it gnaws

As I write this I am currently heading home from a conference, one that took place far away from New York. I know that it’s selfish to travel but I said yes without really thinking and anyway I had grown genuinely concerned that more time alone in my apartment might take my depression into even darker places. I had to get out.

It was nice to be far from home, surrounded by people who knew nothing of me but my book. Thanks in part to the pandemic this was the first time that anyone had approached me and asked me to sign their copy, the first time strangers asked me questions and made critiques in person. My presentation was a mess, a classic case of trying to squeeze too much information into too little time, and I looked ridiculous in a suit I bought when I was 50 pounds lighter but which I couldn’t afford to replace. But the staff was incredibly friendly and competent and it looks like a few copies of the book got sold and everyone else was much more successful than me. It was a privilege and I’m grateful.

It’s all got me thinking about the future. I’m still unemployed, although the gradually accumulation of little gigs is making things seem a little more doable. For the foreseeable future I will continue to grade papers, edit manuscripts, ghostwrite a book, teach a class in the spring. Several people asked me what my next book would be about but, well, my impression is that the book has sold quite poorly so publishing another one wouldn’t be easy. (They have not sent me any sales figures or anything and I am certainly not about to ask.) And I genuinely don’t have any idea what I would write about even if someone would publish me. It would have to be something completely different. I’ve been thinking about the subjects of my book for three years and I can’t stand it anymore.

I don’t have much desire to write short form anymore. I mean obviously I do here all the time, but here is different. Here I’m not intending to broadcast to anyone but my few dozen (?) RSS readers. When I wrote in response to the Harper’s letter and it blew up I was mortified. Usually I’m not really looking for a broad readership, in part because if my work is discovered these days it prompts a very negative response, which I acknowledge is my own fault. I also just don’t feel the need to publish in prominent places anymore, not that they would have me. When I started writing for magazines and newspapers it was mostly about proving to people that I could, and I no longer feel much to prove nor am motivated by petty spite in the way I was before.

It was good of the Washington Post to publish me recently. And brave. I owed it to St. Martin’s to do that promo and the topic they wanted was a perfect match with the book. But that opportunity was sui generis.

Still, there is a part of me that wants badly to write about something, and for a publication other than this website or Medium, and that I think would serve a legitimate public function. And I would write about it well. I can still move people when I want to. I just don’t see any path to doing it for a real audience.

The truth is that my mental life is in many respects dominated by my medications and their side effects. I experience them by experiencing them and I experience them by thinking about the experience of them. I have now been medicated for over three straight years, far and away the longest period of my life. And the thing about the side effects is that they just keep being there, even though there’s some inchoate part of my mind that always thinks that if I work the program long enough, somehow, magically, they will extinguish and burn away. You don’t get used to them, or at least I don’t. Something about the difficulty always seems unexpected, always seems new. And I just don’t think people know. They know in some vague sense that there are side effects to psych meds, but they don’t really understand. This is not metaphor: both my body and my mind have been transformed by these drugs. I am a different person in body and in intellect. And it hurts.

I know that this problem is mine, one that most would think of as minor. And I know describing any hardship will compel some on the internet to accuse me of feeling sorry for myself, as they always do, and many of them believe that I deserve whatever comes to me. But I want to write about this intimately personal subject because it is not personal, because my experiences are shared by millions of others who quietly suffer. And I want to give that voice. I have read hundreds of thousands of words of testimonials, memoirs, personal essays, and exegeses about mental illness and meds, but never have I read anything that quite captures what I need others to see.

For now, I fight the urge to tell strangers on the subway. There is just some part of myself that is still amazed, and that wants the world to know so that it can be amazed as well. Unfortunately it is very unlikely that a prominent publication would give me the space, and I know that this is my fault too.

immigration rhetoric and the Cult of Smart

If you doubt my contention that the Cult of Smart exists, consider immigration. Immigration discussions are where the Cult of Smart is often most direct and explicit, as supporters typically defend immigration as a way to get more smart and talented people into our country. This pro-immigration rhetoric is well-meaning, and as I am a Marxist I am necessarily an internationalist and believe everyone who wants to come should come. 1 But it’s a bad argument that hurts more than it helps.

Take this piece from August from Alfred Chuang, who himself immigrated to the United States on an H1-B visa. He lays the case out starkly:

Many notable founders and executives in Silicon Valley followed a similar path as me. This includes Zoom CEO Eric Yuan, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and others who worked in the United States as part of the H1-B visa program. If these restrictions existed at the time, we could have been living in a world where many of these companies either would not exist, would not have been founded in America, or in the case of Zoom and Microsoft, would have lacked the leadership of these great CEOs…. America needs to embrace the role of visas in bringing brilliant people to our country…. We must support the visa programs and strive to keep all of the incredibly talented individuals here.

OK. But what about all the non-brilliant people? The thing about “incredibly talented” people are that they are by definition low in number. What about the average Joe or Jane? Forget for a moment about the smokescreen of people with criminal records, which is typically a talking point to derail the broader argument. Why should the American people welcome only those who have the skills, mindset, and motivation to become tech company CEOs? Unlike many progressive people, I don’t think everyone has that potential. But I do think that all people have human potential, the ability to flourish as kind, deserving, fulfilled people. To think of a person’s potential as being synonymous with their intellectual prowess – and intellectual prowess being defined in the incredibly limited sense as prescribed by neoliberal capitalism – is, well, it’s the Cult of Smart. It’s a blinkered and myopic perspective on human flourishing.

As long as we flog the argument that we’re increasing immigration specifically to get more techies into Silicon Valley, or more smarties generally, we’re hamstringing ourselves when we fight for mass immigration. (And will forever favor the interests of the already-affluent among potential immigrants.) The masses cannot be exceptional, by definition. What they are is human, and our argument should be that this is enough – that it’s enough for someone to want to come and try and flourish here. Let them in.

Incidentally: when tech companies cry out for more visas for highly-skilled workers, they claim it’s because of a dearth of good candidates here. It’s far more likely that they’re simply trying to import more workers to drive down the cost of wages, which they’d prefer not to pay. After all, they already engaged in an illegal conspiracy to do so.

reminder: getting rid of the SAT helps the affluent

In light of the judge’s decision to forbid the University of California system taking standardized tests into account for admission’s decision, I’m resharing my piece from several years ago making the (empirical) case that getting rid of these tests actually help the whiter, more affluent students. Yes, there are racial inequalities in testing that should concern us. (See my book for more.) But no one – no one – was helped more by a strong SAT score than a poor black kid. Now that increasingly looks like an out that such kids don’t get, and in its place, tons of students getting into school because they take fencing lessons, interned for a movie studio, built schools in Guatemala with the help of multi-million dollar grants….

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.