by request: The Cult of Smart

a brief(ish) introduction to my book

I’ve gotten a bunch of new readers since I started here and there’s been a lot of curiosity about my book, so I thought I’d give you a brief primer on the text and what it’s about (and, hopefully, inspire you to buy a copy). I’m not going to do a lot of work to provide links and citations here; that’s why I researched and wrote the book. Feel free to consult its list of references. Or read it!

What is the Cult of Smart?

The Cult of Smart is several things.

  • The Cult of Smart is the way in which our culture represents your educational ability and accomplishments as synonymous with your human value. This can perhaps be seen in its most naked form in immigration debates, but it is a prevalent aspect of contemporary society, particularly in educated circles. A child who's really bad at sports is amusing; a child who’s really bad at school is a crisis.

  • The Cult of Smart is the assumption, nearly universal in many policy and political circles, that education is the solution to most of our social problems, especially poverty, joblessness, economic inequality, and racial inequality. When people say things like “the best jobs program is a good education” but feel no obligation to explain how or provide evidence, that’s the Cult of Smart at work.

  • The Cult of Smart is the idea that, if we were to remove environmental inequalities and the influence of racism and similar forces, we would be left with a system that identifies the “real” outcomes of schooling, the just outcomes that sort the deserving and the hardworking from the rest and provides them with the various material rewards that accrue to the highly educated. In other words, it is the notion that the meritocratic system would be justified if only we could realize it in pure form, without the influence of exogenous factors. It’s the attitude that educational success leading to economic success is an inherently moral system, if only we could eliminate the distorting influences of inequality.

What’s the problem with the Cult of Smart?

The Cult of Smart is cruel and shortsighted. If “smart” means anything, it can’t apply to everyone, which means that if we base our judgments of human value on smart, we will inevitably be condemning some to being perceived as being of low value. If academic ability is in any sense inherent or intrinsic, then conferring value on people based on that ability is capricious and unfair. Fixating on education and intelligence inevitably devalues human characteristics that should not be devalued, such as compassion, perceptiveness, patience, thoughtfulness, kindness, depth, and curiosity.

The Cult of Smart is not buttressed by evidence; in fact it is often directly contradicted by evidence. The idea that education is the key to a better economic future for individuals and our country has been promoted by every president going back at least as far as Reagan. Educational achievement has expanded at essentially every level, with better than 90% of American adults now holding a high school diploma, more than 35% now holding bachelor’s degrees, and master's degrees exploding, with the number of people holding such degrees increasing by more than 100 people per 100,000 people in less than 25 years. And yet in the last 25 years while we were becoming a vastly more educated nation, working age poverty (the metric of relevance here) barely changed and income inequality rose dramatically. The troubling separation between productivity and real wages continued. The failure of rapidly-rising college participation rates to reduce poverty or inequality in the way typically argued reflect broader dynamics, or so the book argues: college creates inequality rather than reduces it, and if everyone got a college degree (as the policy apparatus often pushes for), the financial value of a college degree would fall to zero. What’s more, America has always sucked at international educational comparisons, including during the periods of our greatest scientific, economic, and military dominance, undermining the basic claim that we need to succeed in school to succeed in general.

The Cult of Smart is self-serving. If we get rid of the influence of environment and assorted, we’ll be left with a system that prizes… what the people advocating for that system think makes them look best. All of those think tankers and politicos and journalists and “consultants” that push education as our great economic sorting system are themselves people who flourished in education. In many ways these people seem unwilling to think deeper than “this worked for me, so it can work for everyone.” I can’t put this better than Scott Alexander did in his review of the book.

Access to the 20% is gated by college degree, and their legitimizing myth is that their education makes them more qualified and humane than the rest of us. DeBoer thinks the deification of school-achievement-compatible intelligence as highest good serves their class interest; "equality of opportunity" means we should ignore all other human distinctions in favor of the one that our ruling class happens to excel at.

We have created a new caste system, one based on education, that is no more free to enter or untouched by unearned privilege than any aristocracy. We have justified that system through soaring appeals to the intrinsic value of education and through the typical laurels we place on meritocracy. The system provides no answers for those who lose out within it, and even makes them feel that their failure is their own fault. Our policy and political system pours all of their hopes into education despite major theoretical and empirical reasons it doesn’t work, and this fixation helps them dampen enthusiasm for redistributive policy. We inflict terrible stress and trauma on our children in our zeal to push them up the academic ladder so that they accrue the benefits of being near the top of the distribution, when by definition half of them will be found to be below average. We relentlessly attack teachers for failing to do what they cannot do. We indoctrinate very young children to believe that their value as humans, and our love for them, is dependent upon a narrow and cramped definition of their worth.

