Schooling’s False Promises. A Review of Fredrik deBoer’s “The Cult of Smart” (St. Martin’s Press, 2020)

What major federal policy has every president from Lyndon Johnson to Barak Obama agreed on? Answer: Advancing educational opportunity as a path to societal equality. They may have differed on how to expand schooling, but not that it was a goal to be achieved in order to reduce social inequality. Why then have the results not lived up to the promise? The answer is simple according to Fredrik deBoer: schooling can never produce social equality––not because we don’t spend enough or because teachers aren’t good enough. It’s because not all people are academically talented.

Marshaling studies that expose the raw underbelly of schooling’s failures on top of insights from his personal experience as a teacher, and capping that off with a measure of behavioral genetics, deBoer concludes, “as long as our education system creates winners, it will also create losers.”

The problem with those seeking equality of results from schooling deBoer asserts is that that goal is built on a myth of equal inherent ability––the idea that each child’s mind is a blank slate capable of being filled with the necessary knowledge. When children don’t succeed, therefore, people either blame teachers or the schools or both.

deBoer dismisses the notion that source of schools’ failures is racial and gender differences. Differences of potential between groups are insignificant, he asserts, but within each group there is great variation. Some kids are just not cut out to succeed academically.

While deBoer relies on a variety of sources to justify his analysis, few would deny that that there is a broad variation of academic talent within any ethnic or social group. The conclusion that politicians and educational reformers refuse to accept, however, is that a large proportion of the variation in academic achievement is “permanently outside the hands of schools and teachers.”

Where Liberals and Conservatives Agree

DeBoer doesn’t see much difference between conservatives and liberals in terms of the (false) hopes they place on schooling. He worries that economically privileged liberals––more so than conservatives––are resistant to coming to terms with the fact that by passing their genes on to their children they make it harder for those beneath them to advance.

Preaching schooling as a means to economic opportunity for the disadvantaged allows wealthy parents to ignore the fact that they are part of an aristocracy of the talented and that their status represents a barrier to children born of less academically talented parents. The more schooling is based on academic achievement, deBoer tells us, the poorer a job it does of social leveling.

If schooling can’t solve societal inequality what should it be doing? As an avowed Marxist, deBoer wants American society to undergo a total transformation to a socialist utopia, but until that happens, he offers a number of short-term proposals to do justice to the “untalented” and undercut our false hopes for schooling as the means to economic equality. These include two measures that run contrary to universally supported policies of the recent past: loosening public school standards and allowing students as young as 12 to drop out of school. He would also provide universal after school care in addition to universal childcare at a cost of hundreds of billions annually, although he admits all these “reforms” will have trouble gaining adherents.

Fredrik deBoer’s Marxist Alternative

DeBoer’s trust in Marxism leads him astray in understanding the role schooling has played in American society over the past one hundred plus years. Universal public education was not implemented to provide a right for all children to learn as he suggests, but rather to Americanize the large immigrant population that had flooded our shores over the last decades of the 19th century.

Public education (k-12) had little connection to employment until after World War II when an educated workforce was needed to continue the momentum brought about by the mobilization to defeat the Axis Powers. That led to a major expansion of the number of higher education slots. Thus, while my mother got a master’s degree at the State College for Teachers in Albany in 1963, three years later, when I enrolled in a graduate program there, it was now the State University of New York at Albany on a new campus with a vastly enlarged curricula.

The expansion of higher education from the 1960s on fed the growth of the public sector, creating employment openings for blacks and women who hitherto had few opportunities to use a college degree. Higher education growth, however, inevitably led to over expansion as politicians from both parties continued to demand public schools prepare more and more children for college. Expecting almost all young people go to college has had a detrimental effect both on colleges and the workplace. Colleges have succumbed to political pressure to increase graduation rates by lowering academic standards. That has hurt graduates in the market place as more and more employers demand advanced degrees in order to identify applicants with necessary knowledge and skills.

DeBoer is correct that academic talent is linked to economic status, but a missing ingredient in his analysis is motivation. Children of immigrants have historically done well, while the recent college admissions bribery scandal suggests a percentage of upper middle class children are opting out of the competition.

