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The Cult of Smart

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This is a very good book in many ways. The problem is that it attempts to be good in too many ways, and thereby loses overall coherence. To see this, consider some of what's covered:

-One way to think about its thesis is that it's taking Rawls' point about how even natural ability isn't grounds for differential results since even that is unearned. deBoer wishes to stage a Marxist intervention in contemporary American cultural politics, according to which the Left starts taking "natural ability" seriously, since the massive role of genetics in determining intelligence is now securely established. He's quick to argue that racial and sex-based genetic differences have no evidece - rather he's interested in how ability differs between individuals. Of course institutional racism and classism is real and depresses certain groups' performances, but even if these evils ended, meritocracy would still be fundamentally unfair because of the unmerited distribution of talent.

-There's some needed conceptual criticism about how relative and absolute standards being mixed willy nilly in talk of education. After all, if everyone improved, there would be no relative improvement. And if there's social mobility, some people will have to lose for some people to gain. Clearly there's no easy educational route to equality.

-Along the way, there's an insightful takedown of charter school advocacy (they supposedly game the metrics of success by kicking out low performaing students and closing down low performing charter schools). He also makes the interesting point that perhaps the reason that so many people harp about school reform has more to do with how it's easily controllable, rather than because schools actually much of an effect.

-There's a wealth of data and studies including about how once natural ability is held constant where a person goes to school matters very little, about how coaching matters very little for standarized testing, etc.

-There's some ideas from political philosophy, such as positive vs. negative freedom, and well as Rawls' veil of ignorance.

-The second-last chapter deals with "realistic reforms" (universal childcare and afterschool care, lowering legal dropout age to 12, eliminating charter schools, loosening standards so more people can graduate). The thrust of the argument is that we need to stop considering education a comphrehensive indicator of a person's value. Instead, realizing that school isn't for everyone and that different people have different needs and abilities, you make it work for people as they are, instead of hoping to radically transform each person in a mould that assumes the value of college.

-The last chapter is very unmoored from the rest of the book, where he basically argues for the platform of Barnie Sanders (as a step towards a more Marxist social arrangement). The point I think if that once you stop thinking of the value of a person as tied to how well they do to in the education system, you can value them as they are in all their pluralistic particularities. So healthcare, money, etc., should be guarenteed to them just because they are, rather than because they went to Harvard. Fair enough, but did we need the whole book and all the talk of genetics for this? Clearly enough people can endorse much of this chapter without having to have worked through the rest of it.

And that's the problem - the book is a great read, he's clearly a thoughtful and careful writer, I'm largely in agreement with much of what he says. It's also counter-intuitive enough to not be boring. But by the end, there are just so many threads that it seems a little muddled. Given that what he argues for in the end is the Rawlsian merit position and the Marxist political position, and given that people easily argue for both of those without any of the genetics/education reform talk, why combine these things? It just seems like a strange combination in a single text to me.

Apart from this, I also did have concerns about timeliness. Given the deeply entrenched inequalities in race, class, global distribution, etc., so often legitimated by notions of natural difference, simply saying you want to reclaim a notion like "natural ability" for the left strikes me as deeply insufficient. So while the philosophical argument about the perniciousness about meritocracy is good and important, I don't think enough attention was given to how notions like "natural ability" can be wrested from the far-right, or even kept securely non-racist.
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This is a thought-provoking title that takes on commonly held beliefs and turns them upside down. I do not share the author's Marxist beliefs, but found plenty to agree upon in the book.

For years, we've been told that if only certain barriers were removed, all students could become successful. However, that's a lie because of individual genetics. 

This is something that deBoer continually cycles back to in this title. That we each have an individual aptitude for academic success that is rooted in our individual genetic code. Since you get your genetics from mom and dad, that means the likelihood you will be successful in school is increased if your parents were. 

Tied with this is that blaming teachers for the outcomes measured (e.g. standardized tests) is just plain wrong. 

