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Even the <i>phrase</i> "high school dropout" has an aura of personal failure about it, in a way totally absent from "kid who always lost at Little League".

You missed some HTML cursive or whatever.

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Charter schools admissions is by lottery

. There is no entrance test. There is no selection. Read or listen to Thomas Sowell on charter schools.

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Scott - I am so glad you are back. Thank you.

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This essay went an interesting direction in the end. I guess I see a few types of concerns:

1) Signalling: How do we make sure the right competency signals exist in a post-school world. If I'm a high-IQ sociopath, then I will (presumably) fail school but may pass IQ tests.

2) How will we ensure basic competencies? I don't think the current model does a great job, but I get the feeling that many home-schooled children are products of self-selection.

3) How do we wish to warehouse children until they're adults?

I get the impression that the US likely does a terrible job at all of this relative to other nations. However, I am still interested in the sorts of responses.

(Also that tie-in with intelligence & worth is an interesting one, and one that is really hard to unpack in a good way. I get the feeling that IQ differences matter less after certain thresholds relative to personality dimensions. )

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DeBoer has never heard the saying "Hard work beats talent when talent doesn't work hard"

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When I was reading the book, I found the term "meritocracy" to be one of the worst issues. I think the problem with it is ultimately that people-like-Scott and people-like-DeBoer use it in different ways. Scott defines "meritocracy is when people who are good at a thing do that thing - teachers should be people who are good at teaching, construction workers should be people who are good at construction work, surgeons should be people who are good at surgery, and so on." Fairly obviously good, and that's how even all communist countries have worked. DeBoer defines it more like "meritocracy is when people who are good at things have a good life while people who are bad at things have a bad life." This seems bad, given the assumption that everyone should have a good life and you can't really improve on how good you are at different skills.

Notably, you can achieve the first "meritocracy" while avoiding the second "meritocracy"! Perhaps it's not possible given human psychology, but at least theoretically you could have people assigned to jobs that they are good at while still letting everyone have the same lifestyle. I suspect that's what DeBoer wants, but his conflation of terminology helps no one.

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I think to some extent, the problem is that if you incorporate the meritocracy arguments about why the sorting exists, His case becomes: "merit if unearned, but we still need a capitalistic sorting mechanism, however we can alleviate inequality via fiscal transfers to poor people to flatten the income curve". Which is to say, indistinguishable from social democracy on policy itself, save that the justification (people start with unequal opportunities so it's only moral to flatten income inequality vs people start with unequal capabilities ...) is very marginally different.

I think there is a synthesis of that position with the Bryan Caplan position that exists. Which is to say, clearly explaining that if ensuring equality through education isn't as important, it could be optimized for sorting purposes, making labour signals clearer and stronger.

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Did Scott just come out as a libertarian?

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There's a ton to examine here and it's very late and I should be in bed so a few quick reactions off the top of my head.

"Second, lower the legal dropout age to 12, so students who aren't getting anything from school don't have to keep banging their heads against it, and so schools don't have to cook the books to pretend they're meeting standards."

We had that. My parents left school early (around ages 12-14) and this was partly because the schools *were* terrible but also partly because they had to start earning money to help their families. All their lives they felt the lack of education and it did hold them back. So sure, you can have kids leaving formal education at the age of 12 - but then what? Unless we bring back child labour which may not be a solution we want, they'll be hanging around at home or, more likely, hanging around street corners.

"But they'll have the opportunities to learn at home by accessing the Internet, libraries, and following their own interests with supportive and engaged parents!"

"If they could get $12,000 - $30,000 to stay home and help teach their kid, how many working mothers (or fathers!) might decide they didn't have to take that second job in order to make ends meet?"

Yeah, about that. Skipping ahead to the "let parents teach kids at home", we're getting a great example of how this is working during the various lockdowns in countries all over the world. And the consensus seems to be "my God, when is the government going to re-open the schools because we can't manage having the kids at home all the time?" Part of that is not able to homeschool, running out of energy/enthusiasm, needing to work from home, needing to go to work as usual, etc. It is not generally a new flourishing of "why do we need schools anyway?" Old-fashioned "mom is a full-time homemaker who stays at home and looks after the kids" is not the rule anymore, in part because of the necessity for two incomes nowadays, in part because of the whole "an adult needs to go out and interact with other adults" and "your value is determined by having a Real Proper Job and child-minding is not that, unless you're doing it outside the home and being paid a wage for it".

Thirdly, the morning and after-school caretaking. You'll need somebody to do that - be it childcare workers, teachers, whomever. And if they're at work from 6-9 a.m. mornings and 4-8 p.m. evenings looking after your kids, they can't be at home looking after their own kids. Which will result either in people not having children because they're too busy working (hey, didn't we talk about this being a problem?) or a case of 'the cobbler's children have no shoes' because their parents (okay, I mean mothers here, because childminding is a majority female job) are working minding other people's kids.

"The district that decided running was an unsafe activity, and so any child who ran or jumped or played other-than-sedately during recess would get sent to detention - yeah, that's fine, let's just make all our children spent the first 18 years of their life somewhere they're not allowed to run, that'll be totally normal child development."

Yes, that's horrible. It's also due to the rise in parents suing schools over little Johnny falling in the playground, insurance premiums going UP UP UP because parents are suing schools, teachers not wanting to be sued for personal liability because little Johnny fell in the playground when they were supervising breaktime, etc. Solve that problem first and we can go back to the old days where unless a limb was severed, nothing was thought of the usual knocks and bumps and bruises.


Yes, this is where the rest of us go "so, what the heck is a 'hall pass' anyway?" and when we get the explanation, we go "what the hell is wrong with you, America?" The first thing my father taught me before I started school was the phrase "an bhfuil cead agam dul go dtí an leithreas" which means "may I have permission to go to the toilet?", where if you need to go you raise your hand, utter this magic phrase, and get told "all right but hurry up". We don't have hall passes, bathroom passes, or the likes.

(The only time this didn't work was when I was seven, for no reason I suddenly felt unwell, asked to go, was told to wait for a few minutes until it would be break time, and then I threw up all over my desk. I *think* I may have told the teacher "I told you I was going to be sick". But that's the only time I've ever experienced being refused).

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I appreciate this review a lot.

All your ALL-CAPS yelling especially is appreciated.

I've been a teacher, outside the systems, for basically my whole 30 year career ... and I've home/un-schooled my 5 kids.

Burn it all down and replace it with nothing would be better than the Child-prison complex we have now.

I hope you eventually bite the bullet, and finish your path on this.

And thanks for this. your vituperation was especially appreciated.

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You're a lot more interesting and engaging when you talk about your personal experiences than when you wriggle on and around the IQ of black people, and I was pleasantly surprised by this sincere turn at the end. FYI, Intelligence isn't a real journal - they've been known to publish absolute trash papers, and for all its 'predominance' in the field of 'intelligence research' its impact factor is < 3 which is a joke. Generally speaking, the entire field of 'intelligence research' is a joke and you shouldn't listen to their 'specialists' (listen to geneticists instead).

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Wait, hang on a second. You're acting like DeBoer is trying to make school more mandatory. But it sounds like he's just trying to make it more available.

Did he also propose banning homeschooling or something? Is the universal childcare supposed to be mandatory?

Or would your anti-school response be equally applicable to any non-abolitionist educational position, with this rant just landing on DeBoer because you happened to be reading his book?

Maybe I'm just having a hard time understanding because I liked school and was treated well there, but this doesn't really feel like a rational response.

(Also, you are really underselling how bad child labour is.)

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"I disagree with him about everything, so naturally I am a big fan of his work"

It's weird that you say this about one person, but then don't read Marx and uncharitably characterize his work as "Fallacious" (never giving an actual citation of any fallacy, of course). When pressed on this, you say that you only have a "gestalt impression" of Marx. If you only have a "gestalt impression" of Marx then how can you judge the writings of other socialists such as DeBoer?

If you're such a fan of DeBoer, don't you think that you should give a honest re-assessment of Marx? Certainly there seems to be a large rhetorical distance between ;

"I'm Freddie's ideological enemy, which means I have to respect him."


"Singer is a known person who can think and write clearly, and his book was just about the shortest I could find, so I jumped on it, hoping I would find a more sympathetic portrayal of someone [Marx] whom my society has been trying to cast as a demon or monster. And I don’t know if this is an artifact of Singer or a genuine insight into Marx, but as far as I can tell he’s even worse than I thought."

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> It is weird for a libertarian to have to insist to a socialist that equality can sometimes be an end in itself, but I am prepared to insist on this.

IMO, the concept you're looking for is better termed "orthogonality" rather than "equality". It's not about making things equal, but rather about making sure that in all cases only what's relevant is considered -- or, as Eliezer would say, hugging the query.

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Would like you to know that as soon as you started ranting about how terrible Child Prison is, I started pumping my fists in the air and going "yessssssssssssssss!" out loud, earning me stares from my housemates.

Don't know if that's ever happened to me before, reading a blog piece.

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"This is a compelling argument. But it accidentally proves too much. If white supremacists wanted to make a rule that only white people could hold high-paying positions, on what grounds (besides symbolic ones) could DeBoer oppose them? After all, there would still be the same level of hierarchy (high-paying vs. low-paying positions), whether or not access to the high-paying positions were gated by race. It seems like rejecting segregation of this sort requires some consideration of social mobility as an absolute good."

Disagree, I think you are wrong.

He is rejecting the idea that more social mobility -> better outcomes.

This is not the same as thinking less social mobility -> better or equal outcomes.

