Politics & Policy

The Cult of Smart Is Worth the Read

Students and pedestrians walk through the Yard at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., March 10, 2020. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

Reading Fredrik deBoer, honest Marxist and Internet gadfly, is like watching a pitcher on a team you don’t cheer for throw a no-hitter against your crosstown rivals — you’re glad to see them dispatched with alacrity, and there is excellence to admire, even if his ultimate goal is orthogonal to your own.

The Cult of Smart: How Our Broken Education System Perpetuates Social Injustice takes aim at our approach to education before broadening the scope to attack our purported meritocracy, if not the nature of a market-based economy itself. Those in the titular “cult,” he writes, are those who subscribe to the notion “that academic value is the only value, and intelligence the only true measure of human worth. It is pernicious, it is cruel, and it must change.”

DeBoer became Internet-famous for training rhetorical fire on progressives more concerned with enforcing the correct pronouns than advancing actual egalitarianism, as in his classic essay “Planet of Cops.” He is like the estranged cousin at a family reunion who feels no compunction in pointing out the clan’s vanities and hypocrisies — certainly the most fun at the bar, but perhaps not the one who should be named executor of the estate.

To wit, he uses the “Varsity Blues” college admissions scandal as a jumping-off point for examining the flaws of our presumed meritocracy. DeBoer aptly notes how the rat race of the college admissions process is a perfect example of how the contemporary progressive cloaks self-interest in the guise of moral bromides. But it’s not enough to point out where the left falls short, as Richard Reeves did in “Dream Hoarders.” No, deBoer argues that we must “subvert the very system of meritocratic capitalism our schools are built to serve.”

DeBoer would have us rethink the intrinsic and extrinsic rewards of a market-based approach to social status and income. He argues that intelligence is, at least partially, inheritable, and thus that academic aptitude and talent should be treated the same as hair color, height, or other accidents of birth, and not play a significant role in determining our life outcomes. (He takes great pains to distinguish this line of argument of within-group variation from those who find a genetic component between groups.) For deBoer, “Varsity Blues” scandal was a betrayal of meritocracy, or further evidence that true meritocracy has never been tried. It was a ripe example of the undue rewards to being selected on “merit,” however defined, in the first place. He asks, “What could be crueler than an actual meritocracy, a meritocracy fulfilled?”

Well, conservatives can certainly agree that meritocratic good standing has no place in an assessment of moral worth or equal status before the law. Indeed, many conservatives have been arguing for more non-college paths to the middle class for years. And no one has offered a better contemporary critique of meritocracy than conservative essayist Helen Andrews (with a characteristically bold prescription of a new aristocracy in its place). My own preference would be to enlarge the number of spheres of influence individuals can pursue excellence in, breaking up the cultural and economic hegemony of major metropolitan hubs and making it easier to attain meaningful and necessary success at the local or regional scale. But this is a book by a leftist, critiquing the Left — deBoer hardly engages in a meaningful way with conservative critics. It would have been stronger for it.

Likewise, in critiquing the education reform movement of the ’90s and ’00s, he fairly argues that it put too much pressure on teachers to fix problems that stemmed from outside the school environment. Talk of “unleashing the market” and “creative destruction” in education was undoubtedly favored over character formation and empowering civil society. But again, deBoer misses that some of the most strident opposition to interventions like Common Core came from conservative parents who didn’t care about racing to the top so much as making sure local curricula reflected local values.

The economic essentialism of a Marxist analysis leads to painting with too broad a brush. Yes, the college-admissions arms race is awful for those who participate. Yes, social-justice rhetoric is used to excuse progressive self-interest. Yes, an attitude of unchecked materialism is poisonous to the body politic and the cultivation of civic virtue. But advocating systemic reform to somehow counterbalance the flaws found in human nature is misguided. There are policy (and religious and civic) steps we could take to address the dysfunctions of America’s upwardly aspirational class without seeking to free us “from the numbing grind of the capitalist treadmill.”

And while one, perhaps, shouldn’t expect realistic policy solutions from a Marxist, no matter how honest, it is decidedly strange for a book about undermining the college-for-all mentality to propose a version of Bernie Sanders’s free-college proposal as one of its recommended policy solutions (lowering the legal dropout age to twelve, on the other hand, is worth more exploration). The final chapter, which paints a world where want is banished and every man able to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, and philosophize at night, is the stuff of a 1960s faculty lounge.

The honesty of The Cult of Smart is the honesty of a four-seam fastball that clips the outer edge of the plate. DeBoer punctures the emptiness of the type of person who spouts social-justice hashtags while attaining the highest-status collegiate bumper sticker for their SUV. In deBoer’s plain-spoken Marxism there is much to disagree with, but it is the sort of disagreement that leads to greater clarity, and the book is a — if he would not mind me saying so — smart contribution that should shed light on what we value, and how.


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