Posted on October 16, 2020

A Red Diaper Baby Discovers Genetics

F. Roger Devlin, American Renaissance, October 16, 2020

Fredrik deBoer, The Cult of Smart: How Our Broken Educational System Perpetuates Social Injustice, All Points Books, 2020, 288 pages, $28.99.

Fredrik deBoer is a self-described revolutionary socialist, the son of two left-wing academics whose childhood home was filled with: “communists, actors, activists, dreamers, ex-junkies [and] sex workers.” [18] As an adult, he followed in his parents’ footsteps, devoting as much time as he could to political activism. His main interest was opposing the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq. He attended protests around the country, worked on an unsuccessful campaign to unseat pro-war Democrat Joe Lieberman, and joined Marxist reading groups.

The Cult of Smart by Fredrik deBoer

When not pursuing political causes, Dr. deBoer made ends meet by teaching, which he enjoyed, but he came up against the reality that not all students were equally gifted: One boy failed to master long division no matter how hard he tried. Even as a child, Dr. deBoer had been aware of differences: “Of course there were some exceptions, but in general, the kids who had distinguished themselves in second grade were the same ones applying to exclusive colleges in the twelfth.” [22]

You might think anyone who has taught for any length of time would understand this, but you would be wrong. Most of the schools where Dr. deBoer taught had a pep-rally atmosphere, with students constantly assured that their success was limited only by their determination:

If they worked hard and never gave up on their dreams, they could do and have anything. If they would only believe, the saying went, they would achieve — and not just be healthy and happy, but achieve their most outsized dreams. Effort and commitment were the sole requirements for success in life was the mantra, and it papered the walls. Everyone involved in educating these young people was sure that those students who would succeed would be the ones who wanted it the most. I felt at times like I was living in a one-party state where the official propaganda was repeated ad nauseam. [10]

When the recession of 2008 hit, Dr. deBoer was 26 years old, with a resume of political activism and short-term teaching jobs — not calculated to please many employers. He started a graduate program at the University of Rhode Island, where he began:

reading deeply in fields like education, psychometrics, and developmental psychology. By the time I was in coursework in my PhD program, I was focused primarily on the measurement of student learning and I took classes in statistics, research methods [and] educational measurement. [16]

But again, he found fantasies of unlimited potential:

The rigid ideology of education, and particularly of the educational reform movement, was that there were no natural constraints on student growth — and any suggestion that students had limits to their potential was an excuse ginned up by lazy teachers. In research originating from departments of education, there frequently seemed to be some sort of gentleman’s agreement against speaking frankly about differences in natural talent. [16–17]

The author came to realize that one important source of the taboo was the egalitarian political preferences he shared with most of his colleagues. Eventually, however, he glimpsed a possible path out of the problem while watching a Noam Chomsky lecture on YouTube:

[Chomsky] was dismissing the idea of group genetic differences in intelligence — that is, the racist notion that some races are smarter than others. This was comforting to me; then, as now, I too rejected that idea. But then he added a caveat that intrigued me. He said that while genetics played no role in perceived group differences in intelligence, it may be the case that there are genetic influences on individual differences in intelligence. [22]

Further reading convinced Dr. deBoer that Chomsky was right about individual differences: “The evidence tells me that educational achievement is significantly heritable — that is, that it passes from parent to child genetically, with biological parentage accounting for half or more of the variation in a given outcome.” [8] His discussion of the evidence, including twin studies and genome wide association studies, is brief but sound; he continues, however, to believe that group differences have environmental origins.

How individual differences constrain education

There can be no question that our thinking about education would be more realistic if Dr. deBoer could convince his fellow progressives to accept innate differences. For one thing, as he points out, it is cruel to tell the less gifted that their relative failure is because they don’t work hard enough. Such people should be encouraged to develop whatever talents they have, and some place — even if a modest place — can be found for them to exercise those talents. We had something like that around the middle of last century:

Armies of non-college-educated men took jobs at factories and mills, helping to build the new durable goods that technological progress had created and that newly enriched American families could afford. It was possible in those days to forgo college and still own your own home, get a new car every few years, raise a family, and put kids through college. [185–6]

I would agree that neoliberal economic policy played an important role in destroying that world. Today, we tell the same class of people that they are failures, when it is our economic policymakers who failed them.

Dr. deBoer writes that if there is no great eagerness to tackle the problems of the less academically gifted, it may be because the successful people who design public policy “can’t help but be offended by the idea that, rather than hitting a triple, they were born at third base.” [82] He associates such self-congratulatory thinking with the conservative “myth of the self-made man,” although the amoral nature of the genetic lottery is well-understood by serious thinkers such as Steve Sailer and Charles Murray.

