we don't know where we might be placed in it, but even if we don't know who we might be as people. But in a sense he goes further and casts that veil over "scientific fact" as well. If we don't know if some people are innately more intelligent than others, shouldn't we set up our society to benefit everyone? I think again of the Fat Activists and the hate groups against them. One side insists that genetics determine their weight, the other that it is entirely character and willpower. It is notable, in this case, that the people who make it all choice are the reactionaries. Personally I expect that neither side has it entirely right here. Neither human genetics nor human willpower seem capable of changing with the extreme speed we've seen obesity rates change in the past few decades. I expect it is systemic change of some kind, though what it might be I don't know. The fact is that it doesn't matter. The Fat Activists are right that their worth and dignity can and should have nothing to do with their weight. Their struggle to decouple human worth from appearance is righteous. The same is true of deBoer's struggle to decouple it from intelligence. Everyone deserves a life of safety, dignity, and respect, and nobody needs "science" to prove it. "Science" can only make this more precarious, in its ceaseless churn of experiment and paradigm shifts. I think I know why people appeal to science. Despite the fact that its theories are constantly changing, and have undergone many revolutions, it gives the appearance of something eternal and universal. As Julian Jaynes says in The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, the reaching for the "certainty" of science is essentially a kind of religious longing for a certainty outside of the self. "Science often shaes with the celestial maps of astrology, or a hundred other irrationalisms, the same nostalgia for the Final Answer, the One Truth, the Single Cause." But the final answer will never come, and we need to argue, not from the "facts", but from ourselves.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Hazel Bright

    While I found the book to be well-written and thoughtful, what kept frustrating me is the author's insistence that since intellectual/academic talent varies genetically, we cannot expect equivalent performance from less gifted individuals, and, though he doesn't outright say it, basically give up on them. He offered an interesting discussion of "cultivating" students as one might cultivate a plant, noting that some students arrive at an educational facility having been nurtured and carefully ten While I found the book to be well-written and thoughtful, what kept frustrating me is the author's insistence that since intellectual/academic talent varies genetically, we cannot expect equivalent performance from less gifted individuals, and, though he doesn't outright say it, basically give up on them. He offered an interesting discussion of "cultivating" students as one might cultivate a plant, noting that some students arrive at an educational facility having been nurtured and carefully tended, while others arrive in poor condition, having been neglected. He also notes that even with excellent care, some plants will grow taller than others no matter what kind of care has been provided. So what is the solution? To cultivate only the students we expect to thrive? Do we withhold sunlight, nutrients, and water from the plants (students) we have deemed, within the first few years of their lives, to be academic failures? Do I need to mention what happens to the plants we choose not to cultivate? They die. Although the premise, "from each according to his ability to each according to his need" seems sensible on the surface, who makes the decision about what each individual's ability is, and what his or her need is? Particularly at the ages where students are taught in public schools, it seems foolhardy to make such determinations, but it sure seems like he will go for some Marxist central agency charged with making those decisions. I find this frightening. It does not take long for such agencies to be corrupted to serve the wealthy or privileged. Having grown up poor and smart, the classroom was the only place where I could compete. In spite of my shabby clothing and untrimmed hair, I aced all of my classes without much trouble. I can think of few places where money and connections are not half the battle, but public school still provides the opportunity for a person to succeed on the basis of his or her own talents. Establishing a sorting program to choose the academically inclined ironically fosters the exact situation he decries at the beginning of the book, where wealthy parents purchased their children's entry into privileged positions in Ivy League schools. I say this as a confirmed Democratic Socialist: this is always the problem with Marxist communism: centralized decision-making bodies inherent in communism are extremely vulnerable to exertions of power, and are almost guaranteed to devolve into an authoritarian in-groups system rife with corruption. The author compares athletic ability to scholastic ability, which is an excellent point. Yes, LeBron James's son would wipe up the court with my daughter. What deBoer forgets is that sports is not limited to basketball, and school is not limited to long division. My daughter may not be able to compete with LeBron James's son on the basketball court, but I'll bet she can probably keep up with him on the gymnastics mat. In the same way, a good education is not unilaterally academic. Students may not master the chemistry or grammar lessons offered to them, or master any of the academic disciplines, but they will learn some of it, and they will also learn how to do their best, that working toward a goal is not always fun, but pays off, that learning something new is uncomfortable, and that they can be confused and uncomfortable for a while and figure it out or not, but will survive. They will also learn how to get help, how to provide help to others, how to maximize the skills they do have, and how to participate in a society where certain things are expected, and where other people may have an edge on you, but you still have to try. These skills pay off whether you end up as a professor or as a plumber. Individuals may vary in their intellectual abilities, but that does not mean that we should deem some people to be too incompetent to bother with, and just carry them. This is a disservice to that individual and to society at large. Like it or not, the students we teach are going to have to make their way in the world, and smart plumbers do better than dumb ones, or ones that don't care enough to try, or ones that expect someone else to do their jobs for them. Though the less talented students we cultivate may not grow as much as the talented ones, they should not be deprived of the sunlight of learning.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Carolyn Kost

