Blog

the nobody problem

You will have likely observed that social media has long since become a kind of perpetual fox hunt where a target is identified for social extermination and everybody joins in. Every morning on Twitter that’s the essential question: who will we hound today?

What you may notice is that those most dedicated to escalating every conflict into an excommunication are not the name brand blue-check types but low-follower, low-engagement accounts. (Which is no insult, or not from me; I was never a high-follower account myself.) Why?

I wrote a piece years ago, when I was on Twitter, and called them Accelerants – people who seem to exist only to make conflict on social media nastier. And I think the really essential piece is this: no one cares enough about them individually to know how morally they act themselves, and so they can engage in moral censure of everyone and everything. If you are enough of a visible personality that people might track your history, people can respond to your moral judgments by pointing out areas where you yourself have failed to act morally, or at least, to areas where your moral beliefs appear to be inconsistent. But if no one cares about you enough to remember what you’ve said and done in the past, you’re free. And in the middle of a Twitter mobbing there’s so many low-follower accounts coming at people that no one could possibly respond to them all even if they cared enough to know something about them. They draw power from their powerlessness; they have the strength of a faceless horde. Facelessness, after all, means there can be no accountability.

It is true that claims of hypocrisy are never dispositive for solving actual moral questions and that a tu quoque is a fallacy. But it’s also true that “you should follow the same basic moral rules that you judge others for failing” and “those who judge should take care as they themselves are subject to judgment” are pretty elementary (and elemental) aspects of navigating the human moral universe. There’s no possibility of that when you have all of these accounts that are for all intents and purposes burners, ones that combine literal pseudonymity with the inherent anonymity of being a face in the crowd – especially when that face is some avatar chosen for its disposability.

Anonymity breaks morality. It removes the basic sense of skin-in-the-game that’s necessary for accountability and adult conduct. It erases the requirement to be morally consistent and eliminates any sense of shame about shaming others. (You have a plank in your own eye, I assure you. We all do. You are not the exception.) And social media gives anonymity to a vast army of people who have, according to all available evidence, nothing but ill intent, the desire to do harm. Is it any wonder all of it is a horror show?

if genes contribute nothing, my conclusions are all the same

I told my agent, early in the process, that the biggest criticisms of my book would be scientific, as I am a (well read) total amateur attempting to engage with scientific concepts. Science people tend to hate this, and will generally police the borders of any conversation to deny the input of the amateur. Well, look: the influence of genes on human behavior is a matter of scientific controversy, and I am in no position to adjudicate that controversy. I have attempted to accurately reflect one position within that controversy, but it will not surprise me to have gotten it somewhat wrong. It is true, however, that some serious people with serious evidence believe that our genetic endowment shapes our behavioral outcomes like how well we perform in school. Whether they’re right or not, I can’t be the one to say.

What I can say is that the question is ultimately irrelevant to the central argument of my book. Because regardless of the specific influences, we cannot achieve anything like equality in the classroom. Hundreds of years of pedagogy and hundreds of billions of dollars, the efforts of dozens of think tanks and scores of university departments, billions of concerned parents and armies of teachers, principals, and counselors have not been sufficient to create equality in education. If aliens came to Earth tomorrow and observed our education system, the first observation they would make is that students are not equal but rather sorted into a distribution, and that at scale and in general students remain in a particular performance band for their academic lives. We can indulge in fantasies about what we might be able to achieve in some other universe, but no serious person believes that we will achieve educational equality in our lifetimes. And if we recognize that the folly of blaming students or teachers for their outcomes becomes clear.

What is frustrating is that I quite explicitly point out in the book that, even if educational outcomes were 100% environmental, that would not mean that we could create equality. I have excerpted the relevant portion below.