What’s the alternative?

Parents and educators can do their best to let their children know that they will be loved and valued regardless of how they perform in the classroom, but ultimately change has to happen at a societal level. I do argue for several important educational policy changes related to making school more flexible for students, giving them more paths to graduation (or other life alternatives). However, the book argues that simply reforming the education system can never fix what’s broken, because the problem is not with educational outcomes but rather how educational outcomes lead to economic outcomes in our system. Instead, I push for a social system that is far more economically redistributive than ours is currently, with proposed policies such as single payer health insurance, a jobs guarantee, and/or a universal basic income. The ethical logic is pretty simple: if you did not earn your abilities but were born with them (in part or in whole), you have less natural right to what you have earned, and if you did not deserve your disadvantages but were rather curse with them at birth (in part or in whole), you have greater moral claim to deserving help.

It is perhaps worth noting that the proposed solutions have been consistently identified as the weakest part of the book.

Why was the book controversial?

Not enough people read it for it to be controversial.

OK, why were some people mad about it?

I mean, besides the fact that I’m me - in a very weird display, it became a topic of angst on Twitter years ago, before I had written anything beyond the proposal. In, I think, fall of 2018? a lot of blue-check Twitter got incensed about a book that did not yet exist. When this was happening I scanned Twitter in amazement to see claim after claim being made about a book I had barely begun writing. For instance Duncan Black - I’m sorry, “Atrios” - took the time to tweet out that the book confirmed that I am bad, despite the fact that it was at that time an idea rather than a text you could read. (How could he have drawn conclusions from a non-existent book? You’d have to ask him.) It was remarkable that no one among the dozens of people in this pile-on thought to say “could it be weird that we’re getting angry about the contents of a book that has no contents?,” but that’s how it goes. Eventually I traced it all to a single anonymous account with a Michael Cera picture for an avatar and less than a thousand followers, who was confidently reporting specific details about a book that, again, only existed in my head, and even there was just a vague and loose idea. Nobody blew the whistle on this bizarre situation. That’s Twitter for you.

What’s the content of more, shall we say, evidence-based critiques of the book?

The mechanism by which people attack the book is that it asserts that there is such a thing as inherent or intrinsic or natural academic ability; that is, that some people are better at school than other people as a result of something that is a part of their basic human makeup, rather than purely through environmental influences. In other words if you could take two different fetuses and put them through the exact same environment and life experiences (including maternal environment) they would still end up with different academic outcomes because of some intrinsic property. (Not necessarily genetic, although that seems the most parsimonious explanation.) Why would someone think that? For a few reasons, including because it helps to explain what are to me the two most basic observations about education that you can have: the fact that all educational tasks demonstrate a spectrum of ability and the fact that relative educational performance is remarkably sticky throughout our academic lives.

First, and simply, different people are better or worse at educational tasks of all stripes. Some kids can color in the lines and others can’t; some kids learn the alphabet faster than others; some kids crunch through equations more accurately; some score in the 25th percentile on their state standardized tests and some in the 75th percentile. Nothing controversial there, and nothing contrary to a purely environmental vision of what produces educational outcomes. But it’s important to remember that we have never observed educational equality of outcomes, whatever that could mean, in any context.

The second observation is vital, blatantly obvious to most career educators, and conveniently ignored in a great deal of our educational debates. As I argue in the book, people tend to think that what we care about in education is absolute learning - can a kid who could not do long division/recite the state capitols/tie his shoes do so now? But in fact what we are more concerned with is relative learning - are the bronze reading group kids catching up to the gold group/is the racial achievement gap closing/what percentile did you score in on the SAT? People constantly complain about poor scores on standardized tests without knowing the slightest thing about the content of those tests. That would make little sense if they were primarily concerned with absolute learning, with content. Instead, they care about how different groups perform relative to each other, and about the relative performance of their own child to his or her peers. And what you find, again and again, is that academic performance relative to peers is remarkably static. That is, kids tend to sort themselves into a given ability band early in their academic life and they tend to stay there.