    In a nutshell, this book makes two assertions: First, "Education, we are relentlessly told, is the key...to social mobility, to reducing inequality, to ending poverty, to the American dream. It seems education is a key that can open any lock" (84), but it is not and cannot be that. Second, "Acknowledging that not everyone has the same academic gifts is the first step in ending the Cult of Smart...The assumption is that intelligence is something all-defining, something existential. This heightene In a nutshell, this book makes two assertions: First, "Education, we are relentlessly told, is the key...to social mobility, to reducing inequality, to ending poverty, to the American dream. It seems education is a key that can open any lock" (84), but it is not and cannot be that. Second, "Acknowledging that not everyone has the same academic gifts is the first step in ending the Cult of Smart...The assumption is that intelligence is something all-defining, something existential. This heightened sensitivity inevitably reinforces the notion that only intelligence matters." Instead we need "a more expansive...a more mature vision of what it means to be a worthwhile person" (202) and "make a sweeping set of changes to our basic social contract" (202). Before going any further, understand this point that deBoer repeats incessantly to ensure we take it in: "An individual's academic talent is influenced by their genetic endowment" and "a race's collective academic talent is the product of their genes" are two vastly different and incompatible claims (81). He's not talking about race. Got it? Let's move on. It is likely that most readers will agree with or be convinced by parts of this book and utterly hostile to others, particularly deBoer's proposed reforms. DeBoer writes well and his notions about education are rooted in teaching experience. Nevertheless, I have to wonder about writers and professors who claim to be Marxists. In Marx's Theses on Feuerbach, he wrote, "The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it." Anyone who is just writing or teaching or analyzing society isn't out there changing it; they just think they are. DeBoer writes what we all know but most of us won't say. Children are not a blank slate; "intelligence, like all cognitive traits, is significantly influenced by genetic parentage" (141), an assertion he repeats often. Six of the nine chapters reference extensive research proving beyond any doubt that cognitive talent is inheritable and that, regardless of how many trillions of dollars any entity spends, there will be students who simply do not and will not meet the standards. They lack the volition. They lack the ability. There. Doesn't it feel better to admit it at long last? "...[W]hat we are left with is a simple reality: thanks to the heritability of academic ability, the range of the possible in the classroom is dramatically smaller than conventionally assumed. A large portion of the variation in academic outcomes will remain permanently out of the hands of schools and teachers" (121). He counters with ample research whatever argument you may intend as rebuttal: charter schools, after school programs, voluntary Pre-K, merit pay, flipping the classroom, gamifying, all comes to naught in large scale studies over time; the results don't persist, etc. Small group and individual tutoring works, but it's not new, so it runs against the real addiction to innovation in education and "it doesn't lend itself to hype" (121). There are "millions upon millions of children before they have stepped foot in a classroom" were "exposed to drugs or lead in utero...born severely premature," did not "have the benefits of a stable home" and perhaps were abused (196). School quality is merely a by-product of who attends. The student body will be limited to talented students if there's an admission test or if it is located near highly educated elites or if it charges exorbitant fees. Having worked in one of the top three most expensive boarding schools in the country, I can attest to this. Moreover, "[T]he idea that all children enjoy more or less the same academic potential and can excel if only they enjoy stable parenting, a healthy environment, and good teaching cannot withstand scientific scrutiny. It's precisely this conceit that dominates education politics and policy, and the consequences hurt students, teachers, parents, and taxpayers" (86). It leads to blaming teachers and school systems; "education becomes a proxy for our society's greatest ills." Why? Because schools are something we can control with public funding, legislation, and school boards, which need to believe they are making a difference. But let's get real. It's all a waste, throwing trillions upon trillions of dollars into a black hole. DeBoer urges us to be realistic about what we can control and who is responsible for outcomes. That leads to deBoer's second major point: "Whatever the value of schooling, we must consider soberly and rationally, what it means for society that all students are not and will never be equal in the academic talents. Given the realities of meritocracy and its relationship to our economic outcomes and the job market, the consequences are profound. Indeed, if we truly understand those consequences, we can see that they demand a radical restructuring of the basic social contract of contemporary American life" (121). A crucial part of his argument: "...if talent tracks with income or wealth...then increasing the rewards of talent only solidifies the position of the already awarded" (155). DeBoer is fed up with Raj Chetty and his ilk and their talk of social mobility. "The point is that in a society of perfectly achieved formal equality of opportunity, there is no mobility" (emphasis in original)(156). (He defines equal opportunity as "matching talent to reward"). This results in "an aristocracy of the talented," which he despises. Grasp that, as it is the orthodox Leftist position. To quote John Cleese's Tweet of 10/2/16, "Seriously, I'd rather have educated, cultured and intelligent people in charge. Sorry for the elitism." I fully agree, Mr. Cleese. We must be thankful for deBoer's explicit presentation of the Leftist position: "As a leftist, I understand the appeal of tearing down those at the top, on an emotional and symbolic level. But if we're simply replacing them with a new set of winners lording it over the rest of us, we're running in place" (157). He insists that social mobility necessarily means that some must descend into poverty for others to rise, which is not at all the case, as demonstrated by the most superficial understanding of history. A rising economic tide lifts all boats, some more than others according to their ability to recognize opportunity and seize it. DeBoer is on board with San Francisco Unified School District's decision to eliminate the possibility of ANYONE taking algebra in 8th grade because too few Blacks were enrolled, or NYC Public Schools' decision to eliminate the entrance exam for the elite high schools of science for the same reason. He advocates for permitting 12 year-olds to drop out of school to do something else. "I argue that you should accept lower standards in order to keep more students in the system and to spare those who will never meet the more rigorous standards from the frustrations and humiliation of failure" (182). So lower the bar and let's do the limbo as a collective society. However, if you haven't read Andrew Hacker's book, The Math Myth, I recommend it. https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1672414116: The idea is that there is absolutely no logical rationale for demanding algebra (and calculus in university), etc., the [not one of many] primary obstacle to graduation from high school and college. It really is indefensible to ascribe such significance to math. I agree with that one. It is simply a truism that "we can have higher standards or higher graduation rates, but not both" (191). University degrees, he tells us, are a "relative advantage rather than an absolute one. It's a mechanism to signal a certain perseverance, a certain wherewithal, perhaps talent and skills and time management. As more people earned degrees, more jobs that didn't require them in the past began to require them. The place from which the degree was earned became more important." College for all is idiotic, entirely nonsensical. Many do not have the desire or the aptitude. Instead, we must create broader models of what a well-lived life means. Chapter 9 is an abrupt change of course: DeBoer's vision for American socialism and it is horrific to those of us who oppose equality of outcomes, the repression of striving, and elimination of rewards for taking initiative. "If we make the meritocratic race entirely fair in terms of race, gender, economic class and similar, the stakes of that race would remain as high as they are now, and the competition of our young people would stay just as brutal. And free of social and economic inequality, those who support the system would only be emboldened, and those who fail to develop academic skills that are valuable under capitalism would endure the added indignity of having lost in a system that was 'fair'" (203). At this point, let's inject Turchin’s theory that the overproduction of elites gives rise to competition and social chaos and my favorite explanation, relative deprivation theory. In the 1960s, Davies posited that civil unrest results not from absolute poverty but from the increased expectations following a period of progress, a theory subsequently applied to the radicalization of youth in Arab Spring, Hong Kong, and Black Lives Matter. This is a cautionary tale about urging “College for All” and inflating assumptions of socioeconomic advancement upon degree completion. The mass protests of 2010 through the present are the results of student debt, underemployment, resentment and the rage of adherents of the false gospel of education (and stirred by the clerisy preaching Critical Race Theory…). People want more. We don't want to all be the same. We strive. We want to be individuals, not a collective. That's why deBoer's vision cannot work in the USA. Nevertheless there is authentic wisdom here: "For too long the left has obsessed over the vague idea that is 'equality." "Rather we should simply pursue what's good for everyone, what fulfills their basic human needs and allows them to flourish. Human beings are complicated creatures, and we can be ranked and measured and divided on a thousand metrics. To suggest that we will ever achieve equality of any meaningful kind is to deny our nature. Recognizing that we have fundamentally different abilities and talents does not curse people to a harsh existence. It is the first step in their liberation. Acknowledging the inevitability of inequality in individual talent, as a society, would lead to the most profound change in consciousness imaginable....The notion that we more or less receive what we deserve, that our station is determined by our work ethic and talent, is the lifeblood of capitalism, the stuff of the American dream." OK so far. I'm right there with him. But then deBoer goes off the rails when he continues, "And that notion is a lie, one promulgated by those deluded by religion into believing in cosmic justice, by those who benefit from our exploitative economic system, and by those...convinced by centuries of propaganda that they are to blame for their own misfortune" (239). Nope, Freddie, it's not a lie. That's why people are knocking at the door trying to come to the USA. As the saying goes, how do you know if it's a good country or not? See whether more people leaving or trying to get in. He wants Medicare for all, but socialized medicine, unfortunately does not work well, as we have seen exposed in innumerable contexts around the world. DeBoer knows that forgiving student loan debt is regressive; it benefits the wealthiest most, but he wants to do it anyway. Naturally, he wants to see universal basic income and jobs guarantee, and above all, "the destruction of markets" This book is worth reading. It's controversial and thought-provoking. It affirms some of the ideas you already have and challenges you to consider others and makes you imagine where it all should lead in the future.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Paul

