Not all men are equal, as our Founders knew. “No two men are perfectly equal in person, property, understanding, activity, and virtue,” wrote John Adams in 1776. Nor can they “ever be made so by any power less than that which created them.” The “diversity in the faculties of men,” says Federalist 10, will produce “different and unequal faculties of acquiring property.” In a free society, disparities in wealth, position, and status will inevitably arise. Yet the Declaration of Independence declares that all men are created equal. Adams explains: despite differing talents and capacities, “all are subject by nature to equal laws of morality” and “equal laws for their government,” but that entails no promise to use the powers of government to correct unequal life conditions.
The relentless pressure to dissolve the clear demarcation between legal equality and equality of outcomes, never anticipated by our system’s architects, is one of the hallmarks of our age. The expectation is now all-encompassing, extending not just to material resources, but to talent, status, ability, and position. According to Fredrik deBoer—a journalist, former teacher, and self-described socialist—this expectation has given rise to a destructive, counterfactual delusion: right-thinking people now insist that every person starts out as a “blank slate,” with the same potential for intellectual development and life achievement. That assumption, in conjunction with a society that increasingly elevates and rewards cognitive ability, leads to an obsessive emphasis on creating equal academic outcomes for all. It also generates what his new book terms “The Cult of Smart”: the tendency to assign brainpower global significance, valorize and reward it above all else, and conflate “moral equality, political equality, and equality of value with equality of ability.”
Unlike many on the progressive left today, and especially those in the world of education, deBoer firmly rejects the “blank slate” assumption, declaring forthrightly that “different students vary significantly in their underlying ability, and that this difference in talent profoundly shape[s] academic outcomes.” More strikingly, he asserts that “genetic parentage” sets limits on cognitive ability and that this inheritance “plays a larger role in determining human outcomes than the family or home environment.” These realities mean that “everyone simply can’t be made equal.” People’s abilities and developed capacities—their “human capital” in today’s parlance—will inevitably vary. Some people will turn out smarter than others, and no system of education, however well-funded and well-functioning, can alter that fundamental fact.
Although manifestly sound, these assertions are deeply unfashionable among broad swaths of influential elites. In deBoer’s view, the adamant refusal to acknowledge natural differences has done untold damage to society as a whole, deforming the education system, distorting our policies, and setting many up for humiliation and disappointment in a society where economic status and social station are closely tied to academic success. That damage operates through a meritocracy that sorts, assigns, and compensates people based primarily on their intelligence. By rewarding brainpower to the point where smarts are regarded as the paramount, indeed the sole, basis for respect and admiration and “the only true measures of human worth,” the meritocracy encourages attitudes and arrangements that inflict harm on the majority of people with no outstanding intellectual talents and relegate them to the status of life’s losers.
Although marked by many flaws, this book is important and worthy of attention. DeBoer’s willingness to challenge unrealistic orthodoxies that are widely accepted among left-leaning intellectuals and educators and his bold attempt to rethink broad policy questions in light of a more accurate, realistic view make this book refreshing and worthwhile. The author is to be commended for facing the truth about human intellectual ability and the importance society attaches to it. No sober and objective person familiar with decades of cognitive behavioral research and psychometric data can seriously doubt that some people are born with greater intellectual potential than others. Nor can it be denied that high intelligence is widely admired and often handsomely rewarded or that brainpower significantly influences who succeeds in school and in life.
Many of the author’s criticisms that follow from facing these facts, especially in the educational realm, are well-taken. He observes that the meritocratic promise of upward mobility that is billed as a great economic leveler, a weapon against the rigidities of class, and an embodiment of the American Dream, although a boon to some individuals, inevitably functions as a zero-sum game in which most people don’t, and can’t, make it to the top because, well, only 20 percent of people can end up in the top 20 percent. And he points out that, for reasons of both nature and nurture, children growing up in educated, higher-income families tend to stay in that class. That the meritocracy mostly replicates existing inequalities is why, as deBoer concedes, upward mobility cannot serve as the formula for widespread social wellbeing. Climbing the social ladder is no substitute for improving the quality of life for those in the middle and at the bottom.
DeBoer also savages legal reform efforts such as No Child Left Behind for creating unreachable educational goals, which fault public schools for their failure to do the impossible and promote a “blame the teachers” mentality. Likewise, he frowns on non-profits such as the Gates Foundation that pour vast sums into raising and equalizing academic achievement instead of gearing their efforts to a range of abilities. He has no use for “college for all,” which he blames for a long list of ills, including ever more prolonged adolescence, delays in family formation, growing ranks of semi-credentialed debt slaves, the atrophy of non-college options, the intensified social stigma attached to the lack of a bachelor’s degree, and a costly arms race that bloats universities, escalates education costs, and beggars families.
