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The Death Cult of Smart

The Cult of Smart:
How Our Broken Education System Perpetuates Social Injustice
by Fredrik deBoer
All Points Books, 2020, 277 pages

In his recent book, Fredrik deBoer tells an anecdote about one of his freshman writing students. Bright but indifferent to academics, the student asked deBoer—not rhetorically—“What else am I sup­posed to do?”

“I couldn’t answer,” writes deBoer, whom you may know from sharp essays first posted on his blog, such as “The Iron Law of Institutions and the Left” and “Planet of Cops,” which criticized liberals from the left. “What path was there for someone in his late teens if not through college?” No doubt such a student should have a path to an honorable and productive life that aligns with his talents, rather than being kept on the academic moving walkway that goes . . . where?

In the United States today, the academically talented are prized above the unintelligent—unfairly, deBoer asserts—because, for the most part, you’re born as smart as you are going to be. Early environmental influences apart, no parental love, pedagogical atten­tion, or standardized test cramming will help much. “We know that not everyone is equal in ability, and we know that this will never change,” deBoer writes.

Thus, he argues, an ostensibly “meritocratic” society would be extremely cruel in denying status and wealth to the less intelligent. A truly meritocratic society would be even crueler. “[A] system that doles out wealth and hardship based on academic ability is inherently and forever a rigged game.” And who can argue that dignified work shouldn’t be available to those who aren’t right for college, those who may be stronger, gentler, more generous, possessed of who knows what other virtues that many clever people conspicuously lack?

It is obvious that “not everyone is born with the same academic gifts,” deBoer writes, but among teachers and educational officials there is a “prohibition against talking plainly about differences in academic talent.” The “cult of smart”—deBoer defines his title on page five—is “the notion that academic value is the only value, and intelligence the only true measure of human worth.” What we need, instead of our unjust, so-called meritocracy, is “a society where you can fail at school and still be okay.”

This central point of the book—its straightforward diagnosis of a “cult of smart”—redeems any imperfections. And the book has led to more than a few thought-provoking conversations. But longtime readers of deBoer’s writing will be disappointed not to find the penetrating insights of his blog.

The Narcissism of Small Differences

DeBoer offers a way out of the injustices of meritocracy: revolution. Had you been born “under socialism,” he writes—and, therefore, when your parents “define[d] precisely” when to have you, “only doing so when it [made] the most pragmatic and emotional sense”—you’d be free of capitalistic competition.

You’d have the benefits of “government-sponsored daycare” fol­lowed by a “government run” K–12 education that is “subject to the accountability of the local community” and covers “the basics of American history (without the whitewashing).” You’d learn from teachers “free to instruct you in whatever way they think is best.” (Pri­vate schools, religious or otherwise, are not mentioned.) Secondary education would be free of “intense and emotionally draining com­petition.” (DeBoer seems to imply that the only competition high schoolers face today is academic competition fueled by capitalism, and no other status hierarchy either exists now or would assert itself in a void.)

After high school, you would work or go to college as you liked, without “fearing that you are a loser” by not pursuing a degree. If you chose to continue your education, you would find your alma mater through a “weighted lottery system that takes into account your rankings of preference, geographic location, your professional interests, and the need to establish racial and gender diversity at each school.”

“In a socialist world,” deBoer writes, “the absurd college ranking game no longer exists.” (Under his scheme, applicants would appar­ently not indicate a higher geographical preference for Cambridge, Massachusetts.) With classes smaller and free of anyone who “doesn’t want” to study, coursework would be “the expression of a dedication to learning rather than an artifact of capitalism.”

With no “pressure to ‘sell out,’” you would graduate and—after the “(in)famous period of young adult life spent ‘finding yourself’”—“contribute something of value,” even if not “everyone gets to do exactly what they want.” You would “meet someone, or several someones” and “perhaps marry.” You might reproduce, knowing you are guaranteed the flexibility your parents had, including medical care, “weeks and months” of leave, plus “government-provided birth control and unfettered access to abortion on demand.”

This is not a “fantasy,” deBoer writes, and to “ask how we’ll pay for it all” is to miss the point “to an amusing degree.” Building it, which could begin “[t]his very day” would require simultaneously dismantling both capitalism and the cult of the smart.

