August is usually the time for vacations, sunburns, and back-to-school shopping, but not this year. The global pandemic has left state and local officials struggling to determine whether and how to bring students back to the classroom. Instead of facing the usual minor challenges of the season—how many pencils to buy, is it time to get a new backpack, what is a Beyblade—parents are scrambling to find ways to educate their children this upcoming school year. Many are worried that if their kids fall behind now, they may not catch up in time for college applications and their career prospects could be harmed significantly. Fortunately, these fears are overblown.
At least, that is a key implication of Fredrik DeBoer’s The Cult of Smart. Citing a wide range of literature about education and behavioral genetics, DeBoer argues that even the most elite schools and colleges have very little impact on student performance. Rather, their alumni are so successful because these institutions intentionally accept only promising students who would excel regardless of where they study. In other words, “[o]nce you compare like for like, and look at students of similar underlying ability, attending a prestigious school makes no difference.”
The book’s core argument is that a person’s intelligence—or the characteristics that lead to high-status employment in the modern economy—is most strongly determined by genes, then by environmental factors such as exposure to lead or abuse, and barely at all by education. DeBoer, who is a Marxist, believes that this insight makes a farce of liberalism’s attempts to create a society with equal opportunity and shows that true socialism is the best way forward. Accordingly, his goal is to debunk the American “cult of smart,” which he describes as “the notion that academic value is the only value, and intelligence the only true measure of human worth” and in his view is the ideology that underpins meritocracy and capitalism.
This so-called cult’s foundational tenet is the “blank slate” theory that all people come into the world with roughly the same abilities and that any differences in outcome are due to events and choices that occur during a person’s lifetime. If this is true, anyone should be able to get into Harvard, so long as they make the right choices and have sufficient opportunities to prepare. This attitude, which heavily influences education policy, blames poor student performance on schools and teachers. Elsewhere in society, the smart set embrace it because “as much as such people may profess progressive values, they can’t help but be quietly offended at the idea that, rather than hitting a triple, they were born at third base. (Well, given that researchers typically ascribe only about 50 percent of our academic outcomes to genes, it’s more like a double.)”