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How Meritocracy Failed Our Kids

Fredrik deBoer's criticisms of America's counterproductive education system will be familiar to many on the right.

The Cult of Smart: How Our Broken Educational System Perpetuates Social Injustice, by Fredrik deBoer, (All Points Books: August 2020), 288 pages, $20.99.

Self-described revolutionary socialist Fredrik deBoer will certainly anger many in the progressive educational establishment with his first book, The Cult of Smart. Building on his iconoclastic writings for the likes of Politico and Salon, deBoer takes to task the bipartisan everyone-has the-ability-to-be-above-average-if-only-they-apply-themselves happy-talk that has shaped pedagogical practice for decades. 

In this often thoughtful and compelling work, deBoer sounds an awful lot like Charles Murray in Coming Apart and Real Education. Like Murray, deBoer is responding to the world that No Child Left Behind hath wrought. Moreover, deBoer shares Murray’s belief that educational resources ought to be deployed in pursuit of realistic and tangible goals for students who are not college material. The main difference between the two men’s educational philosophies arises primarily from their differing views of political economy.

A classroom teacher turned English PhD, deBoer opposes the equation of one’s scholastic skill with one’s value as a human being, a widespread view among the nation’s academically gifted aspirational classes, which he describes as “the cult of smart.” He regards the kinds of cognitive skills that are rewarded in the modern school system as largely genetically inherited and views the idea of scholastic meritocracy as a dynamo of social inequality. deBoer describes schools as not a key to success in life, as politicians from George W. Bush to Barack Obama have described it, but a lock which keeps students with lesser intellectual abilities from gaining access to the social and economic opportunities which educational attainment provides.   

In his fire-and-brimstone introduction, deBoer buries the high-pressure “collegiate arms race” faced by university-bound high school students, the erroneous assumption that every student has the capacity for book learning, and the notion that a college education is the only path to a respectable and fulfilling adult life. The author also does a number on the group he regards as his real enemy within the American educational system—the self-replicating, progressive cultural elites first described in David Brooks’ Bobos in Paradise. deBoer blames them for walling off social mobility to much of society by taking up all the seats at the elite colleges, marrying only one another, and spending every waking hour within the confines of their cultural set—all the while signaling their cultural enlightenment and broadmindedness through performative social gestures.

After the opening tract, deBoer harnesses a wide range of scholarly evidence, much of it taboo in polite pedagogical discussion, to demonstrate what he learned first-hand as an educator—children differ greatly in cognitive ability. Students with nearly identical racial, socioeconomic, and cultural backgrounds can have radically different capacities in math, critical reading, and analysis. The man has a genuine yank about the philosopher John Dewey, whom he regards as the father of the blank slate/education as a social leveler vision of schooling, which he sees as the starting point of the meritocratic rat race which created the cult of smart. While deBoer is trying to make the orthodox Marxist point that private inequalities seep into the public sphere, he instead makes as strong a case for the intricacy, imperfectability, and variety of human experience as anyone this side of Russell Kirk.

In a chapter entitled “Realistic Reforms,” deBoer lays out his platform, some of which is rather transgressive and some of which seems to come straight from the playbook of the existing educational establishment he claims to oppose. He calls for the children to be held in common with universal day and, apparently, evening care. At the same time, he wants to lower the dropout age to 12. It is unclear from my reading if the 12 year old dropout will be required to attend daycare for some period of time or will be free to get an internship with Fagin. deBoer calls for the elimination of charter schools, basically because he thinks they make conventional public schools look bad. He also accuses charter schools of “juking the stats” to make their performances look better than they actually are. While the author is quite willing to deploy statistical evidence on behalf of many of his claims, he backs up his contempt for charter schools with little more than conjecture and Marxist talking points about them being tools of the neoliberal regime. deBoer also wishes to loosen some of the rigid graduation standards that have been put in place by state education boards in recent years. He expresses particular enmity for the STEM-centric ones, a sentiment I can certainly get behind. He sees the education system’s current preoccupation with STEM as the latest in a long line of moral panics over the alleged lack of students interested in math and science.

Despite his revolutionary bluster, deBoer has made a noteworthy contribution to the contemporary discourse on primary and secondary education. Whether or not his policy prescriptions are prudent, he writes persuasively and makes a number of iconoclastic points. Public discussion about the educational system would certainly be enriched by a consideration of many of the ideas deBoer articulates in The Cult of Smart.

Clayton Trutor holds a PhD in US History from Boston College and teaches at Norwich University in Northfield, Vermont. He’d love to hear from you on Twitter: @ClaytonTrutor.

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