    Freddie deBoer is one of the very best culture/politics writers alive right now, and certainly the most intelligent Marxist. (To be fair, there isn't too much competition beyond the boutique radicals at Jacobin, but still.) Cult of Smart is, accordingly, very well-written and mostly convincing, until it gets to his (inevitably, Marxist) solution to the issues under discussion, but you can't really hold that against him. I was surprised that Freddie didn't mention any of the conservative writers w Freddie deBoer is one of the very best culture/politics writers alive right now, and certainly the most intelligent Marxist. (To be fair, there isn't too much competition beyond the boutique radicals at Jacobin, but still.) Cult of Smart is, accordingly, very well-written and mostly convincing, until it gets to his (inevitably, Marxist) solution to the issues under discussion, but you can't really hold that against him. I was surprised that Freddie didn't mention any of the conservative writers who have written on this topic (mainly Sowell and Murray) but it's great to see someone attacking educational orthodoxy from the Left, so I'll take what I can get.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Steve

    Basically, I liked the book a lot. Schools will be a mess until this kind of thinking is taken seriously. The author is a Marxist, I’m not, but there are great ideas here that everyone who cares about education should read and ponder. (If you’re prejudiced about marxists, rest assured that this one is smart, humane, and well educated about the genetics of intelligence - maybe not what you expected?) This is a better review than I could write, by Andrew Sullivan who is certainly no marxist: https:/ Basically, I liked the book a lot. Schools will be a mess until this kind of thinking is taken seriously. The author is a Marxist, I’m not, but there are great ideas here that everyone who cares about education should read and ponder. (If you’re prejudiced about marxists, rest assured that this one is smart, humane, and well educated about the genetics of intelligence - maybe not what you expected?) This is a better review than I could write, by Andrew Sullivan who is certainly no marxist: https://andrewsullivan.substack.com/p...

  14. 5 out of 5

    Sage

    There's a lot about this book I enjoyed, but what really struck me was deBoer's level of compassion and genuine care for children/teens, who are absolutely harmed by society's obsession with the "cult of smart." "The impulse to buy Baby Einstein toys for toddlers and to force seven-year-olds into gifted student programs, the fixation on grades in middle school, the general drive to make your child competitive from the moment they’re born … each defines intelligence in narrow and reductive terms a There's a lot about this book I enjoyed, but what really struck me was deBoer's level of compassion and genuine care for children/teens, who are absolutely harmed by society's obsession with the "cult of smart." "The impulse to buy Baby Einstein toys for toddlers and to force seven-year-olds into gifted student programs, the fixation on grades in middle school, the general drive to make your child competitive from the moment they’re born … each defines intelligence in narrow and reductive terms and then implicitly places it above creativity, compassion, adventurousness, patience, gentleness, and a host of other human virtues." For me, reading this was validating - like my own fuzzy observations of the school system + American culture being spoken aloud and parsed through, made sense of. The argument is methodically laid out, lively, engaging. I have a few quibbles, nothing material. (Are two leftists even legally allowed to completely agree with each other? Hah.)

  15. 5 out of 5

    Stacey

    This book most definitely made me think. While I don’t agree with everything he says, he certainly makes some valid points. Somebody read it so we can talk about it! 😊

  16. 5 out of 5

    Daniel

    I was given an Advanced copy in exchange for an honest review. The author is a Marxist. The first part of the book is an attack of meritocracy. So people who can score in exams because of a single kind of intelligence go to college, have good jobs, marry each other and have children whom they coach to continue the same lifestyle. So they engage tutors, coaches, and sometimes even bribe school administrators to let their child deem enter Ivy League schools. We tell ourselves that it is fair becau I was given an Advanced copy in exchange for an honest review. The author is a Marxist. The first part of the book is an attack of meritocracy. So people who can score in exams because of a single kind of intelligence go to college, have good jobs, marry each other and have children whom they coach to continue the same lifestyle. So they engage tutors, coaches, and sometimes even bribe school administrators to let their child deem enter Ivy League schools. We tell ourselves that it is fair because everyone takes the same exam. However, the author posits that everything is based on luck: who our parents are, what genes we inhabit are all not fairly determined. But we are told that if only the kids are taught by good teachers in good schools, they will improve. However, meritocracy is a zero-sum game so if everyone improves by the same amount, the order must remain the same. Some kids just do not like and will not do well in schools. So public schools and Teachers become punching bags and are blamed for everything. But the reality is students’ abilities are all not the same. Intelligence is highly heritable and grades are mostly dependent on students’ inherent ability. Schools and Teachers just don’t matter. Research quoted by the author shows that 50% of academic success is based on genes and a healthy prenatal and childhood, stable family which is not poor. Schools and Teachers: almost 0%. The other 50% is random. Since genes and family environment is based on luck, only equality of outcome is fair. So communism is the other answer. He also proposes to let students fail and reduce compulsory education to 12 years. I must disagree with a lot of the premise and the solution. Communism just does not work. As we take away the reward of hard work and accumulation of capital, people stop working.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Dan

    deBoer's politics are not my politics, but this is a worthwhile read. The one-sentence summary of the argument: we do not take (individual!) heritable differences seriously enough when devising education policy, with the result that we totally screw over the part of society that is less-gifted for knowledge work. deBoer's solutions strike me as wrong: he's a socialist/Marxist, essentially, and I am not. But this is an important read and should be a wakeup call for people involved in this area: yo deBoer's politics are not my politics, but this is a worthwhile read. The one-sentence summary of the argument: we do not take (individual!) heritable differences seriously enough when devising education policy, with the result that we totally screw over the part of society that is less-gifted for knowledge work. deBoer's solutions strike me as wrong: he's a socialist/Marxist, essentially, and I am not. But this is an important read and should be a wakeup call for people involved in this area: your natural intelligence does not make you better than other people, and if you're not thinking about what school should be for people less inclined to it--and what we should do for people who are not likely to succeed in a knowledge economy--you're missing a lot of texture.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Cody Brown