All that it takes to understand my moral and political arguments is accepting that for whatever reasons students are not equal and their outcomes are not under the control of their parents, their teachers, and themselves.

pages 237-239

Many will rush to say that nurture has played a role in the conditions I share with my parents, and they are no doubt correct. The environment shapes us as well as our genes. But here too there is broad misunderstanding: just as we cannot say that influences that are genetic are therefore immutable, so too we cannot say that influences that are environmental are therefore changeable. It has always been clear to me that the difficult circumstances of my youth have influenced my personality, and those circumstances are indeed environmental. But does that fact mean that this influence can therefore be undone? How were those environmental effects any more mutable than genetic ones? What policy or pedagogy could have prevented the experiences that imprinted themselves on my young heart and mind?

To act as though we will ever be able to so carefully control the environment of our children that we protect them from the negative effects of experience is to deny the basic brokenness of human life. There will always be instability. There will always be loss. There will always be inequality and there will always be neglect. If we acknowledge that fact, then we can begin to ask how to live in a
world in which all people simply cannot be made equal—for whatever reason—rather than trying and failing to make crooked timber straight. We can confront the inevitability of inequality of talent and decide what to do about it or we can continue to hide behind pleasant fictions.

For too long, the left has obsessed over the vague idea that is “equality.” Equality is the lodestar of the liberal mind, often subdivided into flavors like “equality of opportunity” and “equality of outcomes” in a useless and incoherent way. Equality is both the goal itself and a means to a goal, as equality is held up as the key to social mobility, to ending poverty, to achieving justice. Progressive attitudes toward equality have long since become tautological. The left should know better. We should know that the great leftist intellectual traditions share none of this zeal for equality as such. Rather we should simply pursue what’s good for everyone, what fulfills their basic human needs and allows them to flourish. Human beings are complicated creatures, and we can be ranked and measured and divided on a thousand metrics. To suggest that we will ever achieve equality of any meaningful kind is to deny our nature. Recognizing that we have fundamentally different abilities and talents does not curse people to a harsh existence. It is the first step in their liberation.

grit, or the moralist’s fable about education

Pour more dirt on grit. It seems that, with a representative sample, when you throw grit into a regression along with measures of intelligence, grit just explains very little on its own. Grit just doesn’t contribute much at all to educational outcomes and has limited application in job-market success. In fact intelligence “contributes 48–90 times more than grit to educational success.” 1 More study is needed etc etc and I’ll wait for a good metastudy but still, it really isn’t looking good.

Grit has been the subject of a great deal of media attention, in part because of Angela Duckworth’s talent for promotion but more because people desperately wanted it to be true: hard work is what matters. Stick-to-it-tiveness. If you believe you can achieve. The only place where success comes before work is in the dictionary. And so on. The story of grit was the story that people wanted to tell. It suggested a moral universe, a benevolent order to things. It’s a nice story to tell people, that you can achieve anything with hard work. But better research suggests, nope, it’s more important to be intelligent and (I’m sorry folks) intelligence is not evenly distributed throughout the population.

And this explains a lot of reactions to my book. People don’t want it to be true that different students have different levels of baseline ability. It offends their sense of justice. They insist to believe it means you are willing to “leave kids behind.” It undermines the Horatio Alger myth of the self-made man, which is the American gospel. It undermines people’s ability to bash teachers and their unions, which is often the ultimate purpose of these discussions. It challenges the education-economic system in which all of them have been winners. It’s unfair, and Lord knows, unfair things can’t be true.

Ultimately, my response to people who reject any talk of any genetic influence on academic ability whatsoever is to say, “I don’t believe you.” Because I don’t. I don’t think they believe that; I think they want to believe that.

I sometimes want to ask, do people think I want it to be the case that some students have a higher level of baseline ability? That I would prefer that some students be born at third base while others struggle at the plate? I viscerally rejected the conclusion that some people have a different level of baseline academic ability than others. The idea offended my sensibilities as a supporter of existentialism, which is a belief in the capacity for radical self-invention. And it offended my egalitarian impulses as a leftist.

