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'Cult of Smart' author Fredrik deBoer on the taboo of admitting some kids just aren't good at school, why 'equality of opportunity' is bunk, and why he believes in a culture of forgiveness over cancellation

  • Fredrik deBoer is a writer, academic, and avowed Marxist who has contributed to outlets as varied as The New York Times, Politico, Gawker, Foreign Policy, The New Republic, and Jacobin. 
  • He's also been a teacher at both the high school and college levels, and he just published his first book, "The Cult of Smart: How Our Broken Education System Perpetuates Social Injustice." 
  • He spoke with Business Insider about the controversy surrounding the idea of inherited intelligence, why he thinks blaming teachers unions is a red herring, and why he thinks the concept of "equality of opportunity" is total bunk.
  • He also talked about his prescient 2017 essay "Planet of Cops," and why he believes in a discourse that allows for "forgiveness" rather than cancellation. 
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Fredrik deBoer is an essayist, academic, and avowed Marxist who has contributed writing to outlets as varied as The New York Times, Politico, Gawker, Foreign Policy, The New Republic, and Jacobin. 

He's also been a teacher at both the high school and college levels, and he just published his first book, "The Cult of Smart: How Our Broken Education System Perpetuates Social Injustice." 

DeBoer's publisher says "his anti-tribal style has earned him admiration from political thinkers of all quadrants," to which I can relate.

Even — or perhaps, especially — when I vehemently disagree with deBoer, his fluidly conversational writing and thoughtful advocacy for left-wing causes has challenged my own beliefs, and at times helped make my own arguments stronger. 

I was delighted to talk with him this week from his home in Brooklyn (via Zoom) about the controversy surrounding the idea of inherited intelligence, why he thinks blaming teachers unions is a red herring, and why the concept of "equality of opportunity" is total bunk. 

This interview has been edited for style, length, and clarity.

You call this book "a prayer for the untalented." What does that mean?

When both conservatives and liberals discuss a just society, they tend to use language like "everyone should get what they deserve" or "everyone should be able to maximize their own potential." That they should not be held back by outside factors that we consider illegitimate, like how rich their parents are. My position in the book is, why do we stop there? 

In other words, if your natural talent is something that you have incomplete control over, then that's no more of a natural or just reason to restrict someone from living the good life than anything else. I want us to peel back that onion one more level and look at those who just lack natural talent in things that happen to be marketable in today's economy and ask, "Why should they suffer?"

You wrote that the conservative point of view is focused on grit. Something like, "grit will get you through hardship and toward success." And you wrote that the liberal point of view is focused on opportunity and equity. 

In the book, you say sometimes it just doesn't matter. Some kids just don't have what it takes to succeed at school. Why do you think people can't accept that? What makes it so controversial? 

Conservatives tend to really be invested in this notion of the self-made man. They want to believe that what they have, they have because they've earned it. In order to preserve that belief, you have to minimize the influence of factors that are out of your control. 

Liberals want to preserve a sort of naive vision of human equality. Of course, I believe in human equality, but I believe in equality of dignity, equality of rights, and political equality. But I don't believe that everyone is equally good at all things. And it's important to say that part of what people are trying to preserve is an economy where what is valued at what time is a somewhat arbitrary distinction.

There was a time in human affairs when just being a big strong guy made you someone who was able to secure more for yourself and other people. If you were someone who was able to be a really effective laborer, if you were someone who was able to haul a lot of wood, if you were someone who was able to be physically imposing on a battlefield — those talents were things that were highly sought after and resulted in a high level of compensation. Now, a person like that is just as likely to be unemployed as he is to be someone who is doing well in the economy. And in fact, the jobs that really depend upon your physical attributes are ones that — with the exception of professional athletics — tend to be low-paying. 

We can't underestimate the fact that liberals tend to talk a really good game about the injustices of the economy, but a lot of the liberals who do that talking are people who have succeeded in this economy. And so to a degree that they don't like to admit, they have a vested interest in preserving the economy as it stands.

Some kids just aren't good at school. They need a better path.

You recount a story in the book of a student that you spent hours and hours working with, who tried as hard as he could, and he just couldn't learn in school. Can you talk a little bit about that student and how it informed your perspective here?

