(2021-02-17) Alexander Book Review The Cult Of Smart

Scott Alexander: Book Review: The Cult Of Smart. Socialist blogger Fredrik DeBoer is the opposite: few allies, but deeply respected by his enemies. I disagree with him about everything, so naturally I am a big fan of his work - which meant I was happy to read his latest book, The Cult Of Smart.

DeBoer starts with the standard narrative of The Failing State Of American Education.

He argues that every word of it is a lie.

American education is doing much as it's always done - about as well as possible, given the crushing poverty, single parent-families, violence, and racism holding back the kids it's charged with shepherding to adulthood.

But then how do education reform efforts and charters produce such dramatic improvements? DeBoer's answer: by lying.

The overall distribution of good vs. bad students remains unchanged, and is mostly caused by natural talent; some kids are just smarter than others.

differences in intelligence and many other traits are mostly due to genes, not shared environment.

This requires an asterisk - we can only say for sure that the contribution of environment is less than that of genes in our current society; some other society with more (or less, or different) environmental variation might be a different story

For decades, politicians of both parties have thought of education as "the great leveller" and the key to solving poverty.

Schools can change your intellectual potential a limited amount.

So what can you do? DeBoer doesn't think there's an answer within the existing system. Instead, we need to dismantle meritocracy.

Natural talent is just as unearned as social class, race, or any other unfair advantage.

meritocracy rewards the straight-A Harvard student with a high-paying powerful job and the high school dropout with drudgery or unemployment.

Only if you conflate intelligence with worth

Access to the 20% is gated by college degree, and their legitimizing myth is that their education makes them more qualified and humane than the rest of us.

DeBoer thinks the deification of school-achievement-compatible intelligence as highest good serves their class interest; "equal opportunity" means we should ignore all other human distinctions in favor of the one that our ruling class happens to excel at.

So maybe equality of opportunity is a stupid goal. DeBoer argues for equality of results. This is a pretty extreme demand, but he's a Marxist and he means what he says. He wants a world where smart people and dull people have equally comfortable lives, and where intelligence can take its rightful place as one of many virtues which are nice to have but not the sole measure of your worth.

..but he realizes that destroying capitalism is a tall order, so he also includes some "moderate" policy prescriptions we can work on before the Revolution

I'm Freddie's ideological enemy, which means I have to respect him

Overall, I think this book does more good than harm.

It's also rambling, self-contradictory in places, and contains a lot of arguments I think are misguided or bizarre.

deBoer's view of meritocracy is bizarre

I noted that meritocracy has nothing to do with this. The intuition behind meritocracy is: if your life depends on a difficult surgery, would you prefer the hospital hire a surgeon who aced medical school, or a surgeon who had to complete remedial training to barely scrape by with a C-? If you prefer the former, you’re a meritocrat with respect to surgeons. Generalize a little, and you have the argument for being a meritocrat everywhere else... You are willing to pay more money for a surgeon who aced medical school than for a surgeon who failed it. So higher intelligence leads to more money.

This not only does away with "desert", but also with reified Society deciding who should prosper.

Meritocracy isn't an -ocracy like democracy or autocracy, where people in wigs sit down to frame a constitution and decide how things should work. It's a dubious abstraction over the fact that people prefer to have jobs done well rather than poorly, and use their financial and social clout to make this happen.

The book sort of equivocates a little between "education cannot be improved" and "you can't improve education an infinite amount".

DeBoer admits you can improve education a little

So even if education can never eliminate all differences between students, surely you can make schools better or worse. And surely making them better is important - not because it will change anyone's relative standings in the rat race, but because educated people have more opportunities for self-development and more opportunities to contribute to society.

I'm worried that his arguments against existing school reform are in some cases kind of weak

Success Academy is a chain of New York charter schools with superficially amazing results.

DeBoer will have none of it. He thinks they're cooking the books by kicking out lower-performing students in a way public schools can't do, leaving them with a student body heavily-selected for intelligence. Any remaining advantage is due to "teacher tourism", where ultra-bright Ivy League grades who want a "taste of the real world" go to teach at private schools for a year or two before going into their permanent career as consultants

If it doesn't scale, it doesn't scale, but maybe the same search process that found this particular way can also find other ways? Surely it doesn't seem like the obvious next step is to ban anyone else from even trying?

And we only have DeBoer's assumption that all of this is teacher tourism. Success Academy itself claims that they have lots of innovative teaching methods and a different administrative culture. If this explains even 10% of their results, spreading it to other schools would be enough

DeBoer's second tough example is New Orleans. Hurricane Katrina destroyed most of their schools, forcing the city to redesign their education system from the ground up. They decided to go a 100% charter school route, and it seemed to be very successful

DeBoer writes:... even if these results hold, the notion of using New Orleans as a model for other school districts is absurd on its face. When we make policy decisions, we want to isolate variables and compare like with like, to whatever degree possible... how could we have any faith that adopting the New Orleans schooling system - without the massive civic overhaul - would replicate the supposed advantages?