    The central premise of the book is that scholastic ability is not evenly distributed among individuals, and because of natural inequality we need to destroy what deBoer calls ‘The Cult of Smart’. His argument is based on the observation that; some degree of scholastic ability is genetically determined and because of genetic variation there will be an uneven distribution of scholastic ability. Now if alarms are going off and you think this is starting to sound a little like Charles Murray, then y The central premise of the book is that scholastic ability is not evenly distributed among individuals, and because of natural inequality we need to destroy what deBoer calls ‘The Cult of Smart’. His argument is based on the observation that; some degree of scholastic ability is genetically determined and because of genetic variation there will be an uneven distribution of scholastic ability. Now if alarms are going off and you think this is starting to sound a little like Charles Murray, then you’d be right. But deBoer differs in two key details. Murray argues that there is a racial difference; deBoer argues that there’s no evidence for genetic differences on scholastic ability between races. Murray wants us to end welfare and assistance to the poor because they are ultimately unhelpable; deBoer says that this unequal distribution of scholastic ability we need a Communist revolution. deBoer is a radical Marxist and uses the inequality of scholastic ability to argue for why we need the communist revolution. His argument is that we currently live in a society that puts too much value on scholastic ability and this creates a ‘cult of smart’ (hopefully at this point you’ve picked up on me using ‘scholastic ability’ as a replacement for intelligence or smarts) and that this leads to an unjust inequality that the communist revolution can solve. One of the better observations deBoer makes is that liberals often tend to be better about understanding that we’re not all born on equal footing, that the luck of one's birth has a huge impact on the access to success. But when it comes to educational attainment, liberals then take a turn, arguing that everyone has the same aptitude for schooling if just given a chance. deBoer says that this isn’t the case. Some people have natural scholastic abilities, no more different than how some people have natural athletic ability. While training and coaching can definitely make me a more skilled runner, no one would argue that if I just work hard enough I can become a gold medal sprinter. deBoer makes the same argument for educational attainment. While a good environment and proper teaching can help, we will run into a biological barrier for some, and continuing to force children to try and make academic achievements helps no one. A side point that deBoer makes that I think is important to highlight is that because lefties are so averse to talking about genetics and scholastic ability, it leaves the conversation open to people like Murray to dominate the discussion on the subject. I, like most lefty people, had a negative gut reaction on reading the core idea of the book. We know that any relation to genetics and scholastic ability will be used by the far right to justify eugenics and geniside. But this refusal to engage with this subject leaves no counter narrative to the harmful ideas put forth by people like Murray. If the evidence points to a genetic component of scholastic ability then liberals need to accept this and use it to better inform our policies. Now obviously the science of this is not settled, the effect that genetics plays on scholastic ability is an active area of research. I would recommend reading “Intelligence: New Findings and Theoretical Developments” from American Psychologist, if you want a quick summary on the field. deBoer also appears to fall into the common problem of misunderstanding what heritability means in the context of genetics. From my understanding heritability is a population statistic and cannot be meaningfully used to talk about an individual. This is something I’m not completely familiar with so if anyone knows more about genetics please correct me but heritability is the measure of how much the variation in a trait is from genetics, not how much of a trait is due to genetics, deBoer never goes into a lot of detail but from the context used he appears to think of heritability being the latter. He will say something to the effect of ‘intelligence has a heritability of 0.5’ in a context implying that scholastic ability is 50% determined by genetics when that’s not how genetics and heritability work. This tends to be a common problem that a lot of lay people fall into when talking on the subject of genes and scholastic ability. The larger point that deBoer wants to argue through all of this is that the root problem stems from the over importance that society places on scholastic ability. If someone is not able to succeed in school that should carry the same importance as someone's inability to write a ballet, or someone's inability to paint. It’s understandable why scholastic ability is emphasized, scholastic ability is often the only skill that guarantees success in our current society. The income gap between those with college degrees and those without is still large, and many (rightfully so) feel like they will not be able to financially support themselves or a family without the financial security that comes from higher education. The solutions proposed are a bit...radical. deBoer is a hardcore Marxist and his solution is to just overthrow capitalism and all the problems will be solved. He does propose some more realistic solutions that are still a little out there; lowering education standards and making the dropout age 12 to name a few. Overall I would highly recommend reading. I would call it necessary to read for anyone who leans left. This subject is one that I think lefties are generally not prepared to talk about and we need to be better equipped to discuss these issues. The issue of scholastic ability is almost never present in our discussions on education reform and they need to be if we truly want to create a more equitable world.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Christen