I read that quote as meaning that social mobility is fine as it is.

He's specifically saying: "Why should we as leftists want more social mobility...."

Also "only white people holding high paying positions" would be increased social mobility, since currently not only white people hold high-paying positions.

DeBoer would argue that for this, a bunch of whites need to get up first, whilst a bunch of non-whites need to get kicked down.

Therefore this scheme is social mobility. Also not helpful to any goals of DeBoer, so at best irrelevant.

But this wouldn't be conservative either, since it would be unjustified by their standards as well. Such a shuffle would have nothing to do with a pecuniary reward incentive for the most capable to maximize their potential for the benefit of society.

DeBoer disagrees with this conservative position as a case for social mobility.

But he probably would agree with the implied conservative position, that kicking the capable down and arbitrarily pushing the less capable up, is not a great benefit to society.

Also in DeBoer world with its raised floor and lowered ceiling, social mobility itself must mean much less since there's less space to be mobile in.

Everyone has a job and has food to eat and is safe. There is little pressure to excel or push yourself hard to compete with your peers. You wait ten years for your car and it's a Trabant. If you're well connected and a doctor, you get your car faster and it's a Wartburg!

[That's the GDR experience incredibly simplified and I'm not saying that he wants the scarcity. Just pointing to an example of how that would look/feel like.]

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I think there's some sort of "typical mind" analogue that occurs whenever people talk about their experiences in school. "I had an awful time in grade school" becomes "Grade schools are prisons" instead of "I went to shitty schools/school district" or even "I'm not the typical student schools were meant to deal with."

I don't say this because I think public schools are great or that there's anything uniquely attractive about the way we do public schooling now. I'm just not sure that dramatic changes would be beneficial to [all, most, X percentile] students, and I think there's a fair chance it could be harmful.

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Incidentally, that bit about whether the 1% or the 20% are the class enemies is usually a debate between Occupy/DSA types (who say the 1% is the enemy) and the left-neoliberal Brookings institution types (who say the 20% is the enemy, despite being from the 20% themselves). I think the classic statement of the 20% view is from Richard Reeves: https://www.brookings.edu/book/dream-hoarders/

There are some left-socialist types who also agree that the 20% are the enemy, but they do seem to be rarer (especially when the question of free college comes up).

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Thought experiment: let’s imagine a scientific discipline. On an important question, there are two school of thoughts: A and B. In terms of ideological and institutional pressure, career incentives, respectability, media coverage, it’s much more advantageous to be a supporter of A. However, even if supporters of B tends to be very quiet, and not discuss their positions in public very much, they still represent the majority opinion in the field, at least in questionnaires preserving anonymity. Assuming no other knowledge of the question, which position has more chances to reflect reality, A or B?

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One thing I kept thinking when I read this book: what if we took the "the only way schools 'succeed' is by filtering out low-performing students" idea as a suggestion rather than a condemnation? Would that improve things for both high- and low- performing students?

There are things in the book that suggest it might!

First, de Boer explicitly praises "weed out" classes in medicine and engineering as a mercy. They don't string students along and force them to learn material they can't ever hope to master.

Second, de Boer recommends letting 12 year olds drop out, because forcing thing to do something they're not good at is bad.

Third, de Boer suggests that making sure top-performing students succeed is a really good thing:

> In fact, the notion that there is a strong connection between education and economic growth has recently been convincingly argued to be largely a statistical mirage. The data shows that what really matters is the academic performance of the top 5 percent of students.

If that's true, shouldn't we be doing everything we can to identify the top 5 percent of students, remove all barriers to their success, and gear schooling toward them instead of the kids that don't want to be in school?

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In the phrase "income gaps are not due to differences in income", I'm pretty sure you mean IQ gaps.

If that is not what you meant, I'm gonna need a little more explanation here.

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Can anyone cite the "ample evidence that homework does not help learning?"

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This was one of the better SSCs I've ever read, and synthesizes so many of my thoughts that I don't have to write my own thoughts down, I can just link this. Well done.

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"I am so, so tired of socialists who admit that the current system is a helltopian torturescape, then argue that we must prevent anyone from ever being able to escape it" any improvement made within the capitalist framework strengthens capitalism. Every Marxist I read seems very open and up front about this. They take it as axiomatic that the only way to make things better is to first make them so much worse that the whole system collapses, then something something revolution something something utopia. Someday I will understand why otherwise intelligent and wise people (i.e. smarter than me) advocate this position, and then I will understand everything there is to understand about people.

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"This is a compelling argument. But it accidentally proves too much. If white supremacists wanted to make a rule that only white people could hold high-paying positions, on what grounds (besides symbolic ones) could DeBoer oppose them?"

I don't think this is as important to Freddie's model because in his model, the material difference between the bottom and top rungs is colossally less wide than it is now. No, narrower even than that. It seems in that model not a very important thing to argue over who sits on which rung because they are so close together and, importantly, people can gain more by doing things they want to do than fighting for a higher rung (thus coming around closer to an almost libertarian description, but then utopian visions do have a tendency to converge).

I agree that imagining a world in which that was so is nigh impossible but it does explain why he wouldn't care much about designing a system that was resistant to being captured by any particular group.

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The idea that homework doesn't promote learning seems counter to the very basic observation that practicing something makes one better at that thing. Or that kids who were never taught math could, with a small amount of time focused on it, end up at the same place as kids with years of math classes - same thing. If kids had been practicing math for 10 years, how could they *not* be better than those who'd done it for 6 months or whatever?

The obvious counter to this is that the classes or the homework don't actually make the kids "practice" and that's why it doesn't work. In which case it seems obvious how to make the classes or the homework better, no?

If you want to get better at, say, chess, you practice more chess. If you want to get better at a second language, you practice reading and conversing in that language. If you want to get better at shooting a basketball, you go shoot basketballs. These points seems incontrovertible to me. So what am i missing regarding homework or math classes?

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The burrito test is new to me. I do remember from middle+high school a small number of teachers who, being unwilling to follow the rules dictated from on high (or, in one or two cases, perhaps unfamiliar with the notion of "rules"), ran classrooms that passed this test, and adjacent tests I could concoct. This was in a school that shortened the inter-class period from 8 mins to 5 mins to make sure people didn't linger in the hallway, and also took the doors off of the bathrooms for "security".

My interpretation of this is as a strong argument in favor of heterogeneity --- and therefore also in favor of charter schools.

It's usually taken as a given that students are unable to judge their teachers --- how should a *kid* know if (s)he's learning? --- but given that students aren't really learning so much anyway, perhaps allowing students to chose teachers wouldn't be a terrible idea. Is there any good reason not to adopt a policy of "horrifically unpopular elementary school teachers will be put on probation"?

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I found myself surprised at the strength of your preference against schools at first, but from the sounds of the descriptions you give, schools really are much much more awful where you live than they ever were for me. I guess I had a sort of impression of American schools from pop culture but I assumed that it was... I don't know, exaggerated for dramatic effect? It's jarring to imagine that they might really have been like that!

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I'm not the best person to make this case, but my impression of the argument against the idea of endorsing charter schools as ways to help at least some kids goes like this:

We have lots of publicly provided goods in society - national defense, mass transit, food inspection, schools, roads, etc. Some of it can be opted out in various ways (mass transit and schools), some less so (national defense). Much of the political dynamic over the last 40 years has involved the conservative view that if you tear down / open up these systems, everyone can choose what they want and will be better off. The liberal response is that approach is a way to dismantle the aspects of society that help the least fortunate, so no. The conservative rejoinder is that public schools are a lost cause, and we should save who we can.

The liberal objections to charter schools is that they represent a deliberate effort to dismantle the common project of public schooling by peeling off exactly the children with parents with the most power and resources, and consigning everyone else to an even worse life because the charter schools drain both money and common political will from the effort to improve them. It is like saying the roads are bad and filled with potholes, so we're going to build a tollways next to it so at least people who can afford to pay will have safe travel. Now if you think that even fixing the roads is a bad idea (i.e. schools are prisons), then exiting to a different path is great, but I don't think that's how most people see it. Liberals think the point is to fix the damn roads, and if only poor people use the roads, they will never be fixed.

The real question is, what are the realistic politics? If you keep charter schools out and force people to attend the public schools, will they improve? If people who can't afford private school and have to use the local public school have to either live with a bad school, or participate in the PTA, run for school board, pay attention to and vote for school levies, will that do the trick? I doubt that has actually worked, and I think liberals have a lot of arguments that conservatives have deliberately starved public education of funds for many ulterior reasons, but I think that is the core issue.

On the other hand, if you fundamentally believe that public primary education is helplessly broken, then this argument misses the point. But a lot of people think that school is a net positive, even for kids, and want it to be as good as it can for as many people as possible.

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There is a need to train children to obey authority and adhere to factory-like schedules. Bathroom passes are part of the socialization process.

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In terms of Freddie, his primary genius his ability to understand that people can’t do more than they are capable of. His chief flaw is his inability to understand that people can easily do less than they are capable of. And people doing less than they are capable of is why the Soviet Union didn’t work so well.

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I'm pretty confused in the section about mobility. You use the example of white supremacists who say only whites should hold high-status positions, and say that it doesn't seem possible to object to this without saying that mobility is inherently good...and then you go on to make 3 objections, NONE of which appear to me to imply that mobility is inherently good.

Your second objection is that it's better if high-status positions are distributed widely (as opposed to being clumped in social-network space), and your third is that equality is inherently better than inequality. But I don't see any inherent reason you couldn't have a mostly-flat hierarchy with wildly-distributed success and still have low mobility.