Reading the book had me thinking about how lucky I am for the chance to guide my children's education at home. This way I can customize their learning to fit with their unique abilities.
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The Cult of Smart is a thought provoking book about education and the system that claims it is doing what is right by students. Fredrik deBoer makes some interesting points about the system and the focus of outcomes in the US education system. As an educator, I find some truth in this book.
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What major federal policy has every president from Lyndon Johnson to Barak Obama agreed on? Answer: Advancing educational opportunity as a path to societal equality. They may have differed on how to expand schooling, but not that it was a goal to be achieved in order to reduce social inequality. Why then have the results not lived up to the promise? The answer is simple according to Fredrik deBoer: schooling can never produce social equality––not because we don’t spend enough or because teachers aren’t good enough. It’s because not all people are academically talented.

Marshaling studies that expose the raw underbelly of schooling’s failures on top of insights from his personal experience as a teacher, and capping that off with a measure of behavioral genetics, deBoer concludes, “as long as our education system creates winners, it will also create losers.” 

The problem with those seeking equality of results from schooling deBoer asserts is that that goal is built on a myth of equal inherent ability––the idea that each child’s mind is a blank slate capable of being filled with the necessary knowledge. When children don’t succeed, therefore, people either blame teachers or the schools or both. 

deBoer dismisses the notion that source of schools’ failures is racial or gender differences. Differences of potential between groups are insignificant, he asserts, but within each group there is great variation. Some kids are just not cut out to succeed academically.

While deBoer relies on a variety of sources to justify his analysis, few would deny that that there is a broad variation of academic talent within any ethnic or social group. The conclusion that politicians and educational reformers refuse to accept, however, is that a large proportion of the variation in academic achievement is “permanently outside the hands of schools and teachers.”

Where Liberals and Conservatives Agree

DeBoer doesn’t see much difference between conservatives and liberals in terms of the (false) hopes they place on schooling. He worries that economically privileged liberals––more so than conservatives––are resistant to coming to terms with the fact that by passing their genes on to their children they make it harder for those beneath them to advance. 

Preaching schooling as a means to economic opportunity for the disadvantaged allows wealthy parents to ignore the fact that they are part of an aristocracy of the talented and that their status represents a barrier to children born of less academically talented parents. The more schooling is based on academic achievement, deBoer tells us, the poorer a job it does of social leveling.

If schooling can’t solve societal inequality what should it be doing? As an avowed Marxist, deBoer wants American society to undergo a total transformation to a socialist utopia, but until that happens, he offers a number of short-term proposals to do justice to the “untalented” and undercut our false hopes for schooling as the means to economic equality. These include two measures that run contrary to universally supported policies of the recent past: loosening public school standards and allowing students as young as 12 to drop out of school. He would also provide universal after school care in addition to universal childcare at a cost of hundreds of billions annually, although he admits all these “reforms” will have trouble gaining adherents. 

Fredrik deBoer’s Marxist Alternative

DeBoer’s trust in Marxism leads him astray in understanding the role schooling has played in American society over the past one hundred plus years. Universal public education was not implemented to provide a right for all children to learn as he suggests, but rather to Americanize the large immigrant population that had flooded our shores over the last decades of the 19th century. 

Public education (k-12) had little connection to employment until after World War II when an educated workforce was needed to continue the momentum brought about by the mobilization to defeat the Axis Powers. That led to a major expansion of the number of higher education slots. Thus, while my mother got a master’s degree at the State College for Teachers in Albany in 1963, three years later, when I enrolled in a graduate program there, it was now the State University of New York at Albany on a new campus with a vastly enlarged curricula. 

The expansion of higher education from the 1960s on fed the growth of the public sector, creating employment openings for blacks and women who hitherto had few opportunities to use a college degree. Higher education growth, however, inevitably led to over expansion as politicians from both parties continued to demand public schools prepare more and more children for college. Expecting almost all young people go to college has had a detrimental effect both on colleges and the workplace. Colleges have succumbed to political pressure to increase graduation rates by lowering academic standards. That has hurt graduates in the market place as more and more employers demand advanced degrees in order to identify applicants with necessary knowledge and skills.