Variation also follows college graduates into the work place. The academically talented don’t all succeed and those with other skill sets, such as leadership, initiative, and perseverance enable those not at the top academically to be successful economically and career wise. The biggest lacuna in deBoer’s vision, however, is his notion that merit should be set aside in the name of a doing justice to those who are not academically talented.

He portrays a socialist utopia that resembles a sci/fi world where robots do all the work and people lounge around doing artistic things like composing music and painting landscapes. This is based on his belief that scarcity is a thing of the past. Of course, deBoer came to that conclusion before COVID-19, but even without factoring in the impact of the pandemic as evidence for how thin a margin the world’s most advanced economy rests on, only an academic who hasn’t spent a day working on a farm, in a factory or policing a crime-ridden neighborhood would assert we have reached a point where we have enough for everyone if we’d just be willing to share.

America’s 21st century economic status reflects technological advances from steam engines to gasoline powered motors, from the assembly line to robotics, from microscopic discoveries to nanotechnology, and, of course, thanks to computers which keep rewarding society with opportunities to make work more productive and while less time need be spent on the mundane. In a society without competition based on merit where everyone’s basic needs would be met by some mysterious process, there would be no incentive to do work of any kind. Evidence of the problem are people who refuse to go back to jobs that pay less than the government is sending them.

If deBoer’s analysis is correct that schooling cannot accomplish the kind of leveling we desire, equalizing academic placement and its subsequent economic rewards, do we as a society give up the notion of equality? If that’s the alternative then most people would stick with a flawed academic meritocracy, but of course there’s another choice: continue to grow the economy such that other paths exist to the good life.

It’s interesting that deBoer doesn’t mention sports or entertainment––two highly remunerative career paths where intelligence plays a role, but not necessarily academic intelligence. Entrepreneurship offers another avenue. While not every young person hoping to become the next Bill Gates or Steve Jobs will reach that level, hundreds of start-ups have emerged in recent years as the capabilities of a computer-based society reach into new crevices of our complex world. Israel, for example, has been labeled “start up nation” as entrepreneurs have produced systems to extract water from air and enable self-driving cars. A factor in Israel’s success has been attributed to mandatory military service before college, suggesting something other than academic aptitude can play a role in motivating young people to create solutions to human kind’s endless supply of medical, economic and social needs.

The message I’d send parents is to downplay deBoer’s insistence that academic success is more and more the only ticket to economic well-being by reminding them that a growing standard of living has been capitalism’s gift to the world, including a reduction in poverty in the “third-world” in recent decades. While deBoer emphasizes the negative impact on young people who feel compelled to participate in the academic rat race and labels most work demeaning, the list of choices people have for employment today is so much greater than ever before. Smart is good, but free and unrestricted is just as good, if not better.

Antifa Coops Black Lives Matter

What are the goals of Black Lives Matter? Justice? Equality? An end to police violence against Blacks? Destroying America? Up until now, the latter has not been a goal, but that may change if Antifa militants get their way.

Antifa’s tactics during the George Floyd demonstrations are designed to bring police violence down on Black Lives Matter adherents. Here’s how they do that. BLM leaders are always at the front of any crowd facing the police. They exercise their verbal rights to protest and demand changes, but are not trying to provoke violence. Antifa people stand behind the BLM crowd where they are less visible to the cameras, armed with bricks and bottles, some loaded with accelerants, which they throw over the heads of the BLM people at the police. Their goal is to provoke the police to charge into the crowd, which if it occurs can then be used by Antifa to convince BLM they will never get justice in America. It has to be torn down.

Who is Antifa? Antifa is an ideology more than an organization. The name, which derives from “anti-fascist,” is a misnomer since their tactics are those of fascists, anarchists and communists. Their goal is undermining law and order, pushing the most vulnerable in society to give up their hopes for equality and justice through democracratic institutions, to convince people that violence is justified.

Antifa takes advantage of the rage felt by young Blacks, providing them with the tools to loot and burn along with fictional arguments. They don’t point out that fewer unarmed Blacks were killed by police confrontations in 2019––nine––than whites––19. They don’t point out the rising standard of living Blacks have achieved the past three years, the lowest unemployment rate, the criminal justice reforms––all produced by the current administration. Facts would upset their lies, would defeat their aims.