Your first objection is meritocracy. Perhaps you can't have meritocracy without mobility (if only because merit is not static), but the reverse doesn't seem true--you can have mobility without having meritocracy. So this still doesn't seem like it implied mobility is *inherently* good, or that more mobility is necessarily better than less mobility.

Sounds like overall you're saying "all improvements are necessarily changes", but that hardly implies that maximizing changes is a good strategy.

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In the Turkheimer paper you link, he says:

"Third Law. A substantial portion of the variation in complex human behavioral traits is not accounted for by the effects of genes or families." which you link to in the sentence that says "All show that differences in intelligence and many other traits are mostly due to genes, not shared environment."

Those don't seem to say the same thing at all. What did you mean here?

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His argument about race and IQ is not necessarily contradictory; it could be the case that there are genetic differences between individuals that explain differences in IQ, but also that every ethnic group has the same distribution of those genetic differences as every other ethnic group. (I don’t know how plausible this is genetically, or if there are any studies suggesting it’s true, but it’s at least an internally consistent theory.)

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Yes, schools are mostly "child prisons". But isn't this a good way to prepare children to later be able to handle their four-decade plus sentence in the far harsher adult prison of soul-crushing nine-to-five workplace drudgery?

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The real argument for schools was always very simple - ensure inoculation in certain social ideas. That's why there's so much opposition to home schooling. Parents may teach children some retrograde ideas



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>I don't know if this is what DeBoer is dismissing as the conservative perspective, but it just seems uncontroversially true to me.

No, DeBoer's view of the conservative argument is that people respond to incentives, i.e. the supply side instead of the demand side.

In your view, the customer wants the best person for the job, and is willing to pay for different jobs depending on their importance. So the smartest laborer becomes a doctor (where customers care a lot about the difference), the second smartest laborer a mechanic (where customers care about the difference, but less), the third smartest laborer a janitor (where customers still care about quality, but even less).

In the conservative's view, not only are laborers picking between jobs (if being a mechanic is less stressful and more fun than being a doctor, why wouldn't the smartest person want to be a mechanic instead of a doctor?), they're also able to change their own abilities (someone who is smart who can either be a consultant for free or become a doctor by studying very hard will only study very hard if it's better to be a doctor than a consultant).

This only goes so far, tho--it might explain the difference between doctors and consultants, but not the difference between doctors and janitors. DeBoer is focusing on the latter gap, I think, and noting the conservative is exaggerating their theory's ability to explain it.

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Scott’s discussion about the odd inconsistency in DeBoer’s views on the implications of IQ and superiority reminds me of the reaction I had when I heard a discussion on that issue between Sam Harris and Ezra Klein. Klein was expressing the same concern as DeBoer - that to say that there were genetically based differences in IQs in different populations was to suggest that some groups are intrinsically superior to others. And I just had no earthly idea what he was talking about. I mean, if you ask Ezra Klein “Is a person with a high IQ intrinsically superior to a person with a low IQ?,” the odds that he’ll say yes are approximately zero point nothing percent. Of course Klein knows that IQ does not convey superiority in any morally significant sense! But this would seem to imply he both believes “High IQ individuals are not superior to low IQ individuals” (agreed!) and “High IQ groups are superior to low IQ groups” (disagreed!). This tension seems easy to resolve - just acknowledge that IQ does not affect comparative moral worth at he individual or group level.

Also, Scott, your description of school-as-hell was deeply resonate with me. I can say without exaggeration that my time in the public school system was more miserable to me, and left me with deeper scars and issues, than my time in Iraq.

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Hi Scott, new subscriber here - thank you for this post, it was very interesting reading. I agree with much of what you say, but during the passages where you discuss your general view on the interaction between intellectual talent and social environment, I kept asking, "what about Michael Oher?"

If I understand you correctly, your belief is that social environment has relatively little effect on intellectual talent, and that the best we can do is find the kids with talent and give them as much of an opportunity as we can to thrive, while ensuring that the rest live comfortable, fulfilling lives in whatever adult role their relatively low-talent capacities permit.

I ask about Michael Oher because I'm not sure how his experience fits into your theory. Oher was the subject of a non-fiction book by Michael Lewis called The Blind Side (extraordinary book, very well-written, pretend the appallingly bad film adaptation doesn't exist). If you haven't read it, I really hope you do, because I'd love to read your review.

It's superficially about football, but for our purposes it's the story of a black teenager from one of the worst ghettos in America at the time: Hurt Village in Memphis, TN. Michael Oher was by consensus regarded as clinically stupid, and his total disaster of an academic career was believed to be in the expected range of results for someone of his tested intellectual capabilities. Around the age of 16, he was adopted by a very wealthy white family; over the course of two years, his IQ score went up two standard deviations, and his grades went up sufficiently (from straight Fs) that he became eligible for a college athletic scholarship.

The full story is incredibly fascinating (and heartwarming), but it's really hard for me to know of it and accept your contention that there's not much environment can do to affect intellectual potential. Or perhaps better put, it's hard for me to accept that the current academic estimations we have of the intellectual potential contained in America's impoverished communities is remotely accurate.

I would love to hear your thoughts, either now or after you've had a chance to read the book in question.

P.S. This is not necessarily incompatible with the thesis that there's only so much that school alone can do to unlock the intellectual potential of its pupils. Season 4 of The Wire makes the case eloquently (via art, of course, not science) that the life problems experienced by low-income students are often so profound that school is only a small piece of the solution, akin to getting a hospital bed - there's about a dozen other very important steps that need to occur to heal somebody apart from just giving them the bed.

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1. How to optimize outcomes for IQ 70-85 is not well understood. (Look at Blasi’s research on interventions for borderline intellectual function. That is progress but they’re just getting started.) My understanding is that that range correlates with negative environment having a stronger influence than it does in the higher and lower ranges.

I call it the Sammy Hagar problem. I love that guy, fantastic singer and successful businessman. High IQ he is not - the interviews are strange. But he is valued for his other contributions and those contributions are significant (yes, I enjoy Van Halen.) How to nurture and support people with alternative skill sets to make profound contributions?

2. The “smart” that there may be a “cult of” - I think it’s the 95-115s idolizing the 125+. Some have the idea that if they had a little more of the magic x, they’d be 130s, and that would make their lives better. I think it doesn’t work that way at all.

3. Meritocracy never operates in isolation. Institutions run to establish and perpetuate power of 115s, plus distributing emotional abuse and sometimes physical and additional typed, the kids who rise to the top in that are not necessarily the most meritorious. Some of it turns on how much PTSD someone has, how well they concentrate and trust groups. It selects for 115s with less trauma.

4. Agreed about learning math too young - some kids get abstraction very young and some don’t get it until much later - developmentally. Abusing those that don’t is miserable and a waste of time.

5. If US schools didn’t funnel the less -traumatized 115s to the upper middle class, those folks would get mad.

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One of the biggest problems with the standard school system is the implied assumption that every child is the same, since why else do they expect everyone to learn the same subjects at the same pace? In reality people have different abilities and interests. Schools would look very different if they recognized this fact. Taking math as an example, some students should skip all advanced math and just learn the fundamental math that they never learned well, while other students could complete elementary school match in 4th grade and then choose specific areas to focus on.

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There is a genre of recent new stories to the effect that kids are starting to lose their mind doing school over Zoom at home. It’s possible this is just inaccurate. But it seems like most kids don’t feel like school is soul crushing and get positive benefits from socialization with other kids (even if some of those experiences are themselves not fun or even emotionally hurtful). I say this as a gay kid who was a nerd and didn’t play sports and wasn’t very popular along any dimension.

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Across the pond they have the word "swotty" for "studious". So perhaps it should have been called "The Cult of Swot". I learned that word from an interview with the screenwriter Nicole Taylor, who said she became a lawyer (something she wound up hating) because that's what students who were swotty but not into math/science did.

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One other comment - Scott notes a few times how DeBoer seems to conflate “we can’t be absolutely certain of X” with “we can completely dismiss X.” He seems to make a similar flavored mistake when he says:

“For conservatives, at least, there's a hope that a high level of social mobility provides incentives for each person to maximize their talents and, in doing so, both reap pecuniary rewards and provide benefits to society. This makes sense if you presume, as conservatives do, that people excel only in the pursuit of self-interest.”

But, this is a straw man. Conservatives (or at least every single one I’ve talked with and read) do not believe “that people excel ONLY in the pursuit of self-interest,” nor do the general personal and social benefits DeBoer highlights depend on the assumption that self interest is the sole possible motivation for people to excel. All it requires to work is the belief that self interest is at least part of the reason, for at least part of the population. So, the argument doesn’t require that people are ONLY motivated by self interest.

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I feel like we're ignoring the fact that schools have been shut down in some places for around a year, and so we've kind of stumbled into a weird natural experiment to test the hypothesis that getting rid of all schools and replacing them with nothing would be an improvement.

The consensus across the political spectrum seems to be that keeping schools closed is super bad and harmful to children. The only debate seems to be whether keeping schools closed is the lesser of two evils or not.

I'll admit I haven't dug into this any more than just reading newspaper articles about it. Do we know if there's any real evidence behind the idea that closing schools down for the pandemic is harming children, or is it just an assumption that everybody is making?

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Related question I would love to see answered:

Is the problem with eg. algebra that it can't be taught *at all*, or that it can't be taught *in the time provided*?