He was a student in a special program for kids with severe emotional disturbances. And you would never have known it, but by the time I got there, the staff there and the teachers there had done a really wonderful job with him and his behavioral problems that got him sent to juvenile detention were almost nonexistent at that point. He had made tremendous improvement, but his improvements were not showing up in his grades. 

The behavioral stuff helped with his ability now to attend a class, not to attempt to hurt himself, not to throw his desk around, that sort of thing. That's not the game in terms of what school was meant to inculcate in people. You need to have academic skills. And this was a kid who just struggled so hard, particularly in math, and his teachers worked so hard with him, and I worked hard with him as a paraprofessional. But he just could not do long division. If there was a remainder, he just could not function. 

And it occurred to me watching this kid that there's a certain degree of cruelty to what we were attempting to do, because it didn't seem to matter. He certainly was working very hard at it. And, it struck me that a system that really cared about a kid like him is one that knows what to do with kids who can't do long division with remainders. It's a system that has a more expansive vision of what success looks like. That has pathways for people who aren't ever going to be good at math or science, and that could see something other than failure in him.

One thing you touch on is the concept of inherited intelligence, which is controversial because it's sometimes conflated with race science. You take great pains to reject race science in all forms while also saying inherited intelligence exists.

I understand why everybody is so touchy about this. The education research people would prefer to say "baseline ability" rather than "inherited ability." I don't care about the language that you use. We are all good at some things and not good at other things. And it just so happens that school is one of the things that we are all good at or not good at. 

In other words, no one has any problem with me saying that I lack natural ability in sprinting. It doesn't matter if I had decided in middle school that I wanted to be a world-class sprinter. It wouldn't have mattered. No matter how hard I worked, no matter how good the coaching that I had, no matter how expensive the equipment I used, I would never become a world-class sprinter.

No one pretends everybody has the same athletic gifts. And in fields like music, there is also a sense that it's common for some people to have natural talent that others do not. But it's only with school that we become incredibly sensitive to the perception that we're saying that some people lack natural ability. 

"Equality of opportunity" 

It's become a common right-of-center refrain of late that the right thing to do is to provide "equality of opportunity, not equality of outcome." You say the concept of "equality of opportunity" is bunk. 

From the perspective of the system that we're operating on, when we talk about politics and policy, it is not at all clear to me why we would see movement within the system as a success.

In other words, if we have equality of opportunity, that means an individual can rise up from the bottom rung to the top rung. What necessarily happens is that everybody at the top moves down onr rung. Internal mobility within a system that's always zero sum means there's always people moving down at the same time as someone moves up.

Take your class rank in high school. If you move into the top five, somebody else is moving out. The second thing is, once you believe that there's any aspect of that movement that is not controlled by the individual, like if the individual has any level of individual talent or if the individual characteristics of a person help to determine where they end up, then it's not true mobility anyway. 

We've tried every kind of intervention we can think of into the educational space to create this total mobility and we've utterly failed. So even if I thought equality of opportunity was a coherent demand, we have demonstrated pretty ably that we don't know how to make it happen. So what's the point of positing it?

You described schools as essentially "sorting centers" for what kind of life a kid will live as an adult. You also wrote, "in contemporary society, we have more ways to be a loser than a winner." What should we replace this system with? 

What I think we should replace the system with is quite unlikely to happen anytime soon. I'm a Marxist. 

I propose in the book an education system where we gradually over time reduce and remove standards that force students on to particular paths. We create a system where students have more outs, they have more ways that they can approach the system so that students can avoid pre-calculus or organic chemistry — classes they just can't succeed at and which cause them to drop out, A system that was more open to different paths to success. That would be a really humane thing to do.

If you believe like I do that the system is rigged — that our whole society is rigged in favor of people who happen to have natural talent at things that are marketable in neoliberal capitalism — you can try to unrig it or you can lower the stakes. 

If we instituted a more broadly redistributive social state, a Scandinavian-style social democracy, success in school would just matter a lot less. The outcomes of the educational system would have a lot less to do with whether you end up being some laid-off iron worker in a Cincinnati suburb who's addicted to Oxycontin. That would no longer be a likely outcome for someone who fails in the education system, because we would have systems in place that could support these people no matter how they perform in school. 