Where deBoer Goes Wrong

DeBoer is correct that academic talent is linked to economic status, but a missing ingredient in his analysis is motivation. Children of immigrants have historically done well, while the recent college admissions bribery scandal suggests a percentage of upper middle class children are opting out of the competition. 

Variation also follows college graduates into the work place. The academically talented don’t all succeed and those with other skill sets, such as leadership, initiative, and perseverance enable those not at the top academically to be successful economically and career wise. The biggest lacuna in deBoer’s vision, however, is his notion that merit should be set aside in the name of a doing justice to those who are not academically talented.

He portrays a socialist utopia that resembles a sci/fi world where robots do all the work and people lounge around doing artistic things like composing music and painting landscapes. This is based on his belief that scarcity is a thing of the past. Of course, deBoer came to that conclusion before COVID-19, but even without factoring in the impact of the pandemic as evidence for how thin a margin the world’s most advanced economy rests on, only an academic who hasn’t spent a day working on a farm, in a factory or policing a crime-ridden neighborhood would assert we have reached a point where we have enough for everyone if we’d just be willing to share.

America’s 21st century economic status reflects technological advances from steam engines to gasoline powered motors, from the assembly line to robotics, from microscopic discoveries to nanotechnology, and, of course, thanks to computers which keep rewarding society with opportunities to make work more productive and while less time need be spent on the mundane. In a society without competition based on merit where everyone’s basic needs would be met by some mysterious process, there would be no incentive to do work of any kind. Evidence of the problem are people who refuse to go back to jobs that pay less than the government is sending them.

What’s the Solution?

If deBoer’s analysis is correct that schooling cannot accomplish the kind of leveling we desire, equalizing academic placement and its subsequent economic rewards, do we as a society give up the notion of equality? If that’s the alternative then most people would stick with a flawed academic meritocracy, but of course there’s another choice: continue to grow the economy such that other paths exist to the good life. 

It’s interesting that deBoer doesn’t mention sports or entertainment––two highly remunerative career paths where intelligence plays a role, but not necessarily academic intelligence. Entrepreneurship offers another avenue. While not every young person hoping to become the next Bill Gates or Steve Jobs will reach that level, hundreds of start-ups have emerged in recent years as the capabilities of a computer-based society reach into new crevices of our complex world. Israel, for example, has been labeled “start up nation” as entrepreneurs have produced systems to extract water from air and enable self-driving cars. A factor in Israel’s success has been attributed to mandatory military service before college, suggesting something other than academic aptitude can play a role in motivating young people to create solutions to human kind’s endless supply of medical, economic and social needs.

The message I’d send parents is to downplay deBoer’s insistence that academic success is more and more the only ticket to economic well-being by reminding them that a growing standard of living has been capitalism’s gift to the world, including a reduction in poverty in the “third-world” in recent decades. While deBoer emphasizes the negative impact on young people who feel compelled to participate in the academic rat race and labels most work demeaning, the list of choices people have for employment today is so much greater than ever before. Smart is good, but free and unrestricted is just as good, if not better.
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I received an advance copy of THE CULT OF SMART by Fredrik deBoer from St. Martin’s Press and agreed to provide a review.

I did not care for THE CULT OF SMART. The first eight chapters make the case that humans are individuals with different abilities (some of them inherited from their parent) followed by one chapter calling for the Marxist revolution. None of this is groundbreaking nor enlightening.

When I agreed to review this work, I knew the author was a self proclaimed “far-leftist,” which I am not, although I have found many interesting and novel concepts in books written by far-left authors, and the question of intelligence distribution, especially with respect to reforming the US education system, is a long-held interest of mine, so I was hoping to find a new way of looking at the subject from a different perspective. 

