A leftist writer and activist with a Ph.D. argues that the education system is governed by the high-achieving intellectual ideal—flawed thinking that has created and perpetuated an unjust class structure based on intellectual ability.
Mr. deBoer’s book deserves attention for the way in which the author honestly faces one of modern liberalism’s great inanities and addresses it using only the tenets of the political left. It is an extraordinary effort ... I don’t think I have ever read a scholar of the left concede, as Mr. deBoer does readily and to his credit, that after-school and pre-K programs do virtually nothing to improve educational outcomes. But he believes these programs ought to be dramatically expanded on the grounds that it is society’s duty to afford equal justice to all ... since charters are premised on the idea that some schools perform their function better than others, Mr. deBoer feels he must discredit them. It’s too bad ... Mr. deBoer rightly criticizes an education system that condemns the academically indifferent to second-rate status. You wonder, though, what the world would look like after the sort of revolution he proposes: a revolution in which the educated—it’s always the educated who carry out revolutions—assume the power to remake society. I prefer the Cult of Smart, for all its problems, to the Dictatorship of the Proletariat.
The Cult of Smart takes the commonsensical observation that children’s academic careers are profoundly shaped by their innate ability and buttresses it with mountains of research into human genetics. That this obvious fact has to be laundered through statistics and peer-reviewed research is a testament to the smart kids’ power. American elites tend to resist arguments that their success has been preordained by genetics, but they’ve also been conditioned to accept the verdict of science ... I suspect the book’s critique of our educational establishment would be less cutting if deBoer was another impeccably credentialed insider. DeBoer’s diagnosis is persuasive, but his proposed cures are radical ... As a teacher who wants to make schools more hospitable to a wide range of students, I would have preferred more about some of deBoer’s intriguing reform proposals, including lowering the dropout age to 12 and getting rid of high school algebra requirements, and less about the coming revolution.
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 ... 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 ... 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 ... 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 ... 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.