That is, would a fixed curriculum be achievable to more if students were given personalized training at the pace they are capable of learning the material? If so, how would it be practical to achieve this?

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"This not only does away with "desert", but also with reified Society deciding who should prosper."

I appreciate this part as a Leftist, because I do find that we can sometimes come off as conspiracy theorist-y when we imply that someone consciously chose to make certain outcomes rather than mindless markets doing so. Pointing this out is helpful messaging advice.

However, as a society we HAVE chosen NOT to intervene (much) in the markets that make surgeons much more highly paid than, say, teachers. The idea of artificially raising the floor and lowering the ceiling of incomes mentioned later on is something the government could do, and I'd argue that choosing NOT to is also a choice (I haven't been a reader long but I know you're a fellow EA, which I assume means you also believe the utilitarian axiom that choosing not to act is as meaningful as acting).

I'm with you on DeBeor not using "meritocracy" correctly here, but I think he's referring to the widespread practice rather than the theory of putting of barriers to entry so that someone off the street isn't doing your surgery, the way many of my fellow Leftists use "capitalism" and you use "communism".

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You're going to get in trouble for the child labor bit.

Also, the pro social effects of things like free school lunch and free childcare from school were kind of glossed over.

Also, desert is wrong in this. A desert is a place without water... a dessert is the thing you get because you deserve it.

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DeBoer says he wants not social mobility but "a higher floor for material conditions" and "a necessarily lower ceiling".

Then you object that "After all, there would still be the same level of hierarchy".

Huh? This section is muddled. He says he's in favor of not having as much hierarchy, then you give three examples of how hierarchies can be better or worse, and end up with the non-sequitur "It is weird for a liberal/libertarian to have to insist to a socialist that equality can sometimes be an end in itself" after he argued for equality and you argued against it.

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"Seriously, he talks about how much he hates believe in genetic group-level IQ differences about thirty times per page" - should that be "belief" or "believers"?

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Re. the last part about schools as prisons and alternative ways to teach children, I’d encourage looking into the Sudbury Valley School and Peter Gray’s writing, specifically Free to Learn. Could make a good book review!

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Re Success Academy, anyone who is interested in this (or having an opinion on this) should read charter and choice advocate Robert Pondiscio's book. I excerpted it in a blog post here: http://notepad.michaelpershan.com/some-interesting-things-i-learned-from-robert-pondiscios-book-about-success-academy/

Also while lots of educational journalists do good stuff, Matt Barnum from Chalkbeat is a reporter who people interested in education should get used to following.

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One of the arguments for school that you haven't addressed is giving children an alternative environment to abusive parents (or just an alternative environment in general - there is arguably something to the idea that children should have a secondary environment where they learn things from people other than their parents). I agree with you about how schools are terrible (especially American schools, I think? my high school in Israel had only about 50% of the bad stuff you mention), but I'm not convinced "abolish schools" is a better solution for most kids than "make schools less bad".

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Several thoughts...

I think the British model where most people do high school until they're 16 and then people who want to keep doing school go on to A-levels for two more years is the beginning of a good structure. I like the idea of the "dropout" age being lowered, but I think the ideal would be to add in more diplomas. They don't even have to be separate buildings like in the UK, but allowing students to get an 8th grade diploma or a 10th grade diploma or a High School Diploma™️ (after 12th grade) would associate a milestone achievement with each of these steps, and maybe help destigmatize/normalize "dropping out" after any one of them.

I also very much agree with section III. about school being child prison. I often argue that so many problems with school boil down to the fact that school is not consensual, for parents or for the children attending. I'm positively interested in experiments that pay students for going to high school (and eliminating homework entirely). I'm also generally a fan of UBIs, and your question of what parents would do if they personally were receiving ~15k per child per year is definitely food for thought.

Has anyone read In Search of Deeper Learning: The Quest to Remake the American High School

by Jal Mehta & Sarah Fine? I started it but haven't finished, but it discusses Success Academy (I believe) as well as schools with no-excuses policies and everything in between.

I'm generally disinclined from homeschooling-as-a-society-wide-solution for socialization reasons, since if you start putting kids together in clusters to do socialization you've basically recreated school but community-by-community, and I'm not enough of a socialist to think that's the best solution. I hope to be in a position to give my kids the option to be homeschooled for some or all of middle school, and I like to call myself a "middle school abolitionist" in general because I think there are far better things we could do with that time than anything we would recognize as a school.

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I actually had a pretty nice time in high school. It wasn't a particularly good high school either. Maybe I am representative of a certain "kind of person who does well in the system we have now;" and maybe that kind of person is more rare than I currently imagine it to be.

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1. I LOVED this post! "SSC Does a Graduation Speech" has burned itself into my brain and I suspect the criticism of school from this one will as well.

2. Some thoughts on pro public school extremism:

I think some people are fiercely pro public school *because* they see school as prisons, and see non-public schools (particularly private and parochial schools; they're not usually explicitly thinking about charter schools and if they do, they assume they're like private and religious schools) as having even more prison-like elements than public school. Specifically, they have all the elements mentioned above AND are more likely to be sex-segregated or require uniforms (and, in the case of parochial schools, threaten the students with Hell).

I am sympathetic to this position, though ultimately I come down on your side--it's worth letting some parents send their kids to more oppressive environments than the default if we also get the chance to get some kids in *less* oppressive environments. But I can see how someone who's more concerned with putting a floor on badness than raising the ceiling on goodness might oppose private/parochial/charter schools.

Speaking for myself, I went to public school and did consider it child prison--*and* I was grateful that at least I wasn't one of my friends who went to Catholic school, where the bullying was worse and the dress code more expensive, more boring-looking, and less comfortable, or one of the evangelical Christian homeschool kids I read about online, who had no friends other than their parents who beat them, taught them creationism, and made them act as third parents to their many younger siblings.

I admit this is probably not the reason *most* public school defenders feel relatively positive about the public school system or more critical of other kinds of schools, but I do think there are some who hold this position and don't say it because "school is child prison" is one of those things you're not supposed to Notice in many circles.

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One key point is that however bad school is, some home environments are worse. Some parents abuse or neglect their children, some foist adult responsibilities onto kids too young to handle them, some simply don't have the knowledge or tools to teach their children anything at all. There is value in having a place where kids are treated well, and we should make sure that all children that need such a place can go there, regardless of their parents. However, families should be able to opt out if they can show they are providing a better environment than a traditional school.

Also, regarding "tourist teachers" my impression is that teaching is a set of skills that need to be developed through training and experience. While a certain level of intelligence is needed, I don't think an unrelated Ivy League diploma means that you would be good at it. Give a genius an auto repair manual, and he'll still be worse at fixing your car than an average mechanic.

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This is a beautiful post, and in writing it I think it's extremely likely that you prevented at least thousands of hours of child-torture, and as a survivor of School I am profoundly grateful for that. Thank you, Scott.

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Could you explain how your surgeon example in defense of a meritocracy extends to, say, a profession that does not have to do with life and death? Like, an account manager, for instance. Does the idea that "people prefer to have jobs done well rather than poorly, and use their financial and social clout to make this happen", apply here? Or does our economic system also have inefficient pockets that reward certain people--more likely college educated folks who rise up in the meritocracy--for ultimately inconsequential work... What do we do with that?

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DeBoer asserts "This makes sense if you presume, as conservatives do, that people excel only in the pursuit of self-interest."

This makes sense if you presume, as DeBoer does, that conservatives presume that people excel only in the pursuit of self-interest.

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As a high school teacher who independently reached many of Scott's conclusions about education years ago, here's how I think about my role, how I sleep at night, and what the pandemic year has revealed.

• I am daycare. 15-year-olds don't need a babysitter, but their parents are also not interested in having them sit at home all day getting into trouble*. Ok, fine. Perhaps my class can be a not-terrible place to spend an hour.

• *Some students do, in fact, prefer to be in school. More than I would have thought. (I now know this because I work for a chain of charter schools that has been ideologically committed -- for better and worse -- to staying open the whole year, while also allowing students to be online if their families chose. I've informally surveyed the ones who attend in person; they often had some input in the choice. Some of this in-person preference arises from a loathing for online learning, but much of it is a hunger for structure and socialization.)

• If I'm not having fun, I hate my job and know I'm probably making my class a sucky place to spend an hour. So I prioritize my lessons to keep myself stimulated. This usually involves goading students into a challenge, a discussion, or a project with me.

• I know they'll forget almost everything I formally teach, so there's little point in judging them harshly for forgetting it five minutes from now rather than five minutes after the test. So... I don't give many tests when I have a choice, and it's difficult to fail my class on test performance alone.

• Homework? Gross. I won't say it never happens, but it's not my norm. At all.

• I'm usually the smartest (IQ) person in the classroom, and even when I'm not, I'm by far the least naïve and most clever (education, street-smarts, rationality, etc.). The most important thing I have to offer teens is a peek inside my head, so I try to create situations where we look at problems together and they get excited to see how I approach those problems. (This may or may not have much overlap with the official curriculum, but with a little lawyering a teacher can justify almost anything.)

• Left to their own devices, most students would prefer to be playing games, watching YouTube videos, or getting into weird discussions. So I take some inspiration from these. Where is there potential for play in my content? What makes a YouTube personality engaging? What off-ramps for weird discussions exist that will also make these teens wiser?

• Savvy and wisdom tend to linger long after content is forgotten -- as do fond memories of an unusually enjoyable class. I consider the latter a terminal good.