Unfortunately, this book delivered nothing new. Yes, intelligence is heritable (this is not a new revelation) but my strong belief is we are neither captives nor assured beneficiaries of an inherited high intelligence. (Attend a few Mensa meetings to prove that last part if there’s doubt.) That some people have abilities others don’t should be a surprise to no one.

Yes, the US education system is broken, possibly beyond repair. For one thing, and this is something on which the author and I agree, standardized achievement tests and the resulting “teach to the test” mentality these tests engender, are more than a waste of resources; they negatively affect the students they purport to help. Again, though, nothing new or revealing here.

I also agree with the author that luck plays a much larger role in everyone’s life than they are likely to realize or admit. I disagree, however, that it is society’s responsibility or role to compensate the unlucky. We have to play the hand we’re dealt.

The final chapter does nothing to suggest ways to fix the education system and address differences in intelligence. Instead it repeats Bernie Sanders’ campaign talking points and calls for a revolution and a complete destruction of the society and culture of the United States in favor of a society right out of Star Trek. I won’t go into a critique of the Marxist thinking that drives this call to arms for the simple reason that I try not to attack others’ religions, and Marxist socialism is indeed a religion, replacing  belief in a wise, benevolent, all-powerful Deity with a wise, benevolent, all-powerful State. While the nature and existence of a Deity can be debated endlessly, humankind has repeatedly proved itself to be less than wise, benevolent or all-powerful.

Finally, some detailed problems with the actual book:

First, the build up is much too long, with a denouement that left me wishing I’d paid for the book so I could demand my money back.

Second, the author displays a high degree of ineptitude with statistics and their use.  For example, in chapter six, he writes: “As a general rule of thumb, meta-analyses of kinship studies suggest heritability of around .4 or .5 for most behavioral traits,....” To what does “.4 or .5” refer? Percentage of a standard deviation? A correlation coefficient? As written, it is meaningless.  Also, for clarity and avoidance of misunderstanding, it is much better to write “0.4 or 0.5.”

Third, occasional grammar errors occur, as in chapter nine where the author writes, “I am viscerally opposed to means testing, in general; means-tested programs are less politically defensible, as they necessarily help less people....” I believe the author meant to write “fewer people” since he spent the preceding eight chapters arguing against the existence of lesser people.

Fourth, throughout the book, the author simplifies and makes blanket statements about what others believe or want, especially conservatives and centrist liberals. This is a common tactic, but not very useful if true understanding of others’ perspectives is the desired goal.

To conclude, I would only recommend this book to someone curious about the thought processes of the current generation of Marxists who seem to be driving the political debate in the US. For someone seeking a deeper understanding of the problems facing those trying to educate students with highly varied levels of intelligence, this book accomplishes nothing.
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As someone living in a socialist country and watching TV and reading the "media" from time to time I can only say two things about this book and the author's ideas. As someone said sex is not about sex but about power, this as well education isn't about education at all but about power, about societal change. 
The author proposes this idea of genetic formation where you are what you get; you're good at math or you're not . I don't know if I necessarily agree with this idea. I am more of a genetics + our home education + our parents home education + what we get in school (not just as classes but as people with interact with, colleagues and teachers). As an example I can offer you mine. I had a horrible math teacher in middle school and I hated math. Then, in high school there was a switch, the teacher was wonderful, kind, explained every little stuff, encouraged people, said jokes etc. Because of him I loved math and I still believe abstract thinking helps you advance in life. 

My other problem with this book is its focus on socialism, Marxism and communism. I hope one day a magazine pays an American writer to actually come to former communist countries and talk with people about their lives under it. I want people to read about socialist countries (the book The Almost Nearly Perfect People is a good start) and see their problems in general and their specificity in the field of education. 

