Tabletmag.com – deBoer’s new book on the failures of American education takes aim at the role of the educated elite—and misses the mark.
At a recent soiree in Florida, where we have been allowed to have parties for some time now, an unemployed millennial in her late twenties asked me through a dimpled smile what I thought she should read next. “Tolstoy!” I suggested.
“Who?” she replied cheerfully and without a hint of self-consciousness.
“He wrote War and Peace,” I told her, with an astonishment that only extreme self-control could conceal.
“Ohhhhh,” she cooed, pretending to recognize the title.
By the current standards of our educational establishment, my poorly read acquaintance—who graduated from my prestigious alma mater and attended a New England prep school similar to mine—should be perched at the very pinnacle of achievement, a high priestess consecrated for life in what Fredrik deBoer, a self-described Marxist journalist who also works as an unspecified “administrator” at an unidentified public university, calls “The Cult of Smart.”
The Cult of Smart: How Our Broken Education System Perpetuates Social Injustice is deBoer’s searing book, which militantly seeks to undermine our society’s near-uniform valorization of intellectual achievement as the primary signifier of individual worth. DeBoer, who has gathered fans from across the political spectrum by presenting himself as a dissident voice from within the progressive orthodoxy, argues that our Academic-Industrial Complex (my term, not his) misses a fundamental point: that innate intelligence, largely determined by genetics and early childhood acculturation, plays a much greater role in the outcomes of people’s lives than does any of the schooling and testing and enrichment activities that the otherwise unemployable Ed.D.s, virtue-signaling politicians, and worried parents who listen to them can conjure.
As a result, he suggests, we are propping up an outdated and deeply flawed system of “sorting” in which “merit” is so subjective as to be largely meaningless. To its shame, the system claims to be fair and objective but in fact boosts children already born into “privilege” while cruelly stigmatizing and oppressing those who are too disadvantaged to compete. In an ironic twist, he argues, it often fails even as an unfair sorting mechanism because predetermined intellectual ability tends to assert itself over whatever temporary advantages higher education bestows on the innately less gifted.
If you ask deBoer, then, high-end education fails because our prospects in life can only be slightly altered by what we do and how we study. What he fails to grasp is that even the nominal “winners” in his zero-sum game will likely not rise to unqualified success either. Before grandly prescribing the public distribution of these so-called “elite” privileges, he might consider whether they too are part of the American affliction—and, if they are, whether what he is prescribing for those less fortunate may, in fact, be as bad for them as it is turning out to be for everyone else.
Admittedly, deBoer takes a risky stand in our current cultural climate. For the past few centuries, liberal thought has held that human beings are “blank slates,” each equally capable of reaching unlimited potential if they would just try hard enough in an environment free of obstacles. “You can be whatever you want to be,” millennials were told by helicopter parents who monitored their every move, and by “snowplow parents” who push all barriers out of their way, even to the point of the criminality uncovered in last year’s college admissions scandal, which is where deBoer starts his book. Rather recently, however, every discipline of behavioral and cognitive science, with the ironic exception of education, has reached the contradictory conclusion that about 40% to 50% of a person’s intelligence is determined by heredity, with much of the rest decided by early childhood environments that precede formal schooling. Put simply, the school you attend and the teachers who instruct you cannot really make you more intelligent than you were by about the age of seven.
This flies in the face of just about everything we have been told to believe since the Enlightenment: that all people are created equal and deserve equality of opportunity; that apparently less-intelligent individuals can improve and be improved; that there are no group-based variations in intelligence; that identities are determined socially rather than biologically, and that even suggesting otherwise opens the ugly path to racism and eugenics. The recent fates of Charles Murray, Amy Wax, James Flynn, and other scholars who have invoked solid empirical data about the prescholastic determinants of academic performance have massively chilled policy discussion that could lead to any meaningful change in how we measure outcomes or conceive of education. “Following the science” on this unique topic can literally cause one to be violently attacked, as Murray was, or face “cancellation,” as Wax and Flynn certainly did. What politician could hope for reelection if he dared speak the likely truth that most people are not suited for college, an idea that radical egalitarians have only tried to put over on us in the past 30 years or so? It is much easier and more appealing to say the opposite, that everyone should go to college, particularly if the politicians already know that most of us either will not go or will fail to complete a degree if we do. DeBoer diagnoses this gnarly problem and does it well—with a combination of rigor and sensitivity that is uncommon and exemplary.
Unfortunately, when it comes to offering solutions, his white-knuckled attachment to classical Marxism—seemingly the one idea the otherwise curious thinker refuses to question—clouds his judgment. And so, to borrow a Marxist phrase, his arguments end up collapsing on their own internal contradictions.
In a relentlessly accusatory tone, he demands to know why we tolerate a system that excludes untalented “losers” from the happy and fulfilling lives so enviably enjoyed by talented “winners.” But like many a revolutionary before him, he prefers postulating a universal utopia to truly learning whether the non-elite population really is unhappy and unfulfilled. Describing his own lower-middle-class Midwestern childhood, he makes the mistaken assumption that since he found life on the wrong side of the “elite” divide unhappy and unfulfilling, all others must, and do. In this way, he has inadvertently embraced the self-serving assumptions put forth by the very elite he so righteously and correctly skewers elsewhere.