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Heiner Rindermann, the author of the 2020 study you linked, seems to a be a racist due to these choice selections. https://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Heiner_Rindermann If I'm wrong or if they're taken out of context, let me know.

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The anti-schools rant hits hard in many respects, but it seems confused about who demands education and the answer is: parents.

There was a time not very long ago when Scott's dream of far shorter school was a reality. I'm too lazy to look up the stats, but not many kids were going to high school until well into the 20th century. Why did this change? What happened? The answer is: parents wanted to send their kids to high school.

You wouldn't know it from Scott's post, but while schooling is compulsory (and it only is in a sense) education is at the end of the day demand-driven industry. Everyone wants it, even if they shouldn't.

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i liked high school

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I didn't read Freddie's book (I've bought it but haven't gotten around to it yet) - but - does he discuss this research from Stuart Ritchie? https://kclpure.kcl.ac.uk/portal/en/publications/how-much-does-education-improve-intelligence-a-metaanalysis(5e92b4d8-7b10-4d30-b2e5-6dfef494fa46).html

Basically - education does seem to have a small (but non-zero) effect on intelligence, and that this effect sticks. It feels like that's reason enough to not allow kids to drop out at the age of 12.

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Scott, what kind of nightmarish high school did you go to?

This is not a joke: if you’re willing, I really would like to read an article or something about what kind of experiences, personal or otherwise, led to these kinds of intensely negative gut reactions against school.

Because you make me worried. I went to school in Canada where things felt pretty sane to me. I can identify some similarities (homework felt very excessive to me and I struggled a lot with that) and some differences (my high school started at 9 AM and we even had one day a week where we only started at 10), but it doesn’t feel like the magnitude of differences I’ve heard of so far is enough to call one “okay” and the other “child prison”.

Is it just differences in individual reaction? There were still students that struggled in my school, sure, and arguably I was one of the ones that did better with the environment, but is it enough to explain the difference?

This is important because:

1. I live in California now, and I might end up having kids here at some point. They’d be subject to the American education system, and if it’s really that bad I might consider moving back to Canada when they get to schooling age.

2. I’ve always been kind of interested in education and teaching, and I wouldn’t be surprised if I ended up gravitating back to it sometime down the road. If I do, I want to make sure I do a good job of it.

3. You’re not the only American writer I respect who has completely lambasted the US education system to the point of choosing homeschooling for his kids (or future kids). Shamus Young, a videogame blogger, wrote an entire online “autoblography” that was ostensibly about his childhood but ended up being mostly about his trials and tribulations in the US education system of the late 70s-80s, ultimately published as a book titled “How I Learned”. I felt it was because of a mix of failures on the school’s part plus a personality that chafed hard against those failures, but between you and him it’s enough to make me wonder whether it’s a problem that generalizes, and if so, how far. (A few bad schools? All American schools? All schools in general?)

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I think Scott’s missing a fundamental tension here between his libertarian-ish desire for more student freedoms and the realities of the need for order within schools, including at the much-lauded charters that Scott wants other schools to emulate.

First, the kinds of charter schools that often get all the press about their “success” tend to be extremely militarized and have all kinds of strict rules governing student behavior. If you dislike regular public schools for being rigid, may I introduce you to the creepiness that is the “Teach Like a Champion” toolkit (and similar systems of its ilk) that’s become the Bible for all kinds of charter school chains as well as a number of public school systems? See here for a sample, including a student berated for insufficient eyes on the speaker: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EC0ltKOwF_A

While perhaps a few special charters (and even some--gasp--public schools!) might have more of this Montessori-esque system that Scott seems to want in education, the reality is that most of these successful charter schools are extremely controlled and disciplinarily harsh environments. Plus, the students who can’t fit into this environment get filtered out back to their neighborhood public schools or don’t even apply to the charter in the first place (hence the DeBoer critique).

Second, the “bathroom pass” complaint is an excellent illustration of a similar kind of tension between order and liberty that seems to be quite common online, especially from people who were well-behaved students and found such tyranny to be unconscionable (I felt much the same way as a student). Let’s walk through what would happen in practice though if libertarian idealist Scott became a teacher.

Teacher Scott has just entered the classroom of 35+ students for his first day at a typical urban public school. The moment the bell rings to begin class, the hands start to go up. Student A: “Mr. Alexander, I gotta go, BAD.” Student B: “Mr. A, I need to go to the bathroom.” Student C: “Can I please go to the bathroom please I really need to go it’s so bad”. Teacher Scott, being a nice guy who’s committed to his libertarian ideals in education, tells all the students they’re welcome to go to the bathroom and that he will never dare to stop them from fulfilling such a basic requirement of nature.

Student A takes off in the direction of the bathroom, but then decides to run up and down the hallways as fast as possible. Student B is off to visit her friend in in-school suspension and waves into the windows of other classrooms along the way, disrupting numerous other classes. Student C goes to the bathroom, but then decides that the paper towel dispensers seem like they’d be fun to tear off the wall and comes back to the classroom armed with plenty of wet crumpled paper towels to throw at other students. Students D and E, now that it’s clear Teacher Scott isn’t going to stop them, decide to ignore the amazing, engaging lesson Teacher Scott is trying to pitch to them and have wandered out of the classroom and are now engaging in some kind of inappropriate conduct in the stairwell.

Now perhaps Teacher Scott is proud of the fact that he’s just unleashed anarchy against the evil prison-like environs of public education in the first five minutes of his time in the classroom, but he’s also not going to be Teacher Scott for much longer. Even the hated teacher’s unions would likely not support a rookie teacher who made life worse for everyone else in the school. This is why, in fact, both the evil public schools and the beloved charters likely share similarly strict bathroom rules as well as other rules governing student behavior that seem absolutely maddening to the well-behaved students, but are in fact there for a reason. One might call them Chesterton's Bathroom Passes. At the $40k a year elite private school though, I’m sure you can get up whenever you like and go to the bathroom.

Scott is making a lot of idealistic assumptions here and I’d respectfully encourage him to spend some time volunteering in or at least visiting local public and charter schools in his neighborhood to see just how much his ideals would match up to reality.

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Couple of thoughts:

1. Those "studies" that Scott cites re IQ and genetics are fcking _surveys_ of _psychologists_. At the least, where are the fcking geneticists? The studies have near-zero credibility there for the points Scott wants to establish, and his use of them for that really diminished my respect for him. They're fcking popularity contests! It's the kind of rhetorical stunt I'd expect from a college sophomore.

2. $15K to $30K is not going to be enough in most major urban areas for most people to stay home. That's just past to future minimum wage ($7.5 to $15/hour) if you have one kid. Not to mention the other stuff kids get at school. So that's going to be a nice spliff for folks who want to home-school their multiple kids, but beyond that, meh.

3. Charter schools are little better or worse than regular public schools, based on our experience with both, and my work starting a charter school.

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I don't think it makes sense to say that intelligence is not related to moral value. I value mice more than flies. I value dogs more than mice. I value dolphins more than dogs and I value smart humans more than dull humans. I am a utilitarian consequentialist and I believe that the innate value of an entity comes from its capacity to experience. Smarter people can have deeper thoughts, understand more connections, hold more ideas on their head at a time etc. And thus their experiences are richer and more valuable than that of a dull person in the exact same way that a dull person's experiences are richer and more valuable than that of a lower animal.

It might be convenient and agreeable to assert that all people have equal worth but I do not see how it is logical

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And instead of arguing with Marxists about who gets paid how much, let's just stop tying moral worth to money. End the Cult of Rich. (The old USSR did in some measure achieve this, but I don't care for its methods, or for that matter its overall results.)

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Re meritocracy and jobs:

Are you really steelmanning the socialist case here? Yes, it is good for society to have the most competent person for a job perform that job - and in that sense of "meritocracy" presumably everyone is a meritocrat.

In the functional capitalist system you describe the people who are more competent will be assigned more money and status and live more comfortable lives. This incentivizes people to contribute as much value as they can, which is good for society.

Since people have different levels of talent, the result, however, is an uneven distribution of goods like status and money. On the face of it, that seems unfair. So we end up with a tension between incentivizing people to provide value and having a fair distribution of "goods". We can try to resolve that tension in different ways:

1. We can deny that the unequal distribution is unfair and keep the current system.

2. We can stop rewarding more competent people with status and money, sacrificing the incentivization mechanisms.

3. We can do something in between, like using redistributive taxation to reduce the resulting inequality while keeping some incentivization.

A common way to defend 1 is to claim that if you are productive you *deserve* both monetary rewards and high status. And vice versa, if you are incompetent you deserve little or no money and low status. Even though this isn't the technical definition of "meritocracy" the idea is somewhat associated, so presumably that's what DeBoer is opposed to.

And this view has trouble with IQ realism. Normally the view is combined with ideas like that success comes from hard work and using free will to make good choices. But if success is rather determined by an inherited IQ level that you are not responsible for, then it's hard to defend an uneven distribution of goods as fair and just.

Since the solution 2 plausibly leads to a worse society it isn't very tempting. Instead, a social democratic-ish mixed economy version of 3 becomes more tempting: retain a free market monetary and status incentives for productivity but use progressive taxation to redistribute a fair amount of the goods.

However, if competency is largely determined by IQ, or other factors people have no control over, then it seems unfair that the high IQ people will end up with lots of money and status.