Freddie deBoer

Fredrik deBoer

Dr. deBoer also recognizes that academic success is in part a matter of temperament as well as intelligence, and that temperament is also hereditary to a great degree. Not all young men, even if they are smart enough, are content to spend their early adulthood sitting at desks in college. As an instructor, Dr. deBoer ran into students who were clearly able to do the work, but were uninspired and indifferent. When he asked one student what was the matter, he replied: “I just don’t want to be here.” Asked why he had enrolled, he asked: “What else am I supposed to do?”

I couldn’t answer. We were surrounded by towns that had suffered under deindustrialization, with shuttered factories and mills dotting the local geography. Tourism and construction rose and fell with the economy, providing none of the stability needed to support a family. What job growth [the region] had seen was largely concentrated in fields like medicine, education, and technology, each typically requiring potential employees to hold at least a bachelor’s degree. There was no path forward, that is, but the educational rat race. And so my student was stuck, his admitted lack of interest in school colliding with the basic realities of the job market he hoped to join.

Why should advanced education be the only route to success? Dr. deBoer wants a Marxist revolution, though he is vague about what that would involve other than abolishing markets and competition.

When Dr. deBoer talked to a grad student in mechanical engineering, he found that some fields rejected the educational optimism about universal ability:

He told me that only one in three students who started as an engineering major would finish with a degree, and that in fact early courses in the major were designed to be weed-out classes meant specifically to compel students to drop the major and choose another. Why? Because the rigor of the engineering programs was so high that a large percentage of students were guaranteed to drop out eventually, ant it was far better for them to do so early in their college careers before they had accumulated a lot of credits. What had seemed like cruelty to me was in fact an act of mercy. In time I would learn that many college classes, such as calculus and organic chemistry, functioned in much the same way. [15–16]

An open acceptance of individual differences would surely permit less crude methods for guiding students toward appropriate fields.

The author also criticizes charter schools, which are supposed to introduce market competition into education. Public schools are said to fail for the same reasons as Soviet collective farms: With guaranteed employment and a captive audience, teachers have little motivation to improve. Private charter schools let some students escape failing public schools and put pressure on schools to improve.

Dr. deBoer argues that the analogy doesn’t work:

Teachers and administrators simply do not control student outcomes in the way that a factory manager controls the widgets that come out of his factory. Imagine saying to someone, “How well your widget performs will determine whether you will be allowed to keep your job and how much you will be paid. By the way, you will not get to choose the raw materials for your widget; your widget’s basic construction and early design will be controlled entirely by someone else; you will only have control over your widget for six hours out for the day, after which someone else may treat it roughly; and the conditions that you do not control will be vastly different from one widget to the next.” How could anyone see such a situation as a healthy environment in which to work? [177–78]

Of course, public school teachers can’t make this argument because they also see “every student as an endlessly moldable piece of clay.” [17] But the argument is sound.


Granada Hills, the largest charter school in America. (Credit Image: jcjusay via Wikipedia)

Charter schools create an illusion of superiority in two ways: 1) selection bias, because they accept only promising students, and 2) survivor bias, because students who quit or are expelled disappear from the statistics. Some charter schools cook the books or give all their students As. Dr. deBoer argues that when those effects are controlled, “the outcomes are discouraging, running to disastrous.” [93]

If the key to success in school is mostly inborn, correcting the problems of tenure and unions won’t much improve student grades:

In the policy world, the fixation on teacher and school effects seems to stem from a kind of backwards logic: because teachers and schools are what policymakers can control, they must therefore be the levers through which we attempt to change the system. Education wonks focus so intently on teachers not because teachers have the most control but because wonks have the most control over teachers. [89–90]

The mystique of the selective college is grounded in the same confusion. The author opens his book with a brief account of the college admissions scandal of 2019, in which the rich and famous paid enormous sums to get their children into big-name colleges. This wasn’t just criminal; it was largely pointless. Top colleges can’t turn average students into stars. Their reputation as “good” schools rests on selection bias. A truly gifted student can get roughly as good an education almost anywhere else, because of his own inborn abilities. But, as the author laments, it is almost impossible to get parents to understand this.

Dr. deBoer convinced me that a general acceptance of natural differences would bring great benefits. Racial differences are a much harder sell.

Rejecting group differences

The author correctly points out that “it’s perfectly consistent to believe that the differences between individual students is largely genetic while the differences between racial groups is not.” [111] Just because a position is logically consistent doesn’t make it correct.

IQ distribution by race

IQ distribution by race.