    I received an early review copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. "The prohibition against talking plainly about differences in academic talent prevents us from reckoning with those consequences and adapting to them."  Kudos to the author for taking on this subject. It's an obvious fact that causes squeamishness. It seems to me that the focus of our modern educational system is to smooth out these differences. We test and sort and support to these ends. Yet the gaps hav I received an early review copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. "The prohibition against talking plainly about differences in academic talent prevents us from reckoning with those consequences and adapting to them."  Kudos to the author for taking on this subject. It's an obvious fact that causes squeamishness. It seems to me that the focus of our modern educational system is to smooth out these differences. We test and sort and support to these ends. Yet the gaps haven't disappeared. So it must be the system itself, say many. To admit it may be individual differences is to admit that the educational structure isn't necessary as it is fighting a losing battle. And thus no one wants to go there. "to truly reconcile our egalitarian impulses with the reality of genetic predisposition, we will have to remake society from top to bottom, in schools especially but throughout our systems from birth to death." And this is where we part ways. I believe the author thinks that "Capitalism" is the cause of status disputes, greed, dominance, conflict, and negative emotions. So if we give everyone material goods to satisfy their needs and remove hierarchy and social rank then we will all be happy Marxists? I agree that we would need to "remake society from top to bottom" but we would need to start with our mammal brain structure. And Marxism (and Capitalism) or any other political and economic ideology will not do that. Our wiring is such that we don't consciously think about our social status, much like breathing. Yes, we can override the default systems and "hack" ourselves into relaxation with deep breathing, but most of the time we just let our automatic breathing do the job. And we can combat the panic of losing social status but we have to identify it for what it is and not pretend it doesn't exist. For being low social status meant that we would not get resources. Low social status is starvation, no reproduction, and no safety. That is how mammalian brains mete out resources: your social rank dictates your place at the water hole, your mating opportunities, your place of safety in the middle of the herd when a predator attacks. So when you know your social status is low, your ability to get food, offspring, and safety is at risk. And we freak out. Cortisol rages and we either fight or depress. We have mammal brains. Our ancestors who successfully climbed the social status ladder and were able to mate have passed those traits on. And here you and I are. Most of us today have food, safety, and mating opportunities. (That is to say, we CAN get those things even if they are not the ideal quality. We are all snobs if to be a snob is to want the very very best we can get.) The tangled and complex systems we have in place to deal with status seeking is not Capitalism's fault. It is how we are built. It is how we have survived and it's only in the past 100 or so years of amazing abundance that we have our heads above water and can see how social status in times of abundance is downright nasty. Because when animals have their needs met their status seeking increases! And we humans find incredible ways to do this. Fashions change, ___ is the new black, pineapples used to be trendy now it's kale, this logo was hot but now it's embarrassing, etc. But increased status seeking makes sense - for most of evolution mammals did not have easy resources. Social status was the key to survival and when resources are scarce the social status apparatus never had a chance to NOT be useful. Status seeking was always useful for millions of years! We don't know what to do with ourselves when we have all of our resources, so social status pathways run wild with no satiation point. So in a sense actually it is Capitalism's fault since our use of money to mete out resources in a quantitative way and our profit reward for improvement and fulfilling needs/wants has resulted in astonishing material wealth. But I still don't think destroying Capitalism is the answer as it doesn't deal with the issue of status seeking run amok in times of abundance. The author has certainly pulled the curtain back from our comfortable ideas about education and intelligence. His solutions would try to make us all more "equal" but I actually think that will be worse until we can calm our need for social status. (But I do not believe that inequality is the answer! I simply think we won't be happy and settled if we are simply equal.) I withhold stars because I think the solutions proposed are misguided and I got tired of the writing style with its rants. I almost couldn't get through the first part. I give this book two stars for its honesty and boldness. Here are some resources that get to the root cause of social status, and different solutions. We don't act this way because we are all greedy evil beings. We act this way because it was what kept us alive for millions of years. We are not going to undo that easily but I do think we can consciously adjust rather than clawing for increased social status when it is unnecessary. https://innermammalinstitute.org/stat... (and her other works) https://twitter.com/robkhenderson (and his newsletter!)

  20. 5 out of 5

    Amber

    Welp...I both completely disagreed with and really liked this book. It's extremely rare in its audacity and honesty, taking on both the shibboleths of American education and the rank hypocrisy in how white liberals talk about (and act on) education and equality. In particular, he lays out compelling evidence that genes largely determine our educational success (or lack thereof), indeed that genes probably also largely determine our capacity for hard work, and therefore that meritocracy as a valu Welp...I both completely disagreed with and really liked this book. It's extremely rare in its audacity and honesty, taking on both the shibboleths of American education and the rank hypocrisy in how white liberals talk about (and act on) education and equality. In particular, he lays out compelling evidence that genes largely determine our educational success (or lack thereof), indeed that genes probably also largely determine our capacity for hard work, and therefore that meritocracy as a value system is morally repugnant. I thought the first half of the book--identifying the problems (indeed, dishonesty) in how we talk about American education and the unacknowledged tensions inherent in our system--was stronger than the second, which is light on evidence of how abandoning the rat-race meritocracy will necessarily be better for the people whose genes don't set them up for success in today's world, who deBoer (and I) care so much about. Most compelling, I thought, were his challenges as to whether we want our educational system to produce better outcomes on average or more equal outcomes. We decry achievement gaps across groups, although children are learning much more than they did in the past. As he writes: "Even students who struggle today would handily outperform the average students from several decades ago; the problem is that the top performing students keep learning, too, and performance gaps persist. Raising the bar of excellence necessarily means leaving some students behind. Few people in the world of education policy ever seem to recognize these contradictions. ... The progressive among us want our society to be equal, and yet many of the selfsame people uncritically accept the notion of meritocracy...a machine for creating inequality." He sees this as meaning that only a socialist (and of course he has opinions about how social democracy does not qualify) system can address. He acknowledges that we won't all have Maseratis but fails to grapple with what the actual material living standards might be in such a society. I, on the other hand, take seriously all the problems he's identified, including that "the notion that there is a strong connection between education and economic growth has recently been convincingly argued to be largely a statistical mirage. The data shows that what really matters is the academic performance of the top 5 percent of students." For me, this militates in favor of going out of our way to identify those students, to ensure that being born into difficult circumstances doesn't prevent them from realizing their potential...precisely because the more of that potential is realized, the more tax revenue we'll be able to generate to provide better material living standards for everyone. As well, while he acknowledges racism and sexism in today's world (and rightly points out that even if we could redress inequality of opportunity, we would be left with an immoral meritocracy), I don't think he appropriately grapples with how reductions in racism and sexism have changed the world. He acknowledges that the postwar strong economy (particularly for lower-IQ workers) with strong unions wasn't accessible to women or minorities, but he doesn't address whether the lower levels of inequality were indeed *predicated* on not giving equal labor-market access. Similarly he highlights the rise in assortative mating in terms of educational attainment but doesn't address whether this is true in IQ terms--i.e. are the same sorts of men and women (in the genetic terms he lays out) getting married, but today's women have more formal education and labor-market earnings. A less overarching quibble is that he's clearly writing from a very left-wing bubble, e.g. "I’d like it if parents thought about the ways, subtle or explicit, that they teach children that being smart is the most important thing in the world." That surely doesn't describe the world I grew up in, which was absolutely oriented around teaching children that being good at sports was the most important thing in the world. And I would suggest this still describes most of America today, albeit not the highly educated circles deBoer (or I) travel in. Ok, that seems negative for a five-star book, but that's because it's thought-provoking, and as noted, I disagree with his conclusions. But it goes farther in trying to grapple with modern American educational life than much of anything else I've read.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Alex Shrugged