There's this fear that if you lower the stakes that this will somehow depress excellence. That's  just demonstrably untrue. Scandinavian social democracies have excellent educational outcomes. In Finland the pressure to excel academically is so much less than in the United States that it's perfectly common for Finnish five-year-olds to not be able to read. It's perfectly common for the parents to have never even attempted to teach them to read at five years old. 

If you find a pair of liberal, upper-middle class parents here in Brooklyn whose kid can't read at five years old, I guarantee you, they will be in an absolute panic about it. And yet Finnish children have arguably the best educational metrics in the world. The lack of extreme pressure on their students does not prevent them from having outstanding outcomes. 

I want to drain the system of some of its stakes to remove some of the pressure. People can learn at their own pace and things that they find interesting, and the system doesn't have to constantly be in the state of crisis.

You're a staunch teachers union advocate. Is there anything you'd criticize about the teachers unions regarding the way they've handled business? 

The general claim that teachers unions protect individual teachers who are bad teachers, and that's why we have bad outcomes, is just demonstrably false. There's tons of compounds in this, but it is simply the case that stronger teachers unions tend to be seen in states with stronger student outcomes. But I do think it is certainly possible for individual teachers to be shielded by tenure laws, where a teacher has just sort of given up in a sense. I think there are individual teachers for which that can be true, and it can be unfortunate if they maintain their position based purely on the tenure system. But that's a minor point. 

Even the Rand Corporation, which is very much a pro-charter school, opposed to the teachers unions kind of shop, estimates that student side factors — things about the student, about their parents, about their home — are four to eight times more powerful determiners about student outcomes than teachers are. Looking to the teachers to figure out why we have these persistent negative outcomes is just a red herring, because I don't think they determined that much about student outcomes. 

Some teachers don't like that. I've heard from individual teachers who don't like my book because they think I'm minimizing what they do. But the evidence shows that they are probably overestimating their degree of influence over their kids.

The claim of people I'm arguing with — the "get those bad teachers out" people — is that we have a talent deficit in our teaching core. The only way to fix that problem is to make the profession more attractive. I don't understand how you make the profession more attractive by attacking one of the few things that makes teaching attractive in the first place, which is job security.

Historically, why have teachers gotten tenure? Why has it happened in this job, unlike in many other jobs? The reason is because it's a non-monetary way to provide compensation. Local municipalities can't raise money. They can't raise taxes just to pay their teachers more. So how do you compensate?

If the teacher's unions decided that it was in their best interest to make some sort of a grand bargain where teachers make more, but teachers are easier to fire, I wouldn't object to that. If that was a decision that was mutually agreed upon by the teachers unions and their employers, the schools. But again, I don't think that's going to fix the problem. 

On wokeness, cancel culture, and forgiveness

To pivot to something not related to your book, but is related to your writing. Your 2017 essay "Planet of Cops," was an early instance of left-wing pushback on the social justice "woke world," and it seemed to predict the present moment of zero tolerance discourse. 

You lament that a lot of the left, in a sense, has become like Rudy Giuliani trying to get "offensive" art pulled off the walls. I don't want to use the phrase "cancel culture," but there are severe penalties for saying the wrong thing or thinking the wrong thing right now. Did you call this? 

Despite what some people would think, I believe there's a lot to be said for a greater expectation of sensitivity to issues that so-called "cancel culture" indulges in. I don't think it's a bad thing in and of itself for people to be more aware of racism and sexism and similar issues. 

The problem is — it's just a basic belief of mine —  that we're a terribly flawed species filled with terribly flawed people. And people are going to screw up all the time because that's the nature of human beings. And it does not make sense to me to have a social system in place where any fault or flaw is going to be jumped on by a thousand people and stain you for the rest of your life.

I think that a functioning democratic discourse is one that leaves a lot of room for forgiveness because we're all wrong. A lot of the time, and the only way to get better is if we believe that we can fail and then improve over time. I have always been an advocate for a discourse that's based on a kind of cosmopolitan forgiveness, a sense that we all recognize how close we all are to screwing up and being attacked by the crowd.

We need to cultivate a spirit of openness and forgiveness in how we engage with each other.  

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