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>"I can't find any expert surveys giving the expected result that they all agree this is dumb and definitely 100% environment and we can move on..."

tl;dr of course any two racial groups could differ genetically in either direction, and we would have no real way to tell, given the eminent plausibility of environmental/socialization differences that are even larger—and can't be controlled for by adoption studies, since e.g. people's perception of your skin colour doesn't change when you're adopted. (Don't look at experts on IQ only, look at experts on quantitative genetics, or at least people who are genuinely literate in it [Murray isn't*]. Those are the prerequisite concepts, e.g. understanding what heritability means.)

It's not that races couldn't possibly differ genetically for IQ-affecting genes. It's that there's no reason at all to assume any particular genetic difference in any particular direction (unless by misunderstanding heritability)—yet Murray and friends keep speculating that black people specifically have lower-IQ genes than white people specifically.


"...Let's first be clear about the conclusion itself. In a recent article on 'The Real Bell Curve,' Charles Murray grumbles about critics, such as Stephen Jay Gould, who read the book as saying that racial differences in IQ are mostly genetic. Murray answers by quoting from the book:

If the reader is now convinced that either the genetic or environmental explanations have won out to the exclusion of the other, we have not done a sufficiently good job of presenting one side or the other. It seems highly likely to us that both genes and environment have something to do with racial differences. What might the mix be? We are resolutely agnostic on that issue; as far as we can determine, the evidence does not yet justify an estimate (311).

In this passage, Herrnstein and Murray are 'resolutely agnostic' about whether bad environment or genetic endowment is more responsible for the lower IQs of Blacks. But they indicate no agnosticism at all about whether *part of the IQ difference* between Blacks and Whites is genetic; and given their way of thinking about the matter, this means that they are not at all agnostic about *some* Black genetic inferiority...

...Notice... that [Murray's] statement of alternatives blots out a crucial possibility: that Blacks are much worse off than Whites environmentally and better off genetically. Allowing this option, we get a different set of alternatives: genetically, Blacks are worse off - or better off - or equal to Whites. I don't say that it is likely that blacks are better off genetically than whites, but it is possible, and—a very important point—what you consider possible affects what you think is an extremist position...

...If you accept The Bell Curve's way of putting the options, then the idea that environmental differences between blacks and whites are big enough to account for 15 IQ points looks like extremism. But given the actual alternatives—that blacks are genetically on a par with whites, or worse off, or better off—zero genetic difference doesn't seem extremist at all."

[my attempt to intuitively explain what heritability is: https://www.quora.com/What-is-heritability/answer/David-Bahry]

*see also his more recent misunderstanding of polygenic scores in WSJ [https://www.facebook.com/david.bahry/posts/10156548007575286]

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It's an odd moment to write an encomium to learning at home & talk about how horrible school is, when a whole lot of parents (not all, but a whole lot) are finding their kids miserable because they're stuck at home. And it's not the zoom school, at least in all the cases I know of; it's the lack of social contact. I've seen lots of news stories saying "I can't believe I want to go to school" type-things. So whatever you do, don't make homeschooling the default. (I admit it would be better out of a pandemic, since those homeschooling kids tend to get together.) If you want non-prison schools, then advocate for those. Or free-range schools where the kids go and design their own activities & do whatever they want. But some sort of place to be with other kids (and for a lot of kids, some sort of structure to the day) is really necessary.

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This is an interesting time to be looking at the education system, since so many children have been locked up at home instead of at school for nearly a year now, and enough miss it to suggest some utility outside the bare minimum of learning basic skills that can be done on a computer.

Outside of absolute basics in reading, writing, and arithmetic, I would prefer that a lot more focus was placed on student experience in general, and it seems like a major flaw that Freddie's thoughts on charter schools don't give more weight to student happiness regardless of test scores.

I was homeschooled until about 16, when I studied pretty much whatever I wanted at community college. It was a good experience, with lots of youth group and clubs and 4-H, all very relaxed.

Now I'm an elementary art teacher, and mostly get to see the good side of that system. Every week of so the children get to paint or poke at pieces of wool or build something out of clay and dip it in glaze and see how it melts into glass. This is quite popular. Children stop in the hallway to tell me that art is their favorite subject. Even the kids who won't ever be great at realism or technique seem to have a decent time trying different things out. I think music class is also fairly popular (except that this year they aren't allowed to sing).

Waldorf schools, are quite arty and imaginative, and they seem like a good idea, though after interviewing at one I've realized that it's much too much work to be a teacher at one.

I can't tell from this review if Freddie has much of an opinion on the sorts of things young people who aren't academically gifted should be encouraged to do more of instead. School doesn't have to be the place for trying to figure that out, but since the infrastructure is already in place, it could be for many young people.

Some high schools have excellent and popular culinary arts programs. Sous chef or baker isn't a dead end position the way fast food worker mostly is. Some high schools have good cosmetology programs, and 18 year olds graduate with certificates allowing them to get salon jobs immediately. It can be hard to find good shop teachers since mechanics don't need to put up with all the BS entailed in getting certified as a teacher, but a good welding or automotive repair or any other respectable blue collar program is super useful. I'm not sure if there are many high schools with programs in innovative agriculture -- permaculture, regenerative agriculture, hydroponics, aquaponics, etc -- but there could be, and probably are some already. To extent that these programs are well targeted, they mostly don't have a big problem with students and their teachers agreeing on when to go to the bathroom. Some high schools seem to have nearly transitioned into community college, with specializations, choices, and large campuses. Other schools allow duel enrollment with the local college, which can also be very positive.

Majority hispanic schools especially seem to do a reasonably decent job of communicating that working in a kitchen or salon or building or repairing physical things *isn't necessarily a bad life, or a failure.* Freddie seems to think so as well, but that message seems to get a bit lost in the abstractions, and in the fact that he's an academic himself, and very embroiled in the kinds of academic concerns that he admits aren't important or universal enough to stress in education. But maybe he's like Levin and does whatever the city equivalent of wielding a scythe is.

"Certainly it is hard to deny that public school does anything other than crush learning - I have too many bad memories of teachers yelling at me for reading in school, or for peeking ahead in the textbook, to doubt that."

Scott's school sounds surprisingly restrictive. Especially the parts about getting yelled at for reading ahead. What was that about? In my experience teachers get rather put out when students blast through an assignment super fast and then expect to be entertained or given something else to do, but that's just a management issue. Even if they can come up with a new activity instantly, explaining it might derail the rest of the class.

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Thanks! I enjoy your articles.

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I went to a magnet high school which boasted a record of 0 disciplinary suspensions of students per year.

Come senior year when I was arrested at school for drug posession, I discovered how they managed to pull that off: Send the student back to their normal, geographically-zoned high school, or a K-12 for bad kids if you committed a crime, for the rest of the year, but allow them back right in time for graduation.

It's effectively a suspension (from the school's perspective) but without the accompanying statistic.

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Scott: I think the first "income" in this quote is meant to be "IQ":

"studies have shown that racial income gaps are not due to differences in income/poverty, "

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Great post. My top 10 to be sure. I just want to add a few things that might not be obvious to most people. First, even very small IQ differences can lead to drastically different pay scales. Take the NBA for example. The top 3 ranked basketball players may be only 10% or even 5% better than the next 3 ranked basketball play but still make many multiples more. Even when the "merit" difference is small, the "pay" or "status" difference can still be huge - especially in our global economy. It is more exponential than linear. This speaks to how hard this "cult of merit" would be to tamp down, even if we tried....which I don't think we should.

Second, if you really think about it, if his premise is really true, and you wanted to really improve society and those suffering under the "cult of meritocracy", Bryan Caplans book is a better path than Deboers utopian suggestions.

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Scott it's simple if you don't want to have Marxbro popping up just stop taking cheap shots at Marx without having read him. I get that people can't be bothered to read books these days and would rather listen to podcasts or something but that's not an excuse for speaking your opinion while uninformed. Even Peterson's reputation crashed and burned when he admitted to not having read Marx prior to his debate about Marxism.

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The end was unexpected coming from Scott, who is the same author who wrote this:


to quote:

>How might the personified Chinese education system respond?

>What if it said “I don’t know what you 老外 are doing in America, but I’m not crushing anybody. I’m just telling kids to sit here drawing 1,000 raindrops in a row without moving or protesting. If after that you decide you don’t want to found the next Uber, that’s on you. But if you do decide to found the next Uber, I will have taught you the most important skill: discipline. Learning how to sit still and obey others is the necessary prerequisite to learning how to sit still and obey yourself.”

>If it was really mean, it might go further. “I notice most of you Americans suck at this skill. I notice you’re always whining about how you don’t have enough discipline to pursue your interests. Some of you are writers who spend years fantasizing about the novel you’re going to publish, but can never quite bring yourself to put pen to paper. Others want to learn another language, but reject real work in favor of phone apps that promise to ‘gamify’ staying at a 101 level for the rest of your life. You don’t need to feel bad about having no self-control; after all, nobody taught you any. If you’d gone to 宋庆龄幼儿园, you would have spent your formative years learning to sit still and focus, having your natural impulse to slack off squeezed out of you. Then you could have pushed through and written your novel, or learned 官話, or if you wanted to start Uber you could start Uber. At the very least you’d be doing something other than lying in bed browsing Reddit posts about how adulting is hard.”

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If we're discussing radical ideas for fixing education, I've got one for y'all.