    I would have given this book 5 stars for an excellent argument on educational reform, but the solution the author proposes is Marxism which has failed time and again. So he loses a star. Seems like a nice guy though. Through the majority of the book (at least 2/3rds) he correctly identifies the problems with the educational system and provides some cogent reasons for why some students just won't learn. I agree with the author on the majority of his points in that regard. In fact, I find only a f I would have given this book 5 stars for an excellent argument on educational reform, but the solution the author proposes is Marxism which has failed time and again. So he loses a star. Seems like a nice guy though. Through the majority of the book (at least 2/3rds) he correctly identifies the problems with the educational system and provides some cogent reasons for why some students just won't learn. I agree with the author on the majority of his points in that regard. In fact, I find only a few differences between this book and the controversial book "The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life" by Richard J. Herrnstein and Charles Murray. The Bell Curve provided more data and more expert analysis, but Fredrik deBoer did a fine job in covering the basics and making the subject comprehensible. In summary, individual achievement is based on one's genetic make up with only a small part (if any) that can be attributed to one's environment... meaning teachers and/or really involved parents. Thus, your mother and father's genes will determine how smart (or dumb) you will be. A Harvard degree will probably get you a higher paying job, but the reason you got into Harvard in the first place was because Harvard only accepts really good students. Thus the teaching at Harvard did not make you into a really good graduate. You were really good from the start. Everyone else went to a different college. FYI, the author is an elitist and he implies that several times though I'm not sure he thinks so. The author goes through great pains to say that he is anti-racist, and he is NOT suggesting that one race or another is dumber or smarter. I believe he is sincere. The author also goes through great pains to say that he is an avowed Marxist with a long list of radical leftist activities to his name AND he mentions that his parents were also radical leftists. He probably thinks that this will indemnify him from accusations of racism or neo-Nazi sympathies. I don't think he is a racist. He is not a Nazi of any kind. He is a radical leftist Marxist who has only the best of intentions. (I mean that. I really do.) The end of the book is a Marxist manifesto. He lays out how wonderful Marxism is and how it will NOT solve all of our problems, but it will make us all self-fulfilled and happy. (Or words to that effect.) Frankly, if the author was the king of the world and could implement his ideas without objection from anyone, it probably would be a better world. The problem, of course, is that people have their own ideas about what will make them happy, so the author will NEVER be able to implement his vision of Marxism. Frankly, even Marx did not achieve his vision of Marxism, and the author admits that the chances of implementing true Marxism are slim, but he can dream. Personally, if I were to start a society based on Marxist principles, I would limit the number of group members to less than 250 people (including children). Any more than that and the load gets too great for the productive people to support the lazy people. In a small group, the incentive to win the favor of the group would be sufficiently high to spur the lazy people into production. With more people than that, it is too easy to get away with less than minimum production. It reminds me of the old joke in the Soviet Union, "As long as they pretend to pay us, we will pretend to work." The author addresses the idea of lazy people dragging down the system. He seems to think that people of today are so much more productive-per-person that they could support any number of lazy people. I don't think the author realizes the real power of lazy people, or how sick-to-the-heart productive people can become supporting them. That idea was the basis for the book "Atlas Shrugged" by Ayan Rand. One day the productive people of the world just stopped producing and the world stopped. I doubt I will read this book again, but it has inspired me to read The Bell Curve again and Atlas Shrugged. I'll have to get to that real soon. I know I have both books on the shelf somewhere around here.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Maria McGrath

    Where's the lie? As a product of the public school system and a parent of three kids who went through the NYC public school system and who has seen the harm charters can do, I listened to this book with my breath held. I've been burned by so many books on education that start out well but then cite the "shining" example of charter schools. Fredrik deBoer sees through the hype and exposes the lying and the unsustainability at the heart of most charters, especially New York's Success Academy (thei Where's the lie? As a product of the public school system and a parent of three kids who went through the NYC public school system and who has seen the harm charters can do, I listened to this book with my breath held. I've been burned by so many books on education that start out well but then cite the "shining" example of charter schools. Fredrik deBoer sees through the hype and exposes the lying and the unsustainability at the heart of most charters, especially New York's Success Academy (their numbers look so good because of attrition--as the years go by, they shed or expel the students with the most problems and refuse to backfill, or to take on other students). He also looks at the Gates Foundation and education profiteers with a critical eye. Those were my favorite parts, but his deeper aim is to wake people up to the genetic facts that on individual levels (not racial, or even socioeconomic) people's academic ability is different, and some students will never succeed in higher math or other advanced subjects, nor should they be forced to. He observes that almost all the people advancing theories about how to improve schools were excellent students, so they lose sight of the fact that some (on all intellectual levels) just don't like school and others cannot succeed because their talents lie in other areas. Once we truly acknowledge this, we can stop cudgeling teachers and parents for not doing a better job with struggling students and get down to the task of building a society that cares for all, rather than a zero-sum game, where a certain number are pushed down as others move up. It's not a long book, and I wish that every well-considered word would be heard by policymakers, people concerned over education, and parents. We can and must do better than the current system, and Fredrik deBoer lays out exactly why.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Ryan

    This is a leftist/Marxist who in spite of that presents an unrelated true argument -- intelligence isn't evenly distributed, is key to success in current society, and that educational intervention doesn't do much to affect that. This is basically the same argument as Charles Murray but focusing on different aspects, and then trying to bring in his Marxism to destroy society as usual in response. The irony that he's a university administrator making the zero-sum education argument/lack of utility, This is a leftist/Marxist who in spite of that presents an unrelated true argument -- intelligence isn't evenly distributed, is key to success in current society, and that educational intervention doesn't do much to affect that. This is basically the same argument as Charles Murray but focusing on different aspects, and then trying to bring in his Marxism to destroy society as usual in response. The irony that he's a university administrator making the zero-sum education argument/lack of utility, of course (most education being a filtering/sorting game, not adding value...)... He makes the argument of "intelligence is individual, and doesn't vary across groups" for political reasons, predictably. I'd probably skip this and just read the better form of the same argument in Real Education by Charles Murray, or his other books. However, if someone is a leftist and more responsive to a leftist making an inferior form of the same argument, this might be the book for them.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Mell Simons

    Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher, St. Martin's Press for an early copy of this book. The Cult of Smart touches on some realities in our current and historical educational system. The title itself was a fantastic choice, because the truth is, our students are living in a cult of smart. The concerns raised in this book are valid, and sometimes difficult to read as an educator. We would like to think we can change the world, starting one students at a time. What worked for me was the idea th Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher, St. Martin's Press for an early copy of this book. The Cult of Smart touches on some realities in our current and historical educational system. The title itself was a fantastic choice, because the truth is, our students are living in a cult of smart. The concerns raised in this book are valid, and sometimes difficult to read as an educator. We would like to think we can change the world, starting one students at a time. What worked for me was the idea that academic potential is largely specific to the child, and no amount of interventions, teacher practice or reforms would make a huge difference in the educational outcome for that child. The fact that intelligence is heritable and sometimes "luck" is on your side is not groundbreaking, but rather it affirms the fact that sometimes all the best practices on Earth, from the best teachers on the planet would not change the outcome for some students. What didn't work for me was I felt it belabored the points that could have been summarized more succinctly.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Andrew Schlukebier