An apparent irony here is that deBoer’s utopia—despite his fre­quent avowals as a “Marxist” and “materialist” (who is also seeking a “more human culture”)—is on its face more attractive to the professional managerial than to the working class. “Several someones”? “Abortion on demand”?

While deBoer repeatedly criticizes “Park Slope liberals,” his sketched, non-fantasy society is a lot more specific on how it would work for the children of urbane liberals than for those of a rural or blue-collar upbringing. Going to college for free without having to first take a stressful test, finding oneself, delaying childbirth, meeting one or more committed “partners”—this is socialism for Slate Plus subscribers.

The “cult of smart” also encompasses “the great American obsession with appearing intelligent above and beyond all things.” While this might describe certain residents of Morningside Heights and Hyde Park, it hardly seems “the great American obsession.”

DeBoer properly mourns the loss of a “very attractive aspect of mid-twentieth-century American life that has died, and in dying caused great hardship: the labor market for those without college degrees,” not to mention defined-benefit pensions. But he doesn’t much discuss why, and mentions only in passing “the rise of China as the world’s default manufacturer.” For the “untalented”—whom deBoer describes the book as a “prayer” for—there’s vaguely defined work or universal basic income. On the whole, there is much less discussion of the working class than of the aspirational 14 percent.

The book is at times politically crosscutting. DeBoer aptly notes, “Conservative and liberal mythology alike celebrates the individual who escapes a deprived upbringing to rise above his or her station.” The concept of education as a class ladder is, he says, a rare bipartisan article of faith, held by one side to promote the “progressive” idea of equality of talent and the “conservative” idea that people deserve what they get.

But deBoer’s prescriptions (leaving aside that kids should be free to drop out at age twelve) end up being fairly vanilla. He describes himself as “a critic of education reform (of the usual neoliberal vari­ety),” arguing that charter schools are bad, and teachers’ unions and traditional public schools are good. Yet despite criticizing Brooklyn liberals and accusing them of various forms of hypocrisy, deBoer’s serious policy prescriptions aren’t so different from theirs. DeBoer also argues that teachers are underpaid and schools underfunded, which is hard to argue in New York state, where in 2017 teachers earned $79,500 on average before benefits.1 DeBoer writes that educational reporters show “near-total credulity toward charter schools . . . with few in professional media digging into charter school rhetoric.” That’s been untrue for years—just search for “Eva Mos­kowitz” coverage in a popular publication, or see some of the articles deBoer cites to criticize charters. Waiting for Superman turned ten in 2020.

And if we’re to truly overhaul society, why not be more ambitious than advocating “government run” schools that teach history “with­out the whitewashing”? That more or less describes how a super­majority of young Americans are educated today. At the same time, deBoer argues that education can’t meaningfully improve student outcomes, and that “teachers play a far smaller role in student out­comes than most public school educators do. . . . [S]chool quality doesn’t matter very much when it comes to quantitative education outcomes.”

If deBoer’s aggressive rhetoric is genuine—“As a leftist, I under­stand the appeal of tearing down those at the top, on an emotional and symbolic level,” he writes at one point—why more or less keep the status quo? If a revolution is in order, why not suggest local education collectives or apprenticeships, instead of simply more bureaucratized education? Or consider some kind of workers’ society where education isn’t an object of obsessive fixation as a key socio­economic credential.

In Cult of Smart, deBoer appears, or purports, to reason from educational aptitude to socialism. We’re born unequal—therefore socialism. Evidently, in his view, there would be no other kinds of status competition under socialism, as if the desire to build a more humane culture is sufficient to conjure into being a different human nature.

Somewhat related to this point, deBoer also mentions “the de­pressing phenomenon of assortative mating,” adding that “liberals are more guilty of this selective breeding than anyone.” And “smarter parents,” he writes, “tend—tend—to have smarter children.” This brings us to the genetic arguments in the book, which I suppose we have to address.

