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A More Perfect Meritocracy

The Cult of Smart: How Our Broken Education System Perpetuates Social Injustice
Fredrik deBoer
All Points Books, $28.99 (cloth)

The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good?
Michael Sandel
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $28 (cloth)

We have some say in how our lives go, and yet our lives are also subjected to forces outside our control. Which part of this story do we emphasize? Conservatives tend to see the glass as half full, stressing both agential control over outcomes and personal responsibility for them. Progressives are more likely to highlight the causal role of outside factors—even when those factors are in some sense “internal,” such as one’s genetic makeup—and to caution us to err on the side of withholding blame for poor outcomes.

Educator and essayist Fredrik deBoer argues that there is one domain where this political pattern breaks down: in conversations about academic achievement. In the introduction to his new book The Cult of Smart, deBoer articulates the puzzle by drawing on blogger Scott Alexander’s memory of having been praised for getting A in English but blamed for getting a C- in calculus:

Every time I was held up as an example in English class, I wanted to crawl under a rock and die. I didn’t do it! I didn’t study at all, half the time I did the homework in the car on the way to school, those essays for the statewide competition were thrown together on a lark without a trace of real effort. To praise me for any of it seemed and still seems utterly unjust.

On the other hand, to this day I believe I deserve a fricking statue for getting a C- in Calculus I. It should be in the center of the schoolyard, and have a plaque saying something like “Scott Alexander, who by making a herculean effort managed to pass Calculus I, even though they kept throwing random things after the little curly S sign and pretending it made sense.”

Why, Alexander wonders, should praise and blame track what is clearly innate? “The compassionate, sympathetic, progressive position,” he observes, is to deny that peoples’ drinking problems—or obesity, or depression, or kleptomania—are up to them: we should not blame people for mental or physical illness by insisting that they can be overcome with sufficient effort. But, deBoer notes, “this thinking is anathema” among the same progressive circles “when applied to academic aptitude.” Why do the very people who want to avoid blame for hereditary conditions treat academic success as though it were purely a matter of hard work?

DeBoer suggests that part of the explanation is a too hasty progressive repudiation of scientific work on intelligence. Confronted by the dark legacy of scientific racism, progressives are anxious to deny claims of group-level IQ differences, but in the same swoop they end up denying science that shows that individual IQ is at least 50 percent heritable. Both Alexander and deBoer think this is a mistake. They propose that we can be consistently sympathetic and progressive only by facing up to the implications of hard-wired individual IQ differences: academic success and failure are no more “earned” than mental health or illness, and it is cruel to treat them as though they were.

For deBoer this argument is not only important in its own right. It is central to his book’s critique of our meritocratic educational system. Written with the persuasive authority of a seasoned educator, The Cult of Smart is a “prayer for the untalented,” as he calls it, focusing on both their “plight” and the plight of those who teach them. He makes an impassioned plea for realism both about what intellectually ungifted and scholastically unmotivated students can achieve and about what the school system can do to solve society’s ills. DeBoer is a Marxist who hungers for a fully egalitarian society, lamenting the inequalities of privilege and wealth that characterize our own, but he does not believe that the educational system is the lever by which equality will be effected. The imposition of “higher standards” serves only to lower graduation rates, he argues, as well as to punish schools that lack the luxury to kick out struggling students. “Tell me how your students are getting assigned to your school,” he writes, “and I can predict your outcomes.”

DeBoer opens the book with a discussion of 2019’s Varsity Blues college admissions scandal. Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel does the same in his new book The Tyranny of Merit. Both authors use this event to make the case that college admissions has become the fulcrum of our society’s meritocratic machine: your social “worth” is so deeply predicated on the college you attend that rich parents are willing to break the law to secure a slight rise in the tier of college to which their children gain acceptance. And the parents hid their actions from their children because they wanted them to feel they had earned this status.

But both Sandel and deBoer make clear that their target is not this group of lawbreakers. Nor is it parents who legally exchange massive donations for acceptances, or legacy admissions, or the fact that wealthier children are advantaged at every step along childhood’s journey—from prenatal lead exposure all the way to SAT prep courses and expensive, application-padding extracurriculars. The moral problem, for both authors, is not that we fail to live up to the ideal of meritocracy (though we do), but that we take it as an ideal in the first place. Any system that predicates economic and social status on academic performance is intrinsically bad.

Read entire article at Boston Review