“Tend” is an important word; there are plenty of exceptions. Individual students exceed their previous academic standing (or fall back in the pack) fairly often. But at scale, from the point of view of the system, it’s remarkable how static relative educational position is. There are tests you can give to very young children that predict how well they’ll do in kindergarten. The grades students achieve in the earliest grades tend to produce performance distributions that persist all the way through their academic lives. Indeed, data gathered the summer after kindergarten provides useful predictive information about how students will perform in college. Third grade reading group (age 8/9), by itself, is a strong predictor of how a student will perform by the end of high school (age 17/18). SAT results don’t just give us quite accurate information about how well test takers will perform in their first year of college. They give us useful predictive information about whether test takers will ever hold a patent or write a bestselling book. Kids sort themselves into an educational hierarchy and they mostly don’t move. That this is not the first thing mentioned in every educational discussion is a function of the fact that it is not polite.

All of this is fodder for the idea that there is something intrinsic about academic ability. People who push an “only environment” vision of what produces academic outcomes tend to say that even very small environmental influences can result in major changes in quantitative outcomes. But if that’s true, how likely is it that relative position between students would replicate itself so consistently? Look, students are getting sorted into different classes as they progress along with their peers all the time. So a public school district might have two classes for each grade, and students get sorted randomly into the two different classes along the way. Student A and B both attend Class I in second grade but in third grade Student A is in Class II and Student B is in Class III. To listen to the conventional wisdom is to assume that the differences in quality between the teachers in Class II and III will have profound impacts on the performance of our students. And yet we don’t observe that students are regularly making huge leaps or falls in outcomes relative to peers or each other. Instead, students in this situation tend to follow the overall trend: they tend to stand in the ability band they were in before. Year after year.

In contrast with the confusion of the “all environment” viewpoint, a perspective on education that assumes that natural ability is real and a significant influence on academic outcomes fits perfectly with students forming themselves into a hierarchy of ability. The highly static nature of relative performance, even when moving between classes, schools, types of schools, or vast geographical distances, is a predictable outcome if it is assumed that different students have different brains and that those brains perform academic tasks more or less well.

As evidence to buttress all of this, I reference the field of behavioral genetics/population genomics/sociogenomics. Research in behavioral genetics has for decades demonstrated that there is a genetic component to academic ability; that is, the more genetically similar two people are the more similar their academic outcomes as measured in such ways as test scores or years of education completed. The primary method for investigating this connection is kinship studies, which use comparisons such as the educational similarity of identical twins, or of adopted siblings, or of adopted children to adoptive parents and biological parentage, etc., to investigate the influence of genes. In recent years direct studies of the genome such as genome wide association studies have been utilized. The evidence all points in the same direction, but this research has always attracted a large number of fierce critics, some methodological, some political - in particular, that any consideration of genetic influences on academic ability must necessarily imply pseudoscientific racism, the notion that Black people are genetically predisposed to lower intelligence.

The book takes great pains to point out that I don’t believe this, and that the assumption that behavioral genetics must necessarily lead to racism is fallacious, as the jumping contest analogy reveals.

Hit me with the jumping contest analogy.

Suppose we held a jumping competition. We would expect to find, and in fact find in real life, significant variation between individuals. Because not everybody can jump as high as everybody else. And most would readily concede that genes play a role in this, as they do in all athletic abilities. Now let’s say, for some reason, that we gave some of our participants weight belts that weighed them down, and others extra-bouncy shoes.

It would not surprise us to find that the average person with a weight belt jumped less high than the average overall, nor would it surprise us that the average person with bouncy shoes outperformed the overall average. This is the influence of the environment exerting itself. But we would also find that there is variation within these groups, with some of the weight belt kids jumping higher the overall average because their sheer natural talent overwhelms the negative influence of the weight belt. It’s not unthinkable that a kid with a weight belt could be the highest jumper of all; talent is powerful. Correspondingly, there will be variation within the group with bouncy shoes, and some poor souls will finish well below average despite their advantage; a lack of talent is also powerful. The key thing to observe here is that it is perfectly consistent and sensible to believe that between-group differences are the product of environmental differences while within-group differences are the product of genes.

In the analogy of course students with weight belts are Black students who suffer under their environmental burdens and the students with bouncy shoes are affluent white students who benefit from their environment. And as in our simple analogy environmental variation can cause between-group differences (the racial achievement gap) while the observed variation between individuals is significantly shaped by genes. In other words, there is no reason why a belief in the individual heritability of academic ability would necessarily lead to a belief in a genetic origin for perceived academic differences between racial groups. Incidentally it’s frustrating that this discussion always gets pulled into the gravity of the racial achievement gap discussion. Between-group differences have been the obsession of our educational research and policy system for decades, but my own interest in The Cult of Smart is the variation between individual students. A hundred dissertations a year are written about the achievement gap; you can look elsewhere for a focus on that.

