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.)”
The best section of the book is about the American education system. DeBoer makes a strong case that school performance is primarily due to selection bias: Good students make schools good, not vice versa. This is a profound challenge for conservatives and liberals alike, since both depend on the education system to create opportunities for upward mobility. There are certainly counterexamples, such as the educational and career gains women have made in the last half-century, but it is significantly harder for teachers and schools to improve their students’ performance than many suppose.
Although DeBoer is an adamant foe of charter schools, he has accidentally torpedoed the best case against school choice. Some anti-choice advocates argue that parents who pick a bad school could set back their child academically, so the government should require students to attend the schools it controls to ensure an adequate level of education for everyone. But if schools have a very limited impact on test scores or career prospects, why not let parents pick schools that best fit their living situation, values, or preferences? He replies that if the academically inclined students go to “good” schools, the less gifted students will stay in the traditional public schools, but he cannot identify any actual harm done to either set of students.
Ultimately, The Cult of Smart has revealed a different weakness in the meritocracy than the one DeBoer identifies. There are several aspects of the meritocracy, but one that he wants to undermine is the belief that opportunities for the top schools and best jobs should be allocated based on merit, which is defined as performance assessed by objective criteria like standardized tests. He asks if intelligence, and thus performance, is largely outside an individual’s control, how deserving is anyone really of their place or station?
He cites John Locke’s belief in the blank slate to suggest that classical liberalism has no answer to this question, but the Founding Fathers knew that people had different levels of ability. In Federalist 10, James Madison acknowledged mankind’s “different and unequal faculties of acquiring property,” but he claimed that “the rights of property originate” from these faculties and “[t]he protection of these faculties is the first object of government.” Similarly, Thomas Jefferson wrote to John Adams extolling “a natural aristocracy among men. The grounds of this are virtue and talents.” Classical liberals are aware of these inequalities, they just reach different conclusions than he does about how societies should account for them.
DeBoer fundamentally weakens a different core premise of the meritocracy, which is that if given enough power, knowledgeable managers in the administrative state can improve social outcomes. This worked reasonably well in the industrial era, but as the information revolution transforms the U.S. economy and society, the task is becoming harder. According to the research he cites, about half of the variation in human intelligence is due to hereditary traits and roughly 15 percent to identifiable environmental factors, leaving 35 percent unexplained. This 35 percent makes a dramatic difference in a person’s life, but the education establishment has only a foggy notion of how to influence it. If the bureaucrats cannot make things better, why should they get to tell others what to do?
Mike Watson is the associate director of Hudson Institute’s Center for the Future of Liberal Society.
Photograph by Evelyn Hockstein/Washington Post/Getty Images.