The Cult of Smart

How Our Broken Education System Perpetuates Social Injustice

[Amazon Link]

Last week on Bari Weiss's Substack I noticed:

Now, California’s Department of Education has put forward a new framework for changing the way math will be taught in the state. The proposal is more than 800 pages, but what you need to know is that it embraces a “justice-oriented perspective” and “rejects the ideas of natural gifts and talents.” It does this by doing away with gifted programs, discouraging algebra for eighth graders and calculus for high schoolers.

The bit I bolded stuck out because I was in the middle of reading The Cult of Smart by Fredrik de Boer. Who explicitly embraces the idea of "natural gifts and talents". In fact, I was wondering why he had such a bee in his bonnet about it. Well, as the CA Dept. of Ed. shows: that concept is anathema to many, if not most, in the upper reaches of progressive educational policy setters.

deBoer thinks that's a bad mistake: there's a wide distribution of cognitive talents in the population, and those talents are largely a product of the genes handed down by one's biological parents. When the educrats pretend otherwise, it can only lead to immiseration of the kids who aren't that smart. (And utter boredom for the kids who are that smart.)

On this point I needed no convincing.

There are a number of problems with deBoer's work. The first, and most glaring, was obvious right from the first few pages: he makes pretty much the same points that Charles Murray has been making for decades, ever since (at least) The Bell Curve: society is increasingly bifurcated into the "cognitive elite" (they're doing great!) and, more or less, everyone else (who aren't doing that hot).

So you'd think that deBoer would go out of his way to acknowlege, and perhaps joust with, with Murray's work in the field. Instead, he pretty much ignores Murray. Murray's only mention is in the Notes, in the title of a Vox article deBoer cites twice: "Charles Murray is once again peddling junk science about race and IQ". (And that article has come in for some justly-deserved criticism. See, for example, Richard Haier at Quillette: No Voice at VOX: Sense and Nonsense about Discussing IQ and Race.)

One is left to wonder whether deBoer is just ignorant of what Murray has said about the central thesis of the book, or (maybe) he's just unwilling/unable to deal with it adequately.

But it's not just Murray. Also MIA is any discussion of Bryan Caplan's indictment: The Case against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money; any references to John Taylor Gatto; Thomas Sowell; or any other non-Marxist critic of American education.

What to do? deBoer has one decent suggestion: dropping the compulsory-attendance age to 12. Otherwise, his proposals reflect his ideological bent; he is a self-admitted Marxist. He advocates (in the near term) the Bernie Sanders laundry list: Medicare for All, banning charter schools, student debt forgiveness, free college, Universal Basic Income, etc. He's pretty glib about the financing.

Besides—we control the world's fiat currency and own some printing presses. We can afford it.

Uh, fine. And things get really woolly at the end, where (as a Marxist, remember) he notes that "for change to be socialist, it must entail the destruction of markets" (italics in original).

At a certain point I would imagine that even readers more amenable to lefty talking points than I would be asking: Dude, has this ever worked anywhere?

I usually congratulate myself on reading books outside my comfort zone. I can't do that here in good conscience. When deBoer is on target, he's not that original.

Last Modified 2021-06-03 9:17 AM EDT