Antifa is a terrorist organization. It’s social media netwrok needs to be shut down and any of its members engaging in violent activity during the protests need to be arrested and charged with terrorist activity. And BLM leaders need to explain to their followers that engaging in looting and the like is doing a disservice to George Floyd and to their movement.

Is the problem white supremacy?

If you ask protesters what justifies their anger, most will tell you what happened to George Floyd is not unique––meaning a black man being killed by a white police officer, and that if the person being arrested was white, the officer would have acted differently.

That response is both right and wrong. It’s wrong in that Officer Chauvin has an extensive record of involvement in incidents that had to be investigated for behavior outside what is required of a member of the Minnesota Police Department, some of them involving whites. So in one sense the problem was this one officer and a system that failed to remove him from the force years ago.

Yet, it’s also true that there have been too many instances of white police officers engaging in behavior that caused serious injury or death to blacks without sufficient justification. Although the number of such incidents has declined precipitously in the past four decades, any such action that cannot be justified by circumstances, such as strong belief the person being arrested has a weapon and intends to use it, is unacceptable. The question is how we deal with those incidents. Is rioting––violence against police officers, theft and property destruction appropriate or justified? I think not.

Yet some will suggest the problem is not a few “bad” cops or improper or insufficient training; rather they claim American society is structurally organized to the disadvantage of black people––that whites enjoy racial privilege and therefore America is a white supremacist society.

This accusation cannot be backed by the numbers. Any attempt to do so must run up against data that shows that status of black Americans has risen from the lows of the first half of the 20th century under the separate and unequal Jim Crow system to to full legal equality with whites. Compare the number of black doctors, lawyers, police chiefs, school superintendents and principals, college presidents, corporation executives, and media personalities, etc. with any point in the past to 2020. Compare the status of black women in America in 1965 or 1995 to the present and you’ll see extraordinary progress. Compare the number of blacks enrolled in America’s colleges to any point in the past. Are there still blacks living in poverty? Yes, but that’s true for whites and Hispanics as well. Poverty is primary a class, not a racial, problem.

So why do some people think white supremacy is a dominant characteristic of American society? The source of the accusation is a Left professorate that has fostered this notion which has been picked up by the mainstream media and the Democrat Party. Faculty at elite colleges have for the past forty years marshaled selective incidents and partial data to justify this thesis which elevates them at the expense of their students. To be a militant on campus is the highest status a black or minority professor can achieve. In fact, if one is not militant, one is suspect and in danger of not getting tenure or promoted.

Why, you may ask, has the mainstream media bought into this thesis? The media plays to a left-leaning audience as a reflection of the composition of the reporting and editing staff. To be sympathetic to the poor, discriminated against and disadvantaged, makes these people feel good about themselves. It helps them ignore the hypocrisy of their privilege as members of a part of society that holds itself above criticism. While not condoning violence, the media’s desire to blame Donald Trump for everything they perceive to be wrong with America shows they will not condemn those protesters who go too far.

And what about the Democrat Party: why have they bought into the white supremacy argument? The answer is obvious. To be the champion today of the victims of white America enables Democrat candidates to gloss over the fact that their Party has been in control of our major cities as well as the states with the highest black population for the past 70-80 years. It is their party that ought to be held responsible for any lack of progress in those communities. So if police departments aren’t getting rid of people like George Floyd’s murderer, black people ought to look to the elected officials in those cities and hold them responsible.

There are a tiny number of whites who believe they belong to a superior race––a concept that is so vapid and without merit that any thinking American should know it could only be held by a few deranged individuals. The vast majority of white Americans seek justice and equality for all Americans. To suggest otherwise requires the accuser to identify laws and/or policies that advantage one race over another.

Americans must continue to work to live up to the ideals of the founding fathers who believed all men (and women) are equal and deserved to be treated that way. We’ve come a long way, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t more to that needs our attention. Let the discussion continue so that we can all share our views and identify problems that need to be addressed, but let’s also take a moment to glory in the progress. For without recognizing success, future progress will never be enough.