My Thoughts on an Over-Hyped Book -- 'The Cult of Smart'


“Progressives” will use any excuse to insist that we need a bigger, more powerful state: climate change, institutional racism, inequalities of all sorts, etc. In his recent book The Cult of Smart, lefty writer and sometime academic Fredrik deBoer does that. His complaint about America is one that is not without merit, namely that our education system has stacked the deck against those who are not smart. That is to say, people who struggle with schooling.

In today’s Martin Center article, I review deBoer’s book, which has gotten some praise from non-progressives.

It deserves a bit of praise for going where very few leftists will go — criticism of our education system which is the pride and joy of the American left. They run it and they benefit from it. Whenever it seems not to work ideally, they say that the solution is more money for still more education. That’s what irks deBoer. In his experience, many students are not cut out for the academic credentials race and the standard “we just have to try harder with them” line is flat wrong.

In that, he’s right. Over the last few decades, a number of non-progressives have made the same argument (especially Thomas Sowell and Charles Murray), but deBoer doesn’t show any familiarity with their work, nor with older liberal scholars like Randall Collins who have long criticized our obsession with educational credentials.

Overlooking others who have looked into this problem isn’t in itself an indictment of the book. What is an indictment, however, is deBoer’s insistence that the only solution is to go full Marxist. He proudly proclaims his devotion to Marx and therefore isn’t interested in any efforts at improving our educational market because he is against markets. 

So, the book fails as a work of serious educational policy. It also fails as a serious work about Marxism because deBoer is happy just to paint with a broad brush for leftists, never bothering with any of the well-known objections to arranging society on his “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” vision.

George Leef is the the director of editorial content at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.

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