    Freddie’s book is a grossly inferior rehash of Real Education (2008), by Charles Murray: http://emilkirkegaard.dk/en/wp-conten... Murray argued that America’s education system does not accommodate that cognitive variability of our students. That’s Freddie’s main point as well, but Freddie does not mention that Murray pointed this out long ago. Freddie’s diagnosis of the problem is pretty much the same as Murray’s diagnosis. Murray has sensible ideas for what to do about it. One of those ideas is to Freddie’s book is a grossly inferior rehash of Real Education (2008), by Charles Murray: http://emilkirkegaard.dk/en/wp-conten... Murray argued that America’s education system does not accommodate that cognitive variability of our students. That’s Freddie’s main point as well, but Freddie does not mention that Murray pointed this out long ago. Freddie’s diagnosis of the problem is pretty much the same as Murray’s diagnosis. Murray has sensible ideas for what to do about it. One of those ideas is to get rid of the “B.A.” template, which Murray says is a terrible fit for many people. You can hear him explain here: The B.A. is the work of the Devil! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ivkIY... Freddie has lots of stupid ideas for what to do about it, like just making college easier for people who shouldn’t be there. Freddie argues at length against the existence of genetic group differences, especially racial differences. That’s just stupid. Like Jim Watson said: “A priori, there is no firm reason to anticipate that the intellectual capacities of peoples geographically separated in their evolution should prove to have evolved identically. Our desire to reserve equal powers of reason as some universal heritage of humanity will not be enough to make it so.” And here’s an article about a recent paper on this: No Skin in the Game Do genes account for 50—70% of racial differences in intelligence? https://www.unz.com/jthompson/no-skin... “ This is a very important study. I have had to summarize, and the detail about dealing with precise methods and possible confounding is in the text of the paper. Does this paper wrap up the issue of genetic factors in racial differences in intelligence? It is hard to see what else the authors could have done to carefully test the genetic hypothesis. It appears to be a solid result. Testing it in other samples should happen quickly, so that if it does not replicate, we can discard it. Meanwhile, it stands as a clear indicator that at least half of the black-white difference is probably of genetic origin.”

  26. 5 out of 5

    Brian

    Worth a read for all educators and anyone who cares about how we value people as people. The basic thrust is that not all of us are as academic as the rest, and that these people should not be undervalued because of it. Those who struggle to get through high school do so through no fault of their own—but also should not be looked down upon and should not be kept from a good life in a material sense. Even if you don’t want to agree with the socialist prescriptions at the end, the argument leading Worth a read for all educators and anyone who cares about how we value people as people. The basic thrust is that not all of us are as academic as the rest, and that these people should not be undervalued because of it. Those who struggle to get through high school do so through no fault of their own—but also should not be looked down upon and should not be kept from a good life in a material sense. Even if you don’t want to agree with the socialist prescriptions at the end, the argument leading up to that is compelling and must be grappled with by any clear-eyed person.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Jayo Leavesby

    Some interesting ideas but built off a very bad premise. I think this book provides a good perspective, and is certainly well intentioned, but overall leans to hard into the nature rather than nurture influences on ability. I appreciate the radical revisions proposed by the book for society, and the ending certainly did sound utopian. The books central starting point that intelligence isn’t everything is of course true, and should be more emphasized in society, but some of the plans seem like th Some interesting ideas but built off a very bad premise. I think this book provides a good perspective, and is certainly well intentioned, but overall leans to hard into the nature rather than nurture influences on ability. I appreciate the radical revisions proposed by the book for society, and the ending certainly did sound utopian. The books central starting point that intelligence isn’t everything is of course true, and should be more emphasized in society, but some of the plans seem like they would really only work in an already fixed society. The book did seem convincing at some parts, but I wasn’t always a fan of the almost conversational style in which it was written. Overall I certainly appreciate the book and am glad to have read it (especially for the ending), but I think some of its premise and material critiques feel deeply flawed.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Jenny

    I was wanting to read this book because I was seeking a deeper understanding of the problems facing those of us trying to educate students with varying levels of intelligence. This book, however did none of that. Rather it’s a Marxist manifesto. While at times it was interesting to read a viewpoint drastically different from my own, I was frustrated by the lack of content for which I sought the book out to begin with.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Peter McCluskey

    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 Cult 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 m 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 Cult 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. Genetics 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. Bloopers 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. He writes: 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"? deBoer's Vision His long-term goal is a Marxist utopia. People there will want schools, without wanting the competition for credentials that dominates current higher education. More broadly: 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? Conclusion 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.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Cezary Baraniecki