Although deBoer writes well and gets a lot right, his admirable iconoclasm is marred by hyperbolic assertions, egregious sins of omission, straw men, agenda-driven positions, and logical defects like the moralistic fallacy. One serious wrong turn is his attack on charter schools, which he claims rely on demographic manipulations and statistical tricks to achieve impressive academic results. DeBoer fails to appreciate that academics are only part of why families shun public schools and flee to charters. Many parents regard the atmosphere, culture, and behavioral expectations of a school as equally, if not more, important than test scores. They don’t like their children passing through metal detectors or held hostage by unruly students that teachers are powerless to remove. They want their children to be properly socialized, learn manners, and be exposed to the conduct and folkways of successful people. The proof of charters’ appeal is revealed by videos showing jubilant, tearful New York families of students who win the charter school lottery in the city—the type of scene that is repeated all over the country. Although deBoer insists the celebrants have been hoodwinked, the lucky families would be the first to tell him otherwise.
By far the greatest weakness of this book is its final chapter, in which the author issues a call both grandiose and nebulous to abolish the meritocracy entirely. He contends that his radical plan follows from so-called “luck egalitarian” principles, which maintain that inequalities based on factors individuals cannot control, such as the genetically based limits on intellectual ability, are inherently unjust. According to the author, smart people deserve no credit for their intellectual gifts and the social credits that follow, just as the less smart cannot be blamed for their lack of success. These injustices can only be fully corrected by restructuring the entire system so that earnings and social status are no longer tied to academic success. Our meritocracy must be abolished.
Despite its seemingly impeccable logic, the revolution deBoer envisions would do more harm than good and has little chance of becoming reality. His vaunting recommendation represents a missed opportunity for hard, practical thinking about how to best manage the inequality that will inevitably result in a free society run along meritocratic lines, including a more thoughtful examination than he provides of how the educational system could better be restructured to serve students of varying ability. And while he’s at it, deBoer might consider ways to dislodge the delusional, egalitarian “blank slate” thinking that has the ruling class in its grip and bring influential people around to more realistic, albeit less appealing, understandings. Finally, to the extent that the Cult of Smart as he describes it exists, the author should contemplate how best to curb and temper it without upsetting the whole apple cart and triggering the law of unintended consequences. How could less intellectually able people earn greater rewards, respect, and recognition? How can we slow the educational arms race? These compelling questions, however unexciting, cry out for sober reflection.
None can be adequately addressed without confronting why, despite its imperfections, unfairness, and unsavory aspects, the skill-based meritocracy arose, persists (more or less), and directs outsized rewards to brainpower. The reason, in a nutshell, is that high intelligence has enormous economic and social value. Ours has evolved into a complex “knowledge economy” that places a large premium on juggling piles of information, navigating difficult concepts, mastering esoteric technology, managing intricate systems, and performing cognitively demanding tasks with efficiency and speed. Smarter people tend to do all this better, and positioning them to perform these functions has obvious upsides. But, as deBoer well understands, this comparative advantage doesn’t make intellectual elites better people or morally superior, nor does it justify their unquestioned and excessive authority over powerful societal institutions and policies. Where normative or political judgments are at stake, elites should serve as our handmaidens, not our bosses. But the answer is to keep all this in mind and act accordingly, not to stop categorizing, sorting, and directing people based on talent.
As an idealist mesmerized by egalitarian collectivism, deBoer also airbrushes out important, time-honored reasons that outstanding ability frequently earns richer returns. First, incentives matter. Second, high talent is rare. Greater rewards tend to elicit greater effort, and we want smart people to put their brains to good use. DeBoer’s willful disregard for the plain facts of human motivation implicitly indulges the moralistic fallacy: because the meritocracy is unfair, smart people shouldn’t demand handsome rewards, ergo they will maximize their efforts without them. Of course, human nature doesn’t work that way, and most people won’t be moved by such logic. As for the rarity of talent, one fact that deBoer doesn’t emphasize enough is that the cognitive capacity inscribed in our dna is distributed along a bell curve that drops off rapidly at both ends. The higher the ability level, the fewer the people who can attain it. The number of people with the chops to be a math professor at Harvard is vanishingly small.
Likewise, although conceding that even under socialism some people are “better at certain things than others,” the author pays virtually no attention to one of meritocracy’s—and capitalism’s—central functions, which is to sort people into tasks and roles to which they are suited and that others are willing to pay for. He sets forth no plan for identifying and channeling talent once socialism displaces capitalism and the meritocracy finally disappears. And he ignores the unsavory stew of raw power, partisanship, political correctness, and privilege that surely will fill the void.
Not satisfied with destroying capitalism and vanquishing merit, the author’s stated aim is nothing less than to “eliminate the very ideal of just deserts altogether.” Good luck with that. Great feats of intellect, as well as artistic prowess, scientific creativity, innovative acumen, and clever entrepreneurship—all these represent the commanding heights of what humans can achieve. Just as beauty will always be prized and loveliness loved forever, excellence will always be admired, high achievement honored, and the extraordinary revered over the ordinary, regardless of any immediate social benefits and palpable payoffs.
Moreover, few outside elite circles truly believe that people’s success or failure is purely a matter of destiny, beyond individual effort and commitment. Intellectuals’ long-standing efforts to depict luck as all-important, social forces as all-powerful, and human agency as delusory, have not stopped ordinary people from praising signal accomplishments and admiring exceptional attainment. Nor, despite efforts from certain quarters, have we yet ceased blaming malefactors, condemning nefarious acts, and making moral judgments. The expectation that the cold logic of moral luck or the plain facts of human genetics will argue most people out of their reactive attitudes or moral sentiments is sure to meet with disappointment. That would require a dramatic transformation in social life as we know it.
