the anti-genius game

Nobody likes genius, the idea, anymore. I have read more criticisms of the basic idea of genius more times than I can count, in long form and in short. Here’s one, and here’s one, and here’s one. Agnes Callard attacks the concept of genius by saying it’s bad for the geniuses and the people around them. (Coming out against genius is one of those things where the people who make the argument all act as though they are a lone voice crying out in the wilderness when a Google search should quickly disabuse them of that notion.) Certainly anyone still arguing that genius exists is at risk of the accusation that they only believe in genius because they secretly believe they are one.

Here is what I would like people to consider.

I hope everyone would agree that some people are very, very good at things. Some people are in fact so good at things that it amazes us, to the point that the way that they became so good at something takes on a kind of mystical quality, or at least an inscrutable one. If you’re like me, you sometimes feel almost shamed by how good some people are at some things, given your paucity of any special intelligence or skill. And it might be basketball or it might be math or it might be poker.

Now what are the possibilities here? One possibility is that these incredible talents seem preternatural because they are, because they emerge from shadowy origins and bestow themselves onto the few through processes we can’t describe or control. That is one possibility.

The other possibility is the one that Malcolm Gladwell and, well, the entirety of our culture want you to believe: that it’s all just hard work. People who seem incredibly talented simply worked hard and had perseverance. And specifically they worked harder and had more perseverance than you. If individual talent is a hoax and that all that is required to excel is the expression of will, that may be a more just world in some useless Platonic sense, and a world of more open possibility. But God, it is also a bleak world, one where all of us ordinary people are not just punished through our lack of access to supreme talent, but where we deserve it, where we not only fail to accrue the tangible benefits and psychic rewards of genius, we are presumptuous to ask for them thanks to our failures of will. Is this better?

Well, there’s no need to be consequentialist: I think some people are just good at things for reasons we can’t comprehend, that they have won a cosmic lottery and enjoy the fruits. I don’t think we live in a tidy moral universe where cause follows effect so simply or with such moral convenience. The people I’m critiquing would no doubt agree that our lives are everywhere buffeted by chance, but they can’t take that last crucial step. They can’t see that we get lucky and unlucky literally as we are being made.

This is at the core of everything, certainly a central idea of my book, and it’s why some people, such as Nathan Robinson, react so violently against it: they are unable to countenance the idea that we are not in control of our own lives, most certainly including our own selves. The idea of genius intrudes on a culture that insists again and again and again that our life outcomes are purely a function of our will, an idea beloved by right and left alike, and says: no. No, you do not control your destiny, and being lucky is as arbitrary and fickle as being unlucky. You never had a chance. Almost none of us did.

It’s a harsh world to believe in. But, you know. Life’s not fair.

my biggest regret about the book

I am not, despite requests, going to write a blow-by-blow response to Nathan Robinson‘s review of my book. I don’t think those kind of things are very productive, and besides, the book is its own argument, one I’m proud of. You want my response, read the book. I will say that I think very often he is imagining a book that mine might have become in the hands of another writer and attacking that book, rather than responding to a charitable reading of my book, itself, as it actually exists. We can leave it there. (See this Reddit thread for some interesting reactions.)

That review has had the effect of picking an old scab, though. St. Martin’s treated me very well and I’m forever grateful for them taking a chance on me when many people certainly would not. That said, it’s also the case that I lost every argument with them, and this was the biggest.

As you can see from the above image, the first major note, and one that would prove to be the biggest sticking point, was that the section on gene science was far too long in the eyes of the publisher. They felt the general audience reader would not tolerate reading as much as I put in. I pushed back at first, but ultimately some four pages were cut from that section. And so of course the first impression of many people is “he didn’t engage enough with the science.” I wish I had fought harder but when you’re the first time author and they’re the publisher, it’s hard to be brave in that way. I deeply regret it. Of course I am, in the end, responsible for the contents of the book. I haven’t easily been able to find the missing pages in an earlier draft in my files yet, but if I ever do find them I may publish them here.

As I have said before: the only things that you need to understand in order to go along with my claims about how our education system functions are, one, that every time we have observed education, in the history of the world, we have found a distribution of ability, and two, that this is not going to change. If you reject every claim about genes, but understand that there will always be differences in ability, then every objection of the book’s critics falls away.

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.

relevant passages from the Cult of Smart regarding the racial achievement gap

I know better, after all these years, to think that this evidence will end a misinformation campaign about my book – a misinformation campaign that began prior to my book’s composition. But at this point I have become so used to having to answer for that misinformation that I am releasing several pages of relevant text from the book, which can be found below. This is not exhaustive when it comes to reference to race, but it should be sufficient to establish what I am and am not arguing about the topic of race and education. I hope that, if you find these excerpts encouraging, you’ll consider buying the book. (If you are squeamish about buying from Amazon, there are several other options available to you.) Perhaps you’ll even speak up the next time someone who has not read the book decides to misrepresent its contents.

Please forgive the inconsistent formatting of the pictures below. The excerpts skip around in the text somewhat and so might be a bit difficult to follow.

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.