    Talk of ideology has become fashionable again, with everyone from Chomsky, Jordan Peterson and even Joe Rogan declaiming its ability to occlude thoughts and distort reality. But such a concept of ideology, as some thing that we don and doff like a pair of sunglasses, filtering a natural and untampered reality in recognizable ways, prevents us from realizing that ideology is built into our way of constructing the world, and not simply a layer atop it. Our most potent and strongest ideologies are Talk of ideology has become fashionable again, with everyone from Chomsky, Jordan Peterson and even Joe Rogan declaiming its ability to occlude thoughts and distort reality. But such a concept of ideology, as some thing that we don and doff like a pair of sunglasses, filtering a natural and untampered reality in recognizable ways, prevents us from realizing that ideology is built into our way of constructing the world, and not simply a layer atop it. Our most potent and strongest ideologies are those we are no longer able to see, and call out as such, where conflict has subsided and everyone doesn’t so much agree, as simply neglect to realize there was something to disagree over in the first place. In this conceptual space, The Cult of Smart presents our stance towards education, and intelligence, as ruling ideologies of our times. The importance of education is a given, and along with sporting an affected folksy attitude, taking a photo with a baby and being “for the middle class”, citing the importance of education and your singular ability to improve and increase it, has become a mainstay of politics, at least in the western democracies of which I am familiar. "Education, education, education" was how Tony Blair set out his priorities for office while, a few year prior, on the opposite end of the ocean and political spectrum, George H.W. Bush exclaimed: “I want to be the education president.” There may be murmurs, ‘What’s so wrong with valuing education, and agreeing upon that value. We all agree that we need air to breathe and yet don’t deride such thoughts as mere ideology?’ Such is the topic of Fredrick DeBoer’s phenomenal book which outlines the political, social and economic value placed on education and how these selfsame values are creating a worse world, with higher inequality and an impoverished view of the potential for human flourishing. The gist of DeBoer’s argument is that our overwhelming focus on education and academic performance – what he now describes as a “shorthand for a person’s overall human value” – along with the societal and economic rewards for their attainment is in conflict with what we understand of human nature and the moral intuitions that stem from this understanding. Ideas of the good life have come and gone, and today the idea of a steady job, family and two car garage seems as passe as Conan the Barbarian’s ideal life of ‘Crushing your enemies … and hearing the lamentation of their women!’ No, as DeBoer points out: today, the good life for many is a fashionable brownstone apartment, in a hip city, adorned with various diplomas, close to a hot yoga studio and time enough to spare for mindfulness meditation. Throw a child into the mix – likely with a name that sounds vaguely Sumerian – and it includes little Ashtur or Ethlyn attending the best schools, graduating from an Ivey league university and going to build a mindfulness meditation app of their own. Asked to find what possible moral wrong could be exposed in the aforementioned story, both conservatives and liberals may rightly ask if a similar opportunity for education were not made to everyone else, and if our Ashtur deserved his spot in the Ivey league institution based on his abilities. These are valid questions. Research shows that legacy admissions are over six times as likely to gain admission as other similarly able applicants, while income plays a large determining factor in the schools and educational achievements of students. And yet, DeBoer insists, this is missing the point. What the hypothetical situation describes is a real case of using education in order to sort our population into winners and losers all the while claiming it in fact is a vehicle of equality. We can decry all the ways that our educational institutions fail to, in fact, discriminate only based on the academic abilities of students – and the book does provide convincing evidence that more can be done to tear down ingrained advantages rich but unspectacular students receive – but the question of why we think a society that imparts its rewards overwhelmingly on the basis of academic achievement is in any way just, or the best we can do for that matter, remains. I summarize DeBoer’s take on our common train of reasoning that allows this system to be in place as follows: 1. Our highly advanced, globalized economy required a cadre of intelligent people to manage, operate and drive forward for the benefit of all humankind 2. We can best find, nurture and elevate such people using our educational system – mainly by increasing the number of people that enter and complete University degrees. 3. The system and the additional financial rewards these same people receive are just, in so far as everyone has a fair opportunity at attending these schools and any discrimination whatsoever (sex, religion, race etc.) save for academic ability is eliminated 4. The inherent criteria in justice is that we cannot judge people for things outside their control like their race, skin color or sex. But what – he asks and I echo – can be more clear than that academic performance is at least in part explicable in terms of biology, of which we have no control. To give a concrete example: suppose a society were ordered on the basis that the winners would be those that enter the NBA (National Basketball Association). We could check if those getting into the NBA were, in fact, the best basketball players or if discrimination lurked behind player choices that teams made; but even if we determined the system was completely meritocratic – that tryouts are open to everyone and discriminated solely on basketball ability – we could still ask “why setup a system that rewards the small segment of the population that necessarily has the genetic endowment to succeed in the game of basketball”? Assuming the reader is within 3 standard deviations in respect to height and athletic ability, I ask, “Is there any amount of coaching that you could be provided to make it to your high school basketball team, yet alone the NBA?” The Cult of Smart goes to lengths to be as clear as possible on this point, given how quick people might be to connect this line of reasoning with something akin to claiming that the argument leads one to accept natural and intractable genetic academic endowments between races: the common drum that less scrupulous authors such as Charles A. Murray beat. In what I wanted to posit as a negative aspect of the book: DeBoer’s ad nauseum repetition and explication against this point to the point of tedium – turns out to be much needed, as a cursory look at other reviews indicates that people are unable to differentiate between ingroup genetic variability and purported between group variability. To not belabor the point even more, let me leave it with what I take as incontrovertible: an examination of the population as a whole will reveal a spectrum of academic performance that changes little when tracked over lifetimes of that population; moreover, this performance is highly correlated to the academic performance of the examined population’s parents, even when accounting for environmental factors. Take “population” for what it is, or substitute subsets like “female”, “Asian”, “Icelandic” and you come out with the same results: academic performance is variable across the populations and fairly consistent. The single most important factor when it comes to determining your academic abilities is neither the quality of your teachers nor the schools you attended, but the academic abilities our your biological parents. We’ve so far outlined the book’s stream of argument and supporting evidence: our inordinate focus on education as a means to dole out material benefits is unjust, in light of the lack of control we have over our genetic predispositions towards academics. Making sure that those who merit their spots in universities makes little sense once we realize that much of your academic ability is predicated by your parents, of which you clearly have no control. Again, we may want to ensure that LeBron James gets to play in the NBA, and even gets inordinately renumerated for doing so, but his position therein cannot be the basis for a just society. There are arguments against this position. You could take issue with the evidence against the heritability of intelligence. This is a tough hill to make your stand, however, at least according to the evidence presented in the book, and intuitively makes little sense when we freely accept the heritability of just about every other aspect of what makes us humans: from physical attributes, to temperament, to susceptibility to drug/alcohol abuse, political disposition and even likelihood of divorce. There is staggering evidence that genetics have some causal influence in the traits and behaviors we exhibit in life, and it some is enough to bring the edifice of meritocracy down. When liberals freely admit to the influence of our genetics on all matters of our lives save for intelligence it seems, as DeBoer puts it seems that they “… only believe in evolution from the neck down.” Likewise, you could accept the inherent injustice of sorting and incentivizing people by traits beyond their control on the consequential claim that this results in more just outcomes overall. The book does a good job of spelling out this Rawlsian argument, that proper justice would admit inequalities only in so far as it helped the least well off more than if these inequalities didn’t exist. This argument is defeated, however, by the social and economic phenomena that spurred the book in the first place: inequalities are expanding and common metrics that we accept as a stand-in for the good life: health, life expectancy, poverty rates, suicide etc. – are all worsening for the population on the losing end of the meritocratic rat-race. The claim that people need incentives, and that our best-and-brightest especially need financial incentives to raise society up with their productive deeds is difficult to square with a world in which the financial windfalls go to a select few, while the remainder is left with so little. DeBoer’s own solution to the problem stems from his Marxist orientation. He ends the book with a clear, succinct and importantly concrete set of proposals that, in his opinion, would lead to a better, more just world. I lack the expertise to appraise the solutions presented: universal basic income, job guarantee programs, dropping the age of required schooling, expanding social programs and more – but will reiterate that it is refreshing to see a public intellectual step out on a limb and present real policy prescriptions rather than fall back to vague yet optimistic talk when it comes down to solutions. DeBoer’s political convictions are Marxist, in the most clear and materialist sense you can imagine. The root of the issue is the inability of a multitude of different humans - with their talents, propensities, abilities, aspirations, faults and all - to live a good life, due to our narrow focus on education. The only way to get around this will not be to “have a conversation” or “be more tolerant” or “combat [insert socially fashionable phenomenon to combat]” but to provide the material basis people need to live their lives. I’ll end with an important theme in the book, which is to remind us that while we are clearly not all equal – not in our economic means nor our biological endowments – our goals should be centered around the politically powerful idea that, as humans, and as moral beings, we are equal, and that one’s inherent ability to succeed in our modern economy should not come at the detriment of the rest of society.

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