The idea that people have inherent or intrinsic academic ability that cannot be fully explained through environmental factors or teaching is one of those fake controversial opinions. That is, I suspect that almost no one actually doubts it but everyone has to pretend like they do, largely to avoid the aforementioned racism accusations. “Everyone has the exact same academic potential” is one of those ideas that boils down, on close inspection, to “life is fair.” And life isn’t fair.

But why would the existence of natural talent matter?

First, because if natural ability meaningfully influences educational outcomes, even if that influence is relatively small, then we have done an enormous disservice to our teachers and schools. The consensus opinion in education talk, from Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, is that our educational “woes” are the product of poor school quality and that we can fix education by replacing all of the bad teachers. (In fact American schools perform much better than advertised, school quality is not a real property, and even if teachers were the problem we have no capacity to replace the hundreds of thousands of teachers that would have to be fired.) But if educational metrics are so sticky because of some intrinsic quality in individual students, then we’re foisting blame on beleaguered and underpaid public servants who receive so much negative attention principally because they are the only policy lever we can realistically push. (Man with a hammer, only nails, etc.)

Second, natural talent undermines the basic social contract that is used to perpetuate meritocracy. We are told that the economic system is just because people can determine their own station in life - if you are smart and hardworking, you can succeed. But if intelligence is in part intrinsic rather than earned, everyone can’t succeed; some people are born on third base and some aren’t even allowed into the batter’s box. Conservatives often say that intrinsic differences are just an inevitable part of the system, but some among them also tend to invoke equality of opportunity as a righteous goal. But surely someone who was born without natural aptitude for the kinds of skills that are financially rewarded in our society would argue that they could not possibly have had an equal opportunity. And if people believe that the system can’t actually create a fair shake for everyone even under idealized conditions, their willingness to participate in that system will inevitably be degraded.

OK, what else did people complain about?

A number of people felt that my treatment of the science of heritability was thin/insufficient. Sadly I agree. This is part of the reality of publishing with a big publisher. They have their own opinions about what will make the book the most commercially successful, which of course is their right. But some of the changes do sting. I lost every argument I had with my publisher, and this one stung the most.

Addressing the “heavy dose of science” meant eliminating what I believe was about 6 Microsoft Word pages of exactly the kind of material my critics complained was missing. So that stung. There’s a chance that those extra pages would have been insufficient to placate the critics or even done more harm than good, but I would have really loved the opportunity to find out. Of course, I’m ultimately responsible for the book that went out under my name and I have to stand by it. (But you see why I enjoy being a blogger.)

So say you’re right. What can we do immediately to help students?

  1. Ease or eliminate many standards regarding required curricula or classes. Less standards means greater flexibility which in turn means fewer students beating their heads against the wall trying to pass courses they just can’t. What is the purpose of training students to standards they can’t meet in skills they won’t use? The most talented and driven students will still take calculus absent compulsion, but forcing every high school kid to pass Algebra II or college kids who just want to be occupational therapists to pass organic chemistry is pointless as well as cruel. Our brains aren’t standardized, so our education shouldn’t be either.

  2. Eliminate mass standardized testing. We have the power of inferential statistics at our disposal. We don’t need to do census testing all the time. The NAEP draws from a relatively small sample and it’s the gold standard. We pretend that we don’t have the ability to stratify, sample, and generalize in order to satisfy the political whims of the bankrupt education “reform” movement. Let’s stop pretending, ditch census testing, and draw responsible inferences from samples.

  3. Reinvigorate vocational education. People put too much blind faith into “the trades” as a cure for our labor market woes - there is vast variation not just between the different trade occupations but between contexts within individual professions - but we need paths to marketable skills for those who don’t have the talent or inclination for traditional academics. Rigid tracking is not ethical, but something like the German system could prove more efficient and useful.

  4. Return to a classical vision of education in which the purpose of schooling is not assumed to be vocational or to improve intelligence as typically understood but rather to inculcate diverse values such as curiosity, patience, creativity, kindness, adaptability, respect for difference, independent thinking….

You’ve said that only economic solutions can help those left behind by education. But what if we insisted on an educational solution? What can be done to make students from the bottom quartile of the educational distribution perform like students in the third quartile?

Nothing.

I see! So the only way to help those suffering from a lack of talent they neither chose nor can control is to build a more redistributive social state that ameliorates the negative life consequences of failing in the great meritocratic arms race?

So it would seem. So it would seem.