Setting aside all the resource and logistical problems of actually educating people, I think there's a structural problem with education. I can testify that I love learning, but that the foremost learning pipeline in the world was as much a misery for me as Scott writes that it is. I think a lot of that misery comes from the pileup of three facts: (1) most people don't care about everything, (2) learning things you don't care about is really hard, but (3) we want people to be robust so we want everyone to learn a broad base and that usually includes a bunch of things each student doesn't care about. We want people to be able to fix their house and possibly build Saturn V, so we teach them Algebra and then Calculus, but most people don't inherently love and care about Algebra and especially not Calculus. So we solve that problem in the obvious way; we hold their nose to the grindstone until they figure out how to pretend they care. By contrast, once you find something you love, you will learn everything there is to know about it. Most people go green around the gills when you ask them to do statistics ... unless it's for sports or board games, where suddenly they're a savant.

I think we need to restructure education around that determined love.

At a certain point, maybe at the end of middle school, students would cycle through a bunch of high-tempo focused activities, each a FIRST Robotics Competition style sprint. They put on a play, they spend a few weeks learning baseball, the works. You do one topic after another until you know what each student enjoys enough to be self-motivated in. From there, they first go deep in their chosen specialties, and then they're introduced to how it fits in to the bigger picture. Oh, you love Artificial Intelligence? Well AI dates back to some of the foundational work of computing. Why was anything worrying about computing things? Well, we needed a faster way to print artillery tables and crack codes. Why? Well we were at war; there was this bad man with a funny mustache in a place called Europe, you see...

Does this totally get rid of rote memorization? Probably not. But if we can reduce the slog, I think we'll find school a lot more fun and effective. I know I treasured my time in FIRST Robotics and resented my - objectively excellent - high school for every moment it stole away from robot time.

There are a lot of reasonable complaints about this idea. Doesn't it require way more teachers? How does it work in poor or remote areas that can't hire all those specialized teachers? Are there some things everyone needs to learn but nobody likes learning about? What if one year everyone chooses baseball and nobody chooses robotics? I have no answers to any of those questions; I called the idea radical and I meant it. I bet there are more iterations to go before the model is fit for human consumption.

But it's not like the current system works either.

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This is long-winded and I suppose I should have my own blog if I want to vent. But I don't have one, so thanks to Scott's generosity, here I am. So, perhaps with apologies,...

... there's a contradiction in DeBoer (at least in Scott's description of his book) that I think more could be made of. (Or if Scott did, I missed it.)

To DeBoar (and me, too), on the one hand, academic achievement isn't intrinsically for everyone, yet it's the only one we encourage, and students who aren't well suited for academic excellence should be allowed to leave school early and pursue directions that better suit their talents, or at least their interests. And on the other hand, DeBoer says that charter schools cheat because they cherry-pick academically talented students and kick out the rest. That really isn't all that different from what he otherwise thinks should be done. That is the contradiction.

We have regressed in providing a range of public schools that cater to multiple tastes and aspirations. When I was growing up in NYC in the '50s & '60s, more such paths were provided. Bronx Science, Stuyvesant and Brooklyn tech educated the technical elite. (I'm not afraid of that term.) The HS of Music and Art trained talented musicians and artists, at least in the "classical" arts and music; but it's worth noting that these days, even places like Juilliard have strong jazz programs and more than a whiff of hip-hop and even country music in the air. We had a HS of Printing Trades, a HS of maritime trades (which was located on a ship moored at a pier, and I envied the kids who went there). There was a HS of Performing Arts for aspiring actors and a HS of Fashion Trades. Except for the "elite"schools, these were called "vocational schools." And in "ordinary" high schools, there were two kinds of degrees: a "general" degree and an "academic degree", which was intended for the small (compared to now) number of students who expected go on to college. The "general" degree fed a large demand for accountants, clerks, retail employees, firemen, policemen, bus drivers, subway workers, etc. Some of the above jobs are gone, but not all of them. And the office buildings whose corner offices house the 20% (or 10%, anyway) employ large number of plumbers, electrical workers, building engineers, maintenance workers, security guards; and tend to hire outside carpenters and decorators for renovations and outside janitorial agencies for cleanup. In the buildings where I spent most of my career, the folks who provided these services in the buildings where I worked were really good at what they did. Those who did have college degrees probably didn't need them for their jobs but may have appreciated their ability to have gone. Those who did not probably did not suffer for their lack. I respected them all; or at least, if there were those whom I respected less, it wasn't because they had less education than I did. And quite a few were very smart, college degrees or not.

Cherry-picking students makes sense. Birds of a feather should be allowed to flock together and the flock should be catered to and nurtured. Musicians are going to do better around other musicians, actors around other actors, athletes among other athletes. It is as ridiculous to take a genuinely talented young athlete whose heart is in soccer, hocky, basketball or baseball and make him take algebra (unless he wants to take it), just as it would be ridiculous to send me to a program specializing in any of those sports.

Finally, problem kids: retarded, or disturbed, or blind, or deaf, were taken out of the regular classrooms and put into special programs. Kids who always acted out and kept others from learning were put into the "600" schools (like, say, PS 612). There is a residue of that still left, but for the most part, "mainstreaming" has taken over, that this to me is a terrible idea. To me, this past diversity of educational paths was humane and generous. My elementary school in the Bronx had a little garden plot fenced off from the recess area. It was very pretty. I once asked a teacher what that was for. It turned out to be a place where the retarded kids could learn to plant flowers and maybe vegetables and get some joy of satisfaction in their lives instead of bitter tears of failure. At the age of say, 9, when I learned this, I thought it very sweet.

Thus, a lot of what DeBoer advocates used to be in place. It's true that the job market has changed, and it is also true that all of a sudden in 1957 we threw huge amounts of money into scientific and technical programs in order to "beat the Russians." I actually owe my ability to get through college and grad school with very little debt due my good fortune in being talented (or at least interested) in such things, but somehow it became the thing that now "everybody" should be learning. Not!

Finally, and separately, just speaking personally, I do agree that not everyone is intellectually gifted, and for the record, I am skeptical of the notion that intellectual ability is genetically linked to race. It can be independent of race while still being genetic at the individual level, as Scott points out. But I also don't think that everyone is artistically gifted, or athletically gifted, or has that "Momma, I wanna sing" impetus. And lots of people are not terribly gifted or even interested in any particular thing. It seems to me that public education should still provide pathways to cater to a broad variety of tastes and hopes.

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There's more to the meritocracy thing...

If I'm getting surgery, I want the best surgical team I can get. I want the surgeon, anesthesiologist, nurses, janitor who sterilizes the operating theater, and all the support staff I don't know about to be excellent at their respective jobs.

But, once I'm off the table and I've paid, I don't actually care how the team divides up the money. It's all quite symmetrical from my perspective: if *any* of them had failed I'd be dead.

But most likely the surgeon and anesthesiologist will receive the lion's share of the money. And also have a disproportionate voice in decisions the team has to make together (e.g. will we schedule an operation on Yom Kippur?). This happens for reasons that mostly boil down to "the surgeon is harder to replace than the janitor".

This seems kind of unfair, though it's a load-bearing unfairness that's tricky to replace. And in less collaborative environments, it seems a lot fairer, though DeBoer might disagree.

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and if two women are allowed to talk about the microwaved burrito, we call it a "Bechdel Burrito Test"

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Freddie is a mensch, but one concern I have with his vision of socialism is that it’s almost exclusively moralistic. The smart people who run society (unlike Scott, I don’t see him as contesting that they would do so) will graciously look after their dumber brethren, because it’s the tight thing to do.

I think Freddie is right that this is morally right, but I’m much less sanguine that 1) morality alone can persuade here or that 2) even well-motivated managerial authority will not be practically malevolent.

What you need is counter-power, which means a mix of organization and indeed intelligence for self-government and pressing for collective rights. You can be an IQ realist and agree that even say IQ 80 people have this, organized rightly, but I feel like the *gist* of much IQ realism is that no, people who perform poorly on these tests must be ruled by others, and that’s why IQ realism leaves a bad taste in most leftists’ mouths. Certainly that’s the takeaway I get from the Bell Curve, even once you take away the spicy race stuff.

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"while spending "as much as $3000 to $4000 less per child per year than their public school counterparts"

I can't speak for Success specifically, but in general:

Funny thing about NYC charter schools is that they are co-located with district schools. At no cost to the charter.

Isn't it amazing that when two schools in the same building get close to the same funding per student, but one has to maintain everything and the other gets a free ride, the free-ride one can spend more on actual students?

And they very much don't share resources. Stories abound of each charter kid having new laptops while district kids *in the same physical school* have to share one old desktop between 3 kids.

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> Still, I worry that the title - The Cult Of Smart - might lead people to think there is a cult surrounding intelligence, when exactly the opposite is true. But I guess The Cult Of Successful At Formal Education sounds less snappy, so whatever.

Not a real problem; people talk about excessive credentialism all the time. "The Cult of Credentials" sounds snappier than "The Cult of Smart" does.

> I would usually defer to expert consensus, but all the studies I can find which try to assess expert consensus seem crazy. A while ago, I freaked out upon finding a study that seemed to show most expert scientists in the field agreed with Murray's thesis in 1987 - about three times as many said the gap was due to a combination of genetics and environment as said it was just environment. Then I freaked out again when I found another study (here is the most recent version, from 2020) showing basically the same thing (about four times as many say it’s a combination of genetics and environment compared to just environment).

If you don't like being slammed for not being willing to talk about your actual thoughts, some explanation of why you think this situation is "crazy" might be warranted. As described, you looked at some old surveys of expert opinion and found broad agreement. And then you looked at some very recent surveys of expert opinion and found even more agreement. And this is "crazy"? Whatever Freddie DeBoer is doing, you appear to be doing it too.