But I have been a teacher for 20 years, despite not yet turning 40, and every day it became clearer and clearer that not all students had the same gifts. Yes, of course, some of this variation is environmental. Of course it’s complicated. Of course I’ll never be able to understand all the science. But the realities of teaching and of having grown up in a school system where some students were so similar in so many ways but had such vastly different outcomes just wore me down every day. And then I discovered the behavioral genetics research and its description of how, for example, adopted siblings growing up in the same house and family would go on to totally different academic outcomes. I did not celebrate. I did give in. Because life’s not fair, and neither is school. And pretending like everyone has an equal shot at succeeding in either is the greatest cruelty I know.

about those 12 year old dropouts

There’s a couple of consistent threads in early responses to my book. People tell me it will be divisive, which of course was the plan. Several people have suggested that the descriptive portion (in which I describe the Cult of Smart) is stronger than the prescriptive portion (in which I propose alternatives to the Cult of Smart). I’m not sure I disagree, there. But mostly people are hung up on the 12 year old dropouts.

Well, it’s true: I do say in the book that 12 year olds should be able to drop out, given parental permission. And I stand by that assertion. I also understand why it unnerves people. I think it’s worth unpacking what this says.

First: it’s important to say that 12 year olds are still minors and are still subject to the whims of their parents’ decisions. In the society I imagine, 12 year olds will have to win their parents permission to drop out of school, and I imagine many or most parents will decline to give that permission. That might sound like a dodge but it’s an important element of this.

But regarding those who do drop out. People want to know, what will they do with their lives? And the truth is that they’ll do what anyone might do with their lives. They might take long walks on the beach. They might devour books about Roman history. They might learn to fly a kite. They might help a parent take apart an old Firebird’s engine. They might get a chemistry set. They might ponder the night sky. They might pick apples. They might learn to butcher a pig. They might do many, many things, the many things that we as human beings do.

The end of school does not mean the end of learning. It means the end of a particular kind of regimented, one-size-fits-all learning, the specific dynamics of which are the product of a completely idiosyncratic and directionless history that no one imagines as the only way to learn. It means the end of tests that test nothing and of A-B-C-D-F. It means liberation from the expectations of a system that no one would defend as perfect. Is dropping out at 12 the best thing for most kids? Of course not. The entire point is that most kids are not all kids.

I think when people react violently to the idea of 12 year old dropouts, they are demonstrating their fealty to the Cult of Smart. Because the assumption is that a 12 year old who has rejected traditional education is a fallen child, an irredeemable child. The assumption is that he or she has been lost, that they have become unmoored and will never contribute anything to society. But this is precisely what my book exists to critique. The purpose of my book is to argue that lives lived outside of traditional academics have value, that they mean something, that they have something to contribute. To treat a 12 year old dropout as someone who has failed and been failed is to tacitly assert that only progression through an arbitrary and broken school system matters. I am asking people, through my book, to question this logic, and in this post I am asking you to, too.

Cult of Smart roundup part 1

(There’s gonna be a lot of this so get used to it.)

The book’s out! Buy it!

Here‘s a Twitter thread by Paige Harden, who (unlike me) is a scientist studying genetics and behavior.

This review from the Bellows is sometimes harsh but is also sharp and fair.

My return to the No Politics at the Dinner Table podcast.

My appearance on the Oats for Breakfast podcast.

My appearance on the Zero Hour with RJ Eskow:

today’s the day

Well, the day is finally here. It’s official publication day for my first book, The Cult of Smart. I don’t know how to feel. I’ve invested all of my hopes in this day for three years, and now it’s here. The team from St. Martin’s has been wonderful throughout. I do think that this book could be a slow burn and pick up sales momentum over time but of course I have no idea. We’ll have to wait and see how things go, critically and commercially. It exists! That is reason enough for me to celebrate. I do dearly wish that I could walk into a bookstore and buy a copy for myself. Someday. Whatever else is true I know that publishing a book is a rare privilege and that I am lucky, and incredibly grateful, for the opportunity.

The question now is where to put those hopes next.