Tom MacWright

I read The Cult of Smart by Fredrik deBoer on


The Cult of Smart is a properly risqué book about things really worth thinking about - the origins of intelligence, the way we form society and value people’s contribution to it, and what the education system should strive to do. It’s imperfect in the ways lots of modern books from first-time authors are: sometimes it seems long-winded, like a blog post masquerading as a book, and the mix of personal, statistical, and political content can be uneven.

When I talked to friends about what I was reading and said that it was a book partly about the heritability of intelligence, they reacted the way you’d expect: that seems fishy. And deBoer spends paragraph after paragraph writing about what he’s not implying, that intelligence and race have anything to do with each other. But that looms large because of history and presently-existing racist and ethno-nationalist strains of politics.

Ideally, I think this book would carve out a new space where we can talk about the origin of intelligence and the strong evidence that many traits are heritable, without the eugenicist overtones. It doesn’t, not because deBoer gives eugenics or racism any support (he doesn’t), but because we’re so thoroughly fearful of that direction that talking about human genetics is a true third rail.

Parts of this book felt very true and familiar. I remembered nearly a decade ago talking with a friend who was working as a teacher about how her students, in special-education classes, were only referred to as developmentally delayed. And certainly some students are - but labeling all learning deficits temporary when the overwhelming evidence says they aren’t - seemed like doublespeak at its worst, letting everyone dodge the question. My viewpoint - and deBoer’s - is that people are ends in themselves, that educational excellence shouldn’t be required of everyone. We can hope for self-improvement and satisfaction without somehow thinking every student will be above-average.

The conclusion of this book leans fast and hard into Marxism and socialism, jobs guarantees, universal basic income, nationalizing industries. There’s a lot to like, but also a lot to scratch your head and think back to reading about, well, education. I wish it had been enough to suggest what type of society seemed right without explaining the particular benefits of Bernie’s economic policy or hinting at MMT. The focus seemed lost here, making a vague final impression.