REVIEW: 'The Cult of Smart'

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August 16, 2020

The central claim of The Cult of Smart, the first title from education commentator Fredrik deBoer, is that because some people are smarter than others, America must embrace socialism.

This paradox, a sort of inverse "Harrison Bergeron," is typical of deBoer, who made a name for himself in the blogosphere as a gadfly of the progressive left, embracing their goals while pitilessly skewering their wokeness. The Cult of Smart is of a kind with this reputation, attacking popular progressive foils like meritocracy and capitalism by arguing from the essentially unprogressive principle that, intellectually, not everyone is naturally equal.

For decades, deBoer contends, political leaders have touted education as the solution to inequality and, simultaneously, as a fair allocator of success based on merit. This dual mandate is plainly paradoxical—schools cannot both "function as vehicles of equality," deBoer writes, "and as machines for sorting people into different ranks of merit" because the latter function is, necessarily, contradictory to the former.

The usual solution to this conundrum is to appeal to "equality of opportunity." Schools promote equality insofar as they give every student an equal chance, so unequal outcomes are still fair. But, deBoer responds, such an arrangement discounts the ways that kids come to school already unequal, specifically in their raw talent. Some kids are simply smarter than others, and schools can do little to affect this inequality.

The Cult of Smart does eventually lay out the scientific evidence behind the cognitive inequality position, although it takes a good 100 pages to get there, stopping along the way for lots of biographical detail, a tired critique of "liberalism," and anecdote-laden grousing about charter schools. These chapters feel like padding to an already slim volume. The eventually presented evidence, however, makes a solid case that education has a minimal impact on students' abilities and that the link between school quality and life outcomes is more about top schools filtering out already smart kids than about those schools making kids smart.

What the research shows is that most educational interventions don't seem to change measures of kids' intelligence. Being randomly sorted into a better high school has little cognitive effect. Test prep, long blamed for giving rich kids a leg up, has an essentially negligible effect on scores. Going to a highly selective university has essentially no effect, controlling for test scores. In a large analysis of teaching techniques targeted at low-socioeconomic status students, 8 out of 14 had an effect statistically indistinguishable from zero, while just two had an average effect size above 0.3 standard deviations (a small number in its own right).

So why do some succeed and some fail, if not education quality? The answer, deBoer argues, is largely genetic. He walks through the evidence from twin studies and genomic analysis that intelligence, like basically all other traits, is at least partially heritable. Notably, the extent to which genetics determine IQ rises with age, peaking in adulthood, while the influence of environment declines—a sign that education's impact fades out over time.

While deBoer's research review is thorough, the reader is left wishing he had spent less time on personal asides and more time engaging with the substantive critiques of the "hereditarian" position, including the mutability of IQ post-birth but pre-school and the effects environmental toxins like lead can have on intellectual development. Maybe schooling matters little, but other policy avenues can have some effect on intelligence.

Still, there is reasonable evidence behind the idea that educational outcomes are much less about school quality and much more about the raw intellectual material going in. That implies school doesn't so much level society but rather sorts along a preexisting intellectual spectrum—an arrangement that systematically disadvantages those who are, through no fault of their own, less smart. Is it just for the less smart to not prosper? And if not, what can we do about it?

Other right-leaning reviewers have emphasized deBoer's factual break from the left over his normative conclusions. But that seems unfair to an author who spends so much more space telling us about his sterling socialist credentials than he does actually reviewing the literature. In response to the ineffectiveness of school at creating a leveled society, deBoer floats a political program that is at turns fantastical and nonsensical.

Some of the proposals seem weirdly at odds with deBoer's stated goal of unlinking cognitive ability from economic outcomes. He backs universal government childcare, which has been shown to make kids worse off, while daycare per se cuts IQs (although more for rich children—cognitive equality by making everyone dumber?). Universal free college and student loan forgiveness would disproportionately benefit cognitively privileged college grads, yet deBoer advocates for them on "humanitarian" grounds. And his advocacy for "genuine socialism" is not a policy program but an extended daydream, unmoored from political-economic reality.

It is hard not to conclude that deBoer's personal preferences, rather than his beliefs about cognitive inequality, determine the specific policies he advocates for—his discussion of a Universal Basic Income and Jobs Guarantee are particularly starry-eyed and unnuanced. It is worth noting that other skeptics of education, like AEI scholar Charles Murray or economist Bryan Caplan, are self-professed right-libertarians, not socialists. That deBoer does not even countenance their conclusions suggests he is begging the question, policy-wise.

This is all the more frustrating because deBoer is happy, like many leftists, to frame his arguments as a critique of broad structural concepts like "meritocracy" and "capitalism," abdicating entirely any sustained analysis of the particulars of our economic situation. One could write a book about the policy consequences of intelligence variation, but this one is not it.

Historically, smarts and economic success were less strongly linked than they are today. The secular increase in IQ scores over time is, among other things, consistent with the fact that intelligence has grown increasingly salient to market (and mating) success. As we have moved from an industrial to a skills-based economy, how smart you are matters more and more.

That has caused employers to expend more energy sorting the intellectual wheat from the chaff. The former enjoy the spoils of the knowledge economy, and everyone gets the benefits of their smarts. But the labor market opportunities for the latter have grown thinner and thinner thanks to automation, offshoring, and the pressures of low-skill immigration. 

This is what AEI demographer Nicholas Eberstadt has called the men without work: a growing segment of the population without a degree, dependent on disability payments for income, and often hooked on opioids and at risk for early death. This is not a problem of capitalism or meritocracy per se but a challenge of ensuring that Americans left behind in the contemporary economy can still find remunerative employment and are not discouraged from doing so by poor policy design. Natural variance in intelligence is a problem only if there are not enough jobs for the less intelligent.

Perhaps it is possible to read The Cult of Smart separate from deBoer's policy prescriptions. But doing so reduces the book to a recitation of research more ably, if less accessibly, summarized elsewhere. What to do about variable intelligence, and its interactions with an increasingly brain-powered economy, is a real policy challenge for the 21st century. But it is one to which deBoer's socialist utopia is a profoundly unserious answer.

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