These are good points, and I would accept them from anyone other than DeBoer, who will go on to say in a few chapters that the solution to our education issues is a Marxist revolution that overthrows capitalism and dispenses with the very concept of economic value

He could have written a chapter about race that reinforced this message. He could have reviewed studies about whether racial differences in intelligence are genetic or environmental, come to some conclusion or not, but emphasized that it doesn't matter, and even if it's 100% genetic it has no bearing at all on the need for racial equality and racial justice, that one race having a slightly higher IQ than another doesn't make them "superior" any more than Pygmies' genetic short stature makes them "inferior". Instead he - well, I'm not really sure what he's doing.

I'm far less sure of any of it than I am sure that all human beings are morally equal and deserve to have a good life and get treated with respect regardless of academic achievement.

DeBoer is skeptical of the idea of education as a "leveller". Instead, he thinks it just produces another hierarchy... He scoffs at a goal of "social mobility", pointing out that rearranging the hierarchy doesn't make it any less hierarchical.

It is weird for a liberal/libertarian to have to insist to a socialist that equality can sometimes be an end in itself, but I am prepared to insist on this. Even if it doesn't help a single person get any richer, I feel like it's a terminal good that people have the opportunity to use their full potential, beyond my ability to explain exactly why.

"Smart" equivocates over two concepts - high-IQ and successful-at-formal-education. These concepts are related; in general, high-IQ people get better grades, graduate from better colleges, etc. But they're not exactly the same.

The Cult Of Smart invites comparisons with Bryan Caplan's The Case Against Education. Both use largely the same studies to argue that education doesn't do as much as we thought. Caplan very reasonably thinks maybe that means we should have less education. DeBoer...definitely doesn't think that.

School is child prison. It's forcing kids to spend their childhood - a happy time! a time of natural curiosity and exploration and wonder - sitting in un-air-conditioned blocky buildings, cramped into identical desks, listening to someone drone on about the difference between alliteration and assonance, desperate to even be able to fidget but knowing that if they do their teacher will yell at them, and maybe they'll get a detention that extends their sentence even longer without parole. The anti-psychiatric-abuse community has invented the "Burrito Test" - if a place won't let you microwave a burrito without asking permission, it's an institution. There is no way school will let you microwave a burrito without permission. THEY WILL NOT EVEN LET YOU GO TO THE BATHROOM WITHOUT PERMISSION. YOU HAVE TO RAISE YOUR HAND AND ASK YOUR TEACHER FOR SOMETHING CALLED "THE BATHROOM PASS" IN FRONT OF YOUR ENTIRE CLASS, AND IF SHE DOESN'T LIKE YOU, SHE CAN JUST SAY NO.

I sometimes sit in on child psychiatrists' case conferences, and I want to scream at them. There's the kid who locks herself in the bathroom every morning so her parents can't drag her to child prison, and her parents stand outside the bathroom door to yell at her for hours until she finally gives in and goes, and everyone is trying to medicate her or figure out how to remove the bathroom locks, and THEY ARE SOLVING THE WRONG PROBLEM.

Preventing children from having any free time, or the ability to do any of the things they want to do seems to just be an end in itself... The only possible justification for this is that it achieves some kind of vital social benefit like eliminating poverty. If it doesn't, you might as well replace it with something less traumatizing, like child labor.

If I have children, I hope to be able to homeschool them. But if I can't homeschool them, I am incredibly grateful that the option exists to send them to a charter school that might not have all of these problems. I'm not as impressed with Montessori schools as some of my friends are, but at least as far as I can tell they let kids wander around free-range, and don't make them use bathroom passes.

I am so, so tired of socialists who admit that the current system is a helltopian torturescape, then argue that we must prevent anyone from ever being able to escape it.

The average district spends $12,000 per pupil per year on public schools (up to $30,000 in big cities!) How many parents would be able to give their children a safe, accepting home environment if they got even a fraction of that money? If they could get $12,000 - $30,000 to stay home and help teach their kid, how many working parents might decide they didn't have to take that second job in order to make ends meet?

I would want society to experiment with how short school could be and still have students learn what they needed to know, as opposed to our current strategy of experimenting with how long school can be and still have students stay sane.

I don't think totally unstructured learning is optimal for kids - I don't even think Montessori-style faux unstructured learning is optimal - but I think there would be a lot of room to experiment, and I think it would be better to err on the side of not getting angry at kids for trying to learn things on their own than on the side of continuing to do so.

Together, I believe we can end school. Until DeBoer is up for this, I don't think he's been fully deprogrammed from The Cult Of Successful At Formal Education (formerly known as The Cult Of Smart).

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