DeBoer argues that a major part of the innate difference in academic ability between individuals comes down to genetics. In ad­dition, as we have noted, environment also plays a role, but education nearly none. He repeats more than once that he is not a “race realist”—but writes that the Left should not concede discussions of genetics to such people. He also asserts that genetics can affect an individual without affecting a group. To that end, “educational achievement is significantly heritable—that is, it passes from parent to child genetically, with biological parentage accounting for half or more of the variation in a given outcome.” DeBoer “hasten[s] to repeat that this phenomenon is about parentage, not race.” On the left, he writes, “the very topic of human genetics seems best avoided, consigned to the category of unspeakable things.”

So why get into it at all? And indeed, after the book came out, deBoer published a blog post arguing, “if genes contribute nothing, my conclusions are all the same.” He writes, “All it takes to understand my moral and political arguments is accepting that for whatever reasons students are not equal and their outcomes are not under the control of their parents, their teachers, and themselves.”

Diminishing Returns

One hit that deBoer definitely scores against the affluent, urban, white-collar class is that “the very people who complain most loudly—and most righteously—about the injustice and dehumanization of the meritocratic rat race” are themselves the most observant cultists. “It’s a bitter irony of contemporary American life: it is in our most progressive spaces that we see the most social inequality,” he writes:

It’s in these places where the soaring egalitarian ideals of the contemporary Left clash with the reality of who is winning the great twenty-first-century meritocratic race. In Park Slope and Uptown and Echo Park, the journalists and artists and academics who help define what it means to be progressive live lives of great privilege, thanks to the very meritocratic system that creates inequality.2

That is all true, if somewhat counterintuitive. But in some ways the book seems to address the United States as it might have been decades ago, before many college graduates started to find themselves on the wrong end of the economic sorting mechanism, too. In other words, the current outlook for deBoer’s “smart” isn’t as promising as he seems to think. In today’s “knowledge economy,” deBoer asserts, “the people who have climbed the education ladder move, with little effort, onto the career ladder, able to leverage their possession of a still relatively rare good, a college education, into jobs in marketing, at start-ups, in health insurance, at colleges and universities, and on Wall Street.” Little effort?

This question is a serious one for the “MacBook” elite or “pro­fessional managerial class.”3 If a company can have a worker manipulate information from Michigan, why not from the Philippines? (Time‑zone proximity and native English proficiency provide the American-born office worker two marginal, but quickly vanishing, advantages.4)

We can consider this further by looking back before Covid—as well as before the global financial crisis and 9/11—with the help of the 1999 cultural touchstone which deBoer himself invokes to de­scribe white-collar life: the film Office Space. The Gen X hit’s subject is stable, unglamorous professional employment. The protagonist isn’t terrified of losing his job at Initech preparing bank software for the Y2K switch, but rather of keeping it. And even when his friends at Initech find themselves “downsized” by management consultants, they find similar work in short order at Initrode.

Two decades after the movie, the real-life analogues of Initech and Initrode receive many more applications than they have openings, and offer no job security whatsoever. This was true even before Covid accelerated “remote work.”

DeBoer writes that Office Space (as well as The Office—he treats them in the same sentence) portray the corporate office as “a haven of uninspired drones glumly going through the motions and working for nothing but their next paychecks.” True or not, his “drones” of today are also expected to go through the motions with inspiration and enthusiasm, in order to convince corporate “culture” managers that they are bringing their “whole selves” to work.5 In Office Space, this false enthusiasm is required only of Jennifer Aniston’s character at her ersatz TGI Friday’s waitressing job (via “pieces of flair”), but not the office workers. Today, it is expected of all employees down the org chart, excepting perhaps those at the C level.

Leave aside the difference in mood between—and moral of—the Mike Judge film and the NBC sitcom in question. In Office Space, Ron Livingston’s character triumphs by finding a construction job through his working-class neighbor, in the last scene memorably helping to clean up the ashes of Initech (while turning down another office job—“It’s work,” his friends tell him—at Initrode).