This reductive analysis buys heavily into debunked economic determinism, which erroneously indexes happiness to income and other purely material factors. We know, however, that happiness is largely a function of positive interpersonal relationships and quality leisure, neither of which, fortunately, is controlled by our failing educational establishment. Income makes some difference up to a relatively low comfort threshold (i.e., about $75,000 per year), yet family, faith, culture, nature, entertainment, purpose, community, and other less quantifiable but readily available variables play enormous roles in one’s satisfaction with life. We should take bracing note that Marxist regimes uniformly try to take total control of all of these forces.
Indeed, one should ask if the educated “elite” to which deBoer repeatedly alludes truly is happy and fulfilled. They certainly seem to want everyone else to believe they are. But signs point to no. Levels of depression, anxiety, personality disorders, suicidal ideation, and other psychological complaints stand at record-high levels—and are expanding rapidly among young people who otherwise did very well in the Cult of Smart, only to find that the intense competition never ends and often fails to confer the expected rewards. In 2017, 70% of Yale Law School students self-reported some form of mental health problem before graduating in large numbers to grueling Big Firm associateships that likely have done little to improve their psyches since then. Some two-thirds of academic women never become mothers, in significant part because the average length of time to complete doctorates and become comfortably established has stretched to the age at which childbearing ends. Employment in media, finance, consulting, public relations, and other ostensibly high-prestige fields is stressful, uncertain, time-consuming and, in relative terms, often far less well-paid than it was a generation ago. Just holding these positions usually requires residence in environments with high taxes, exorbitant living costs, rising crime, and other undesirable factors. Romantic love is widely seen as a distracting obstacle to professional fulfillment. Gen Z slang refers to the feelings involved as something one “catches,” like a disease. Sex, of which they have less than previous generations do, is often perfunctory and detached from emotion. Living with parents is considered normal.
Nor are deBoer and his fellow “elites” in the media even particularly free. In the midst of the Great Awokening, urban professional speech and behavior, in and outside of work and even at remote pastimes, are subject to pervasive surveillance and extrajudicial policing by standards that frequently shift and are arbitrarily applied. Egged on by activist faculty members whose approval they must court, an alarming percentage of young people oppose First Amendment rights, if they can even correctly list them. Regardless of how many Cult of Smart hoops a “winner” jumps through, an injudicious tweet, a tasteless joke, a misspoken word, and even pure hearsay can cause the purported transgressor to be swiftly “canceled” with major consequences. Indeed, deBoer need look no further than his dozens of proletarianized co-generationalists featured on the “Shitty Media Men” list, a briefly published database of largely anonymous sexual harassment allegations against male media professionals. His irritatingly repeated insistence that he is not a racist when discussing the possibility of group variations in intelligence painfully reveals how vulnerable he knows he is and what would probably happen to him if activists at his unnamed university quoted his book out of context. I can’t imagine he wants or would accept sympathy from a reviewer, but that’s what I feel witnessing how thoroughly he and his peers are in many ways victims rather than beneficiaries of this system. That he wants to open this putrid system to still more people, people with even fewer resources to defend themselves from its toxicity, seems at best misguided. At worst, it is perverse.
But deBoer badly wants to remain a committed man of the left and to make sure people know that he has more substance than the downbeat provocateur persona he has cultivated for much of his career. He concludes with what he claims are “revolutionary” solutions to realize a more just society in which all people know happiness and comfort, at least as he would define it. Ending the Cult of Smart, he argues, will require far-reaching social reforms to distribute society’s resources in a way that may obviate participation in a relentlessly competitive educational environment. He hopes that a universally strong socioeconomic foundation will make the categories of “winners” and “losers” so unimportant that they are no longer relevant and that everyone, regardless of intellectual ability, could occupy an equally valued and dignified place. He ignores that human societies, and even the societies of our primate relatives and ancestors, almost uniformly form hierarchies, but his solution is nothing new. John Kenneth Galbraith made substantively the same argument in The Affluent Society, published in 1958. Even earlier, most of the American labor movement conceded that the best way forward was to negotiate for a slice of the growing economy big enough that blue-collar workers could sit as comfortably in the middle class as white-collar workers. DeBoer merely dresses it up with the talking points of today’s progressive left, which wants single-payer health care, student debt forgiveness, government guarantees of employment or minimal income, and other ambitious policies that the Democratic Party inevitably abandons as soon as it cycles back into power and realizes that they are impractical, unsustainable, and even unpopular on any significant scale.
Reading deBoer’s obvious frustration felt like being cornered at a dull party by an aging Bernie Bro whose girlfriend just dumped him and left him angrier at the world than usual. As for the process of education itself, he advances palliatives that others have suggested, such as replacing competitive college admissions with a lottery system, moving away from standardized tests, and lowering academic standards so that more students are graduated. The trouble is that we are already doing this on a mass scale, with the most discernible result that even more students get to leave college feeling let down, when there is so much in life that could lift them up.
American society may one day reach a point where it does away with inequality, or at least manages it better. Lucky for today’s young people, there are multiple right answers—many more than they have been told—and exploring any one of them could be a more productive use of time than looking to this book, or the educational galaxy it seeks to uphold, for a solution.