The Cult of Smart Roundup, part two

  • I have an excerpt out in the Chronicle of Higher Education today. I say without sarcasm that I appreciate the trolling headline.
  • I got about as good of a review as I could expect to get from the Wall Street Journal….
  • … and a flatly positive one from the National Review. Strange times!
  • Fare Forward, a Christian publication I had not heard of before, has positive things to say. (Love the web design, by the way.)
  • Patheos does not have positive things to say! The charter school stuff is a real sticking point, which, obviously, is no surprise.
  • Finally, I wrote a response to those who say that I got the gene science wrong and that my book is thus invalid.

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.

individual genetics, group environments

Suppose we take a group of children and decide to have a jumping competition. We are going to see how high they can jump and, to continue the analogy, we are going to make the stakes in this jumping competition incredibly high, enough to largely determine their future job and wage. We also decide, thanks to prejudice, to disadvantage some of the children in this jumping competition. We fit them with weight belts to make jumping harder. We likewise advantage another group by giving them special springy shoes that make it easier to jump high. With different groups thus given an advantage, disadvantage, or neither, we are now set to hold our jumping competition.

As would be expected, we find that as a class those with the weight belts perform below average and those with springy shoes perform better than average. However, we do find that some children buck the expectations. Some students who wear weight belts are so gifted at jumping that they are among the highest jumpers. Likewise some students are so lacking in natural jumping ability that they don’t jump very high despite wearing the springy shoes. For these students, their genetic gifts heavily influence their outcomes, even though the difference from the average for their group is environmental. This is what I mean when I say that individual outcomes can be genetically influenced even while group outcomes are the product of the environment.

The analogy is obvious, of course. These advantages and disadvantages are the race and class disadvantages faced by students of color and poor students. In our academic system we observe group differences between students of different races and economic classes, but we also are aware of systemic inequalities in the environment of the children in those classes. The average performance of students in these groups is thus a product of those environmental factors, while the performance of any individual is a product of a mix of their environment and their genetic gifts.

So a few points here. Again, both group environmental differences and individual genetic differences can live side by side, and this is the contention of my book, which argues that racial (and other) achievement gaps are the product of systemic racism etc but also that individual students are profoundly influenced by their genetic parentage. There are poor Black students who get into every Ivy League school in the country and there are rich white kids who flunk out of high school. These exceptions don’t negate the trends, but they do demonstrate the importance of natural ability.

Now: some will ask, what about training the students to jump? What’s the influence of a good trainer? I would never say that a jumping trainer, or a teacher, has no influence. There is certainly some part of the variance in jumping/education that is attributable to training. But genetic influence matters for explosive athleticism and for academic ability1, and yet we have essentially no consideration for this fact in our public educational discourse. And my book argues in part that we have vastly overstated the influence of teaching on student academic outcomes when compared to genetics, largely because we have no policy mechanism to address genetic differences. (We are, once again, searching for our keys not where we dropped them but where the light is.)

Another important point to make is this: when the systematic environmental differences are removed, the influence of genetics will increase. Precisely because I don’t believe in a genetic explanation for the racial and class achievement gaps, I believe that once the environment is equalized, the racial and class achievement gaps will close. (That is, when we eliminate the influence of white supremacy, we will eliminate the achievement gap.) But once we equalize the environment, which is currently suppressing the performance of Black and poor students, the influence of genetics on individual student will be heightened, as the dampening effects of environment will have been removed. So now we’ll see a racially representative academic landscape where Black students attend Harvard at numbers equal to their proportion of the country, to pick one dynamic, but where the gap between a gifted Black student and a Black student without academic gifts will only loom larger.

Many people would see that world – where the races are represented proportionally in our various educational metrics like SAT scores and graduation rates – as one where educational justice has been achieved. And given the success pipeline in this country it’s likely we’d see improved representation of Black and Latinx people as surgeons, judges, politicians, etc. Some would declare victory. But the question is, what about that other category of student being left behind, the untalented students? Their struggles would be less stark than the racial achievement gap as they would look like all different kinds of people. But they do, and would, suffer terribly in our system. What about their interests? Why is there no national movement to help them? Why are there hundreds of dissertations about the black-white achievement gap but not the gap between the talented and the not? Where are the think tank white papers written in their defense?

When I was pitching my book I referred to it as my “prayer for the untalented.” And it’s exactly that perspective that I’m trying to force into the national educational conversation, the influence of natural talent and our moral duty to minimize the damage done to those who lack it. They are the poorest served by our system, and it’s time we began to speak out in their favor.

not if teachers matter but how they matter

A common theme of the initial wave of reaction to my book (due out August 4th! Preorder now!) goes something like this. Among many other things, my book argues that teachers and schools have far less ability to produce changes in quantitative educational metrics than is commonly assumed. This is particularly true of relative metrics, that is, the rank order of students compared to their educational cohorts. Most students separate themselves into ability bands very early in life and remain in those bands for the entirety of their educational career. There are exceptions, of course, but at scale the dynamic is unmistakable. Third-grade reading group is a powerful predictor of whether someone will go to college. Etc. See the book for more.

Some have taken this to mean that teachers “don’t matter” in my world, that to believe this is to undermine the value of the profession. As a one-sentence GoodReads review puts it, “if I agreed with the conclusions here I’d have to quit my teaching job.” Is this true? Does a belief in the predominance of intrinsic academic talent demean teachers? No.

Judith Rich Harris, the author of the classic The Nurture Assumption, got hit with this kind of argument a lot. As I understand it, her response was usually something like this: you don’t expect that you can change the quantitative educational outcomes of your friends and lovers, and yet it would be bizarre to suggest that this means it doesn’t matter how you treat them. How you treat those around you matters profoundly even if that difference does not show up on someone’s SAT scores. Teachers have a profound duty in how the interact with their students emotionally and socially. To a child, a teacher’s behavior and demeanor matter tremendously even if they don’t make a struggling student into a star. Surely you’d rather be around someone who models compassion and emotional intelligence than not. It happens that I also don’t think a teacher can make a shy student into an outgoing extrovert. But a teacher can treat that shy child in a way that honors their personality, recognizes the potential for them to be emotionally harmed, and make their classroom into a space that is safe for both shy and outgoing children alike. That matters!

Indeed: in suggesting that how well teachers change quantitative metrics is the sum of their quality, this argument runs counter to the basic argument of my book. In calling to tear down the Cult of Smart, I am asking for our society to stop seeing the purpose of teaching as moving children around on the ladder of educational success. There are several reasons for this, not the least of which is the incoherence of asking for great educational mobility. (Every positive change in rank for one student necessitates negative movement on the hierarchy for others.) Freed from the assumption that academic performance is the sole criterion for a child’s worth, teachers would be free to devote their energies to inculcating values that are not graded on quantitative scales, such as empathy, the ability to listen, respect for other races and cultures, creativity, self-knowledge, and patience. Teachers are already expected to instill these values in children, but now they are expected to do so with the threat of being fired over test scores hanging forever over their heads.

Someday, I believe, it’s possible that we will dismantle the Cult of Smart and in so doing decouple our perception of a teacher’s worth from the quantitative outcomes of their students. In that world, every child can learn and play with the freedom to fail and be respected even if they never become a star student. It’s a world worth fighting for.