Today it is hard to identify any secure path to the decent, stable life portrayed in Office Space, whether one possesses an undergrad­uate degree or not. While deBoer’s notion that college likely provides a privileged path to security might have been true some decades ago, today it seems quaint. It seems akin to advising a young job-seeker to just print off a résumé on thick paper and show up at the front desk. Today, greater numbers of graduates of American colleges and uni­versities compete with one another, plus workers worldwide. And, as offshoring and automation come to the white-collar service sector, they will compete for fewer jobs. Just ask GPT (OpenAI’s language model that can write coherently) to write an investment report, joke, news story—or even play chess.6

Within recent memory, a talented, uncredentialed programmer had solid economic prospects, but the STEM education boom can be expected to grind away any advantages of the journeyman coder. The Silicon Valley cult of the dropout, institutionalized in the Thiel Fellowship, has also quickly become an anachronism—and any young “founder” that could pursue this model with a reasonable chance of success likely already has acquired the professional politesse and network that are the real advantages of a postsecondary education.7

But let’s say a given individual—I’ll call her Sara Smith—runs the rat race. She stays out of trouble, earns good grades, participates in high school extracurriculars, and, as they say in parts of the South, less observant of the cult of smart, “makes” high standardized test scores. She matriculates at a selective college, majors in something market­able, finds her way into an entry level, white-collar service job. No easy task (even pre-pandemic). She works for a few years, masters office life, and enters management. With promotions, the competition only gets fiercer. DeBoer acknowledges this, suggesting that the “brutal competitive atmosphere we’ve created for our preteens and teens conditions them for a lifetime of intense internal competitive pressure.”

At the Big Job, Sara faces intense competition from both peers and younger workers, and also must remain sensitive to shifting political attitudes (“cancellation” being under-examined as a means of white-collar competition in offices where employees are officially encouraged to bring “their whole selves”). If and when she has children, she will compete with neighboring families for seats in favored schools, and prepare her progeny as the game starts all over again. With the possible exceptions of tenured professors, unionized government workers, and maybe cloistered monks, hyper-competition is lifelong in America today.

In the face of these hard realities, deBoer has written a 243-page book that rests on the assertion that it is a profound injustice that those who aren’t “gifted” are denied a fair chance at the prosperity that a college degree once augured. He means the kind of well-paid, light-duty think-work job that requires an elite degree, connections, or both, to secure. He means the kind of jobs that select for those talented at staying out of trouble and building a resume. The untalented, as he calls them, deserve just as good a life as Ms. Smith. But is her life so good?

None of this is to say that the working class has not been under intense pressures for decades, or facing severely strained circumstances today. But Cult of Smart too often describes a world that doesn’t exist anymore. The light at the end of the tunnel that deBoer imagines looks more like an oncoming train.

This article originally appeared in American Affairs Volume V, Number 1 (Spring 2021): 140–48.

The opinions expressed in this essay are the author’s own and do not represent the views of his employer or other affiliations.

1 Jim Malatras and Nicholas Simons, “A Preliminary Analysis of Teacher Salaries in New York by Region and Wealth,” Rockefeller Institute of Government, April 17, 2019.

2 He adds: “It is to that class that I myself belong.” As he wrote the book he held an administrative job at Brooklyn College, one of the more prestigious four-year colleges that’s part of the City University of New York system.

3 Whether you think “PMC” stands for that or “private military contractor” might be one way to tell if you’re in it.

4 Its effects on the PMC aside, what has Covid meant for workers who before might have had a decent job, but then found that their temporarily boosted unemployment benefits provided more than did their service job, for instance as a bartender or barista?

5 Lately the euphemism “human resources head” has in some corners given way to “head of people” or “chief people officer.” Also seemingly related, and common in start-ups, is the phenomenon of corporate “retreats”—not from an employee’s worldly pursuits, as in a spiritual retreat, but toward communion with ones’ coworkers. Often such “retreats” run through Saturday and Sunday.

6 After being fed part of Cult of Smart’s book jacket and asked to write a review, the output assumed that the book was the Swedish educational system.

7 DeBoer notes this, writing that one of the advantages of postsecondary education is instruction in “contemporary progressive mores.” He continues: “Peppering your speech with the abstruse academic vocabulary these fields have developed demonstrates to your social peers that you believe in the right things, that you are politically enlightened, that you are woke. And to be woke has come, in the past decade, to confer considerable professional benefits.”

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