There aren’t many books out there these days by revolutionary communists who are into the genetics of intelligence. But then there aren’t many writers like Freddie DeBoer. He’s an insistently quirky thinker who has managed to resist the snark, cynicism and moral preening of so many others in his generation — and write from his often-broken heart. And the core of his new book, “The Cult of Smart,” is a moral case for those with less natural intelligence than others — the ultimate losers in our democratic meritocracy, a system both the mainstream right and left have defended for decades now, and that, DeBoer argues, gives short shrift to far too many.
This isn’t a merely abstract question for him. He has grappled with it directly. As a school teacher he encountered the simple, unavoidable fact that some humans are more academically gifted than others, and there’s nothing much anyone can do about it. He recalls his effort to teach long division to a boy who had managed to come a long way socially (he’d gone from being a hell-raiser to a good student) but who still struggled with something as elemental as long division: “At one point he broke into tears, as he had several times before … I exhaled slowly and felt myself give up, though of course I would never tell him so. I tried to console him, once again, and he said, ‘I just can’t do it.’ And it struck me, with unusual force, that he was right.”
What DeBoer tries to do is explain how our current culture and political system is geared to torment, distress and punish this kid for no fault of his own. “This is the cult of smart,” DeBoer proclaims. “It is the notion that academic value is the only value, and intelligence the only true measure of human worth. It is pernicious, it is cruel, and it must change.” It has become un-American — or perhaps it always was? — to say that an individual has natural limits, that, even with extremely hard work, he won’t always be able to realize his dreams. And this is not because of anything he has done or failed to do — but simply because of his draw in the genetic lottery of life. The very American cult of education is supposed to end this injustice — except that it doesn’t, because it can’t, and its brutal logic actually exposes and entrenches the least defensible inequality of all, the inequality of nature.
This genetic reality — in fact, the very idea of nature existing at all — is currently a taboo topic on the left. In the most ludicrously untrue and yet suffocatingly omnipresent orthodoxy of our time, critical theory leftists insist that everything on earth is entirely socially constructed, that all inequality is a function of “oppressive systems”, and that human nature itself is what John Locke called a “white paper, void of all characters” — the famous blank slate. Freddie begs to differ: “Human behavioral traits, such as IQ, are profoundly shaped by genetic parentage, and this genetic influence plays a larger role in determining human outcomes than the family and home environment.”