Ultimately, deBoer’s brief against the meritocracy and the Cult of Smart is fatally weakened by a chain of overstatements. He exaggerates the importance of extraordinary brainpower, inflates the extent of its innate component, and understates the control people have over their life’s direction. And he misapprehends the social respect conferred on intelligence alone.
In his eagerness to drive home the point that genes influence IQ, deBoer underplays the evidence that heredity is not all-important. Psychometricians generally agree that nature and nurture both contribute more or less equally to measured intelligence, depending on when and how it is measured. And despite decades of study, the experiential part of the equation is still remarkably little understood. Parenting, peers, culture, social class, and other unknown environmental factors are all in the mix, and judging their discrete effects has proven difficult. Finally, the data does not rule out that individuals play a role in shaping their own destiny, character, lives, and fate.
Additionally, social science evidence suggests that, although recent economic changes have undeniably made life harder for the less talented, choices and behavior still matter to life outcomes, regardless of ability level. It is an oft-repeated observation that individuals who follow the so-called “success sequence”—graduate from high school, get married before having children, and work steadily at any job available—are rarely poor. Avoiding addiction and crime improves outcomes even more dramatically. Meeting these demands does not require high intelligence or outstanding academic achievement. Rather, it requires recognizing, believing in, and sticking to a few tried and true “rules for life.” Average people are especially in need of simple rules and clear guidance to help them navigate the economic challenges they face and forge a path through life’s complexities.
DeBoer’s overemphasis on the limits imposed by innate intelligence is of a piece with the author’s striking obliviousness to the importance of social and moral norms to average people’s lives and achievements—a blind spot he shares with many progressive elites. He cannot bring himself even to mention those infamous “bourgeois values”—respectability, reliability, honesty, thrift, diligence, restraint, and rectitude—that work to encourage pro-social behavior and mark out constructive paths. He alludes to the importance of traditional, stable families, which he recognizes now predominate among elites, but ignores the self-sabotaging behavior that deprives the less advantaged of their supports. It never occurs to him that the Cult of Smart, with its outsized veneration for academic credentials and fancy degrees, might represent a displacement of the common admiration once accorded to old-fashioned moral virtues. A renewed consensus surrounding rules of conduct might do more to dispel the supposed Cult than the sweeping transformations deBoer envisions.
Does the Cult of Smart that deBoer describes really exist, or is it less far-reaching and influential than he suggests? The latter is more plausible. Even among the most credentialed and status-conscious who are obsessed with academic prowess, one would be hard pressed to find a person who treats intelligence “as the sole criterion of someone’s worth.” Traits and achievements that don’t require high IQ—extraordinary courage, outstanding leadership, grit, and moral purpose—still elicit ample admiration. Putting even modest abilities to good use, living up to potential, working hard, acting in constructive ways, and performing socially useful tasks, however humble—all this still commands widespread respect. It is gratifying that the covid era has raised the profile of “essential services” and ordinary jobs that are often performed by people without a college education. Perhaps it is true that such people do not receive enough gratitude, recognition—and, yes, compensation—and that it would be better if they did. But this is not always easy to accomplish, because the economic system has its own logic. It is far from clear how the pay, prestige, and quality of life of the less educated can realistically be improved. Perhaps DeBoer will shed light on this question in his next book.
Another important defect of this book, albeit understandable in light of the topic’s sensitivity, is deBoer’s reflexive treatment of group differences in cognitive ability, and especially those consistently documented between blacks and whites. While acknowledging an innate genetic contribution to individual intellectual potential, he repeatedly insists that genetics plays no role in race gaps in IQ. Without presenting any evidence, he relies on a cherry-picked sample of “experts” to dismiss curtly the possibility of any heritable component. Yet he also cites a recent survey, which he labels “disturbing,” that reports that mainstream psychometricians queried anonymously are evenly divided on the question. To deal with the contradiction, he resorts to going full ad hominem, tarring any deviation from his position as “pseudo-scientific racism” and stating (falsely) that such views are propagated chiefly by young “alt-right” fanatics and other “extremist” types. Like many bien pensants, he implicitly succumbs to a wishful moralistic fallacy: it shouldn’t be true that groups differ in intrinsic ability, so it can’t be true, so anyone who thinks so is evil and a racist. This is not just lazy and unpersuasive but also threatens untoward consequences. DeBoer is quick to point to the policy distortions wrought by “blank slate” thinking about individuals. But he ignores the potential for equally costly and misguided initiatives, affecting every aspect of social and economic life, that could result from erroneous assumptions about group differences. A fuller, more evenhanded treatment of this issue awaits a braver and more impartial soul than this author.
1The Cult of Smart: How Our Broken Education System Perpetuates Social Injustice, by Fredrik deBoer; All Points Books, 288 pages, $28.99.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 39 Number 7, on page 60
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