Finally I think that because of the free market and the free speech and etc did the US attracted "start brains" from poor countries. I don't think, yet at least, that innovation in science, the arts, IT etc can happen in an egalitarian society. However I do believe societal change is the thing that will all countries of the world to a better place so to speak.
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Freddie deBoer is a fascinating, provocative leftist writer who is almost always worth reading, and this book is no exception. It's ostensibly focused on the failigngs of our education system, but more broadly, it's a compelling attack on meritocracy as a whole and a decently cogent case for socialism. 
Honestly, everyone should read the introduction, which is a great summary of the rest of the book. The short (and unfairly reductive) version of deBoer’s thesis:

 1. Human intellectual talent is not evenly distributed, much like other human attributes.
2. We should optimize for equality of outcome, not equality of opportunity (since true equality of opportunity is impossible given #1 and in fact, intellectual talent is highly heritable – DeBoer argues convincingly about the fundamental repugnance of basing judgments of moral worth on intelligence or intellectual achievement) 
3. Our education system should be reoriented in recognition of  #1 and #2 – it’s not an engine of mobility or an equalizer of inequality as it stands, but instead serves to reinforce those
4.  We need a broad set of social supports given #1-3 to “raise the floor,” even if it “lowers the ceiling” on what individuals can accumulate or “achieve.” 
I’m not sure I’m convinced, but deBoer makes extremely compelling arguments, and if nothing else, made me reconsider some strongly held views of mine about equity and value. In a world of warmed-over takes and nonfiction that just serves to tell the reader what he or she already knows is right, this was extremely refreshing.  And generally, the arguments are so clearly stated that it forces readers to engage with their content, not just their form. 

So why just four stars? A few main reasons:
 1.  This needed a much more aggressive edit throughout, especially in the last chapter, which packs way, way too many ideas into a single chapter relative to the much-more-focused ones that come earlier. (Also, a couple arguments are repeated in similar formulations even within the chapter, let alone between different ones)
2.  The book is uneven. The earliest chapters are strongest, while some of the later ones lose focus. Similarly, some arguments have tons of data and evidence with them, or at least a clear set of logical premises and conclusions; other feel like ungrounded supposition.
3.  There are some challenges with inconsistent tone. deBoer is an extremely clear writer, which is great most of the time, and the book bills itself as a “passionate, voice-driven manifesto” – fair enough. But at times, it gets so conversational as to feel like an extended blog post printed out rather than something that has been refined into a book form. 

For all its flaws, the Cult of Smart is well worth a read, and I think almost everyone should read at least the intro. You won’t necessarily come away convinced, but you will be intellectually richer for having grappled with it. Thanks to NetGalley for an ARC!
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A lot of information that I have read before. The plus is it is all in one place here the downside is there was not a lot new.
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This thought provoking book asks deep, transformational questions about the American educational system and whether it truly serves all students. The thesis of the book is that not everyone is "smart," and that's okay. Intelligence is inherited, and no matter how much particular students try to make good grades, they will still come up short. The book includes an excellent history of recent American educational initiatives - useful to those of us too young to remember them or who didn't have children in public schools in the late twentieth century. 

As a mother of a dyslexic child who struggles with school (but who is nonetheless quite "smart" when it comes to non-academic endeavors), this book resonated with me. I agreed with most of his criticisms of the current system. I really wished the author had spent more time on possible solutions to the problems, however. There's a huge need for more vocational education and job training, along with services for children and teens with learning disabilities. I would have liked more content on these needs. 

Instead, the author bent over backwards to assure us of his liberal credentials and spent the last part of the book on Marxism. I think if he had stuck to reforms of the educational system, he would have been more likely to get consensus - not to mention readers - from those of more moderate and even conservative leanings.
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The basic thrust of The Cult of Smart is that we are, as a society, unwilling to admit that people cannot reach the same echelons of intelligence through good education and sheer grit. People are just different, and we already acknowledge this in other spaces, such as athletic ability. The author repeatedly emphasizes that this is not based on race.

As a consequence of this, we put most of our blame on already beleaguered public school systems and teachers, which doesn't help anyone but wastes billions of dollars and causes endless frustration through additional testing, etc. And we never seem to learn. But "no educational miracle is coming," and there's "no technology that will save our schools, no neoliberal reform that will raise of children out of the grips of poverty, no new model that will suddenly turn struggling students into flourishing ones."