Dr. deBoer makes three arguments against genetic group differences. First, he mentions environment differences between blacks and whites: black children tend to have higher levels of lead exposure and are more frequently subject to serious disciplinary measures like school suspensions. Second, he appeals to the authority of researchers Eric Turkheimer, Kathryn Paige Harden, and Richard E. Nisbett, who declared in a 2017 article for “There is currently no reason at all to think that any significant portion of the IQ differences among socially defined racial groups is genetic in origin.” [112–3] Third, he suggests that observed racial differences could be analogous to sex differences in academic achievement, which have changed greatly over time; by 2015, women were earning over 60 percent of college degrees. For these reasons, Dr. deBoer writes that “as persistent as they seem to be, racial achievement gaps will eventually fade.” [113]

Dr. deBoer makes no attempt to counter arguments for the other side. Moreover, like most progressives, he sees the debate about genetic group differences not as a disagreement over causality but as a moral conflict between good and bad. Those who disagree with him are “bigoted” people who represent “some of the worst voices imaginable.” [111] Many of his friends on the Left probably see him that way because he understands individual differences.

The usual leftist view of group differences in achievement is that black and Hispanic students are victims of an oppressive racist system. Oddly, Dr. deBoer has little to say about that; he is content to dismiss race-group differences as non-genetic without ever appealing to fashionable cant about “structural racism.”

Is American Renaissance left-wing?

Dr. deBoer reports that his progressive friends are bewildered by his understanding of genetics: “The most consistent reaction to my arguments is confusion over how they can coexist with my politics.” [25] To their minds, any talk of genetic influence means Nazi scientists, eugenic breeding, and concentration camps. Nevertheless, he claims that “a belief in the role of genetics fits with left-wing beliefs far more comfortably than with the alternative.”

It is the left, after all, that stresses the vagaries of chance, that insists that factors outside our control play an outsized role in determining our life outcomes. In insisting on the power of genetics to shape our academic lives I am simply taking left-wing thought to its next logical conclusion. As [blogger Scott Alexander] points out, in most arenas, ascribing outcomes to biological factors is the more progressive position — when it comes to being overweight, for example, or in the case of mental illness, progressive people tend to believe that it’s biology, not willpower, that plays the largest role. Similarly, progressives are much more likely to argue that one’s position in life is not primarily driven by one’s own choices or character, but rather by the circumstances of one’s birth or random chance. [26]

The “right wing” position is to assume man has real autonomy. Dr. deBoer may even think that denying the natural limits of a student’s ability is “right wing” thinking. One implication of this view would be that race realism is part of the Left. Race realists don’t blame blacks or Hispanics for their failure (on average) to match the intelligence or achievement of whites and Asians. Anyone who thinks biology helps explain group differences in achievement would therefore be to the left of self-described Marxist Fredrik deBoer.

African Pygmies

A European explorer with African pygmies. Is noticing the racial differences left-wing? Is it right-wing? (Credit Image: Collier’s New Encyclopedia, Volume 1, 1921, via Wikipedia)

There is no general agreement on what divides what we called the “Right” and “Left.” One perspective interprets the difference as a disagreement over what limits human action, especially political action. The Left tends to believe in the possibility of creating a society far better and more just than any known to history. It thinks there are vast reaches of human potential waiting to be realized; hence its faith in progress and even revolution. The Right tends to see the future as constrained by human limits, and is happy with incremental improvement. To the right-wing mind, it takes considerable effort for a civilization to avoid slipping backwards, and it rarely makes sense to cast aside what works in the hope of achieving new, unprecedented benefits. (Thomas Sowell makes similar arguments in A Conflict of Visions (1987)).

Organizations such as AmRen try to bring the best available information to bear on issues of race; it does not set out to be either “right” or “left,” but factual. Why is it usually seen, both by sympathizers and critics, as on the “right”?

For the better part of a century, America’s political mainstream, including both of its major parties, has been committed to building a society in which race does not matter, in which race has no more influence one one’s life than eye-color. We believe there is enough evidence to show that the chances of such a project succeeding are essentially zero. We also believe that efforts to achieve the impossible often do harm. Rather than working to make the races equal, we must be content if we can keep them from each another’s throats — a far more modest goal, and even that one often eludes us.

Hatred for race realists is a form of “shoot the messenger.” If it were possible to make race not matter, a few skeptics such as us would not make it impossible. But untold resources have been poured into this project for some 65 years, and it seems no nearer to realization. This has created a great deal of frustration and anger, as it was bound to. Demonizing nay-sayers may be irrational, but it is a good way to rally the faithful.

The confusion and resistance Dr. deBoer has met trying to get progressives to accept the reality of individual differences is nothing like the outrage and hatred directed at race realists. Our goals are the same: get passionate but misguided people to understand limits.