I think there are some really powerful ideas here. Here are some of my favorites:
-We focus our educational reform efforts like someone looking for keys under a street light-- because our political levers most easily impact teachers and public schools, that's what we tend to fiddle with instead of serious attempts to address root causes.
-"There is no conflict in calling for political and social equality while denying that everyone is equal in ability."
-We tend to think of diplomas of having value in and of themselves rather than as a symbol of learning. As deBoer puts it so well, "Diplomas have themselves been confused with the educational benefits that they are supposed to signal."
-Degrees are a relative advantage rather than an absolute one-- the more people who have them, the less valuable they are.
-We should consider loosening standards. While abstract mathematics are critical for human development, not everyone has to know them for a productive and happy life.

The author makes no secret of his Marxism, and I think this outlook uniquely equips him to make some astute points about our current society. For example, in the ninth chapter, he remarks that "in contemporary society, we have more ways to be a loser than to be a winner" and he's certainly right. However, I think the last quarter of the book, and particularly the concluding vision of a Marxist utopia, is going to alienate a fair number of otherwise sympathetic readers. I say this as someone who is also pretty far left.

My other big objection is that I didn't see mention of the benefit of this white lie about everyone being equal in intellectual potential: there are so many socioeconomic and other barriers to success that could be addressed first, and acknowledging that people just aren't equal in this space could make it really easy to justify not taking action at all.

I'm rating this book 4 stars because, while I didn't agree with everything in it, I really enjoyed engaging with the ideas, and I left with a long list of other books and other resources to read. I hope that that others don't write the book off simply because of its Marxist leanings and it becomes an integral part of discussions surrounding educational reform.

If you like this book, or like the idea of it, you may also enjoy Paul Tough's The Years that Matter Most: How College Makes or Breaks Us.
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When it is snowy and cold outside (minus 28 today! ), superspeed readers like me can read 250+ pages/hour, so yes, I have read the book … and many more today. LOL

I requested and received a temporary digital Advance Reader Copy of this book from #NetGalley, the publisher and the author in exchange for an honest review.  

From the publisher, as I do not repeat the contents or story of books in reviews, I let them do it as they do it better than I do 😸.

Leftist firebrand Fredrik deBoer exposes the lie at the heart of our educational system and demands top-to-bottom reform.

Everyone agrees that education is the key to creating a more just and equal world and that our schools are broken and failing. Proposed reforms variously target incompetent teachers, corrupt union practices, or outdated curricula, but no one acknowledges a scientifically-proven fact that we all understand intuitively: academic potential varies between individuals, and cannot be dramatically improved. In The Cult of Smart, educator and outspoken leftist Fredrik deBoer exposes this omission as the central flaw of our entire society, which has created and perpetuated an unjust class structure based on intellectual ability.

Since cognitive talent varies from person to person, our education system can never create equal opportunity for all. Instead, it teaches our children that hierarchy and competition are natural and that human value should be based on intelligence. These ideas are counter to everything that the left believes, but until they acknowledge the existence of individual cognitive differences, progressives remain complicit in keeping the status quo in place.

This passionate, voice-driven manifesto demands that we embrace a new goal for education: equality of outcomes. We must create a world that has a place for everyone, not just the academically talented. But we’ll never achieve this dream until the Cult of Smart is destroyed.

This is a good book that will not appeal to the average reader: it will appeal to frustrated parents and educators, though. I am more on the left side of the political spectrum but even this book was way too leftie for me. Obviously, as a librarian, I have an ear to the ground when it comes to education - more so, unfortunately, abut how parents are frustrated with their kids being left behind. 

I can maybe recommend this book, MAYBE to educators who will realize that the normal kids are being left behind and want to fight for that ... but I am afraid that the right wing-dingers will p9unce on it as a failing by the lefties, etc. etc. etc.

I said that I would be honest, but I am more torn about what I read: maybe I should read it again, but I am just ambivalent bout the whole thing.
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