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Schools as prisons is a pretty old trope. People have been trying to revolutionise them into blissful places of natural joy since at least the nineteenth century but all such experiments have failed. The tension is between two aspects of schools you don't like - the fact of bullying and the inability to microwave burritos. It turns out that if you give kids lots of freedom, one thing some of the do with it is bully other kids. One reason many parents like charters - or their UK equivalents - is because behaviour is better and so things like bullying are reduced. How do charters achieve this? More rules, more consistently enforced. If you visited a school like Michaela Community School in London and told the kids there that they were in child prison because of all the rules they had to follow, they would think you had lost the plot.

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I was imprisoned in a Montessori school from preschool through sixth grade. And while I can't directly compare to public schools, I think it was just bad in different ways. The worst part was that with no formal reward/punishment system (i.e. grades, detention) the only motivator was guilt. Maybe they weren't trying to, but the teachers instilled a feeling of constant guilt (mostly about getting distracted and not finishing assignments fast enough) that still haunts me.

I'm told some Montessori schools are better than the one I went to. Actually, I'm told the one I went to has improved a lot--it's bigger and much more professional. But I'm still skeptical of the whole concept.

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> First, universal childcare and pre-K; he freely admits that this will not affect kids' academic abilities one whit, but thinks they're the right thing to do in order to relieve struggling children and families. Second, lower the legal dropout age to 12, so students who aren't getting anything from school don't have to keep banging their heads against it, and so schools don't have to cook the books to pretend they're meeting standards. Third, lower standards for graduation, so that children who realistically aren't smart enough to learn algebra (it's algebra in particular surprisingly often!) can still get through. Fourth, burn all charter schools (he doesn't actually say "burn", but you can tell he fantasizes about it). And fifth, make it so that you no longer need a college degree to succeed in the job market.

You know, other than 4, which is some Harrison Bergeron-level horror, the rest are eminently sensible. Most of it even used to be the norm, barely half a century ago.

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I liked where you went at the end there, great essay. I’ve been meaning to get to this one, and some other related ones (The Tyranny of Merit by Michael Sandel)

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> children and teens naturally follow a different sleep pattern than adults, probably closer to *12 PM to 9 AM* than the average adult's 10 - 7.

I believe this should be "12AM to 9AM"

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> DeBoer recalls hearing an immigrant mother proudly describe her older kid's achievements in math, science, etc, "and then her younger son ran by, and she said, offhand, 'This one, he is maybe not so smart.'"

That reminded me of what Banerjee and Duflo mention in Poor Economics: Poor people in third world tend to do this. Sometimes it's even worded even more roughly ("that one is an idiot"). The authors analyze it differently though. As a coping measure when all that parents can afford is to send just one child to the school. They just write the other kids off as stupid and you don't have to deal with the moral problem.

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A number of rationalists have written essays about the atrocities of school, accompanied with truly horrifying stories of e.g. being yelled at by teachers for reading ahead. After reading these essays, I always end up feeling ... confused.

I went through 13 years of public school and enjoyed all of them. Obviously that's N = 1, so I tried asking around to see what my friends thought of their school, expecting to get a more balanced split between decent experiences and horror stories like those here. On the contrary, basically everyone I know also had a decent experience in school; they're invariably shocked and horrified by stories like these. This has just left me more confused.

Obviously there are strong selection effects here: neither "people I know" nor "famous rationalist bloggers" are very representative samples. But I still feel like there's something more to be explained. Some guesses:

1) People remember the good parts of school more readily than the bad parts. I think this is partly true: the first things I remember from high school are times spent socializing with friends; meanwhile my constant feeling of sleep-deprivation, sometimes from sleeping less than 30 hours in a week, is like the eighth thing I remember.

2) Horrifying things about school seem normal from the inside. This must also be part of it: homework seems annoying but fine, until you really think about how much of your life you've wasted doing it. Same goes for the generalized busywork that fills much of high school.

3) School might be getting better; rationalists bloggers are a little older than my friends, so their memories of school are more negative. This is possible, especially if bullying is getting less common.

Even taking these things into account, I *still* feel like there's more to be explained. The stories rationalist bloggers tell about school, and the negative feelings they report they had towards school while still students, are just so different from anything I've found among people I know. Perhaps there's some reason that rationalists are more likely to have had horrible schoolings?

Overall, I'm still confused.

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Years ago I read the book dedicated to the analysis of the "Head Start" program in Chicago. Unfortunately, I don't remember the name to reference, but the book argued that child's success in school correlated a lot with the fact whether their parents cared about their education, supported that it was important, asked about their day at school etc. Kids who didn't have this support system at home lost all advantage they've initially got by participating in the "Head Start" by third grade.

I don't have a lot of studies to research this further, but my anecdotal evidence indeed shows that poor Asian immigrants and Jewish refugees from USSR managed to raise the kids that went off to get PhDs despite the poverty because kids' education was the family's priority. (But we could also suggest that only the smartest immigrants made it to the US and kids just inherited their IQ.)

However, in our parenting community it seems to be a "common knowledge" that the primary difference between well-performing and low-performing schools is who students' parents are. And parents who care more about their children's education tend to send those kids to charter schools, therefore performing the selection so that the school itself doesn't really need to. These parents will more likely help their kids with homework than blame them for spending time with books instead of fixing dinner. Obviously, rich parents will also have more resources to volunteer, hire tutors and donate to add resources to their school, so this effect is multiplied when the school is located in an affluent community. But selection for motivated parents might skew the results a lot too, and I was surprised to see this was not brought up in the book or the review as a factor to consider.

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Iowa recently passed a "school choice" bill which increases the number of charter schools, and allows for a ~$5,200 voucher for families to spend on private schools. These vouchers would go to bottom 5% ranked school students according to standardized test scores (I think). This has turned into a pretty partisan battle of those for/against, of parental choice versus the fear of removing funding from public schools that are already struggling, and umbrage at public taxes funding private schools. Have you ever heard of similar systems?

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The amount of self-control it must have taken for Scott to not just write “BOOOOO HARRISON BERGERON” and copy-paste it 3000 times is admirable.

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"if we ever figure out how to teach kids things,..."

We... do?

Spacing, interleaving, testing (NOT high stakes, but to utilise the 'testing effect' to *learn*), elaboration of context, (POSSIBLY progressive summarization), deliberate practice, teaching others, and the thing that inspired Bloom's two sigma 'problem' - personal one-on-one teaching (produced the backbone of the Oxbridgite aristocracy of the British Empire, and Dawkins, and a bunch of others!).


(Start here) An interview where Romeo explained a core of these methods, plus how to put them into practice for yourself: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HRkUcbQ639o

For spacing and spaced repetition, which I consider fundamental and a foundation to build on, here are some links that are easier/more immediately actionable, perhaps, or gentler than gwern's excellent and comprehensive overview (in sequence):




A self-consistent and self-implementing, easy to read and implement book about some of these: https://www.amazon.com/gp/aw/d/113856172X

Another one, somewhat more memory oriented: https://www.amazon.com/gp/aw/d/0190214473

One on deliberate practice: https://www.amazon.com/Peak-Secrets-New-Science-Expertise/dp/0544947223/

Teaching others - don't have anything that comes to mind on this, sorry!

Bloom's two sigma/massive effect of one-on-one/personal teaching: just the Wiki article: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bloom%27s_2_sigma_problem

Plus all the highly suggestive accounts that this goes *all the way to the top, and possibly beyond*:


And the anecdotal reports all pointing to this being a thing, plus the *massive* clustering of breakthroughs in 'circles' and 'lineages' if you look at advisor-advisee relationships in the academy of Ph.D.s; did you know that academically lineally, Newton is a descendant of Galileo? Many such cases! (Nearly all of them, actually; most modern math originates in just a few, pretty tight, lineage clusters. Check it out on the Mathematics Genealogy Project if you find it incredible.)

Empirically, this works, too, in 'increasing the level' *wherever you start, even the high end*: http://bentilly.blogspot.com/2009/09/teaching-linear-algebra.html (cribbed from gwern's write-up on SR).

All these are interventions that can be systematized, broken down into chunks that school teachers can easily use them, and made the new 'standard of pedagogy' if we want. We don't, and there's also no 'we', so *shrug* *gestures expansively*... well, *this*, I guess.

All this is IQ mediated, obv, so ability tracking (maybe using adaptive testing, like the GRE, but as an indicative of someone's readiness instead of a test of almost IQ) so that classes happen and concepts are introduced at *just* the right moment for them to hit the sweet spot of difficulty resulting in a 'flow' state for the student to the extent possible. (Ref the flow research by Mihaly C...)

Decouple content from age, break stuff up into chunks you can progress through, gamify it (not demeaningly!), and make learning *not* fixed hours (so instead of dropping out, you progress at the rate at which *your* brain develops, and start working part time at 16/18, BUT that doesn't mean your education has stopped, it just means you do it for far fewer hours but many more years), make vocational education and apprenticeships a thing, and the problem is just fucking solved, for current standards of problem and solved. Still kinda rapey, but at least far less unenjoyable. Not gonna happen unless we build the infra for it, but hey, a man can imagine, right?

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I can say with some certainty that childhood spent playing Civilization 2 is not necessarily a good thing. I spent all my time doing suboptimal-but-cool things in the Fantastic Worlds expansion which seems to be reflected in how the rest of my life turned out.

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I think the most important thing in the whole education quality debate is that children have a stable home and the parents are invested in the best education possible. I am guessing that this is the primary sorting mechanism to the extent that occurs in charter schools.

The difficult thing is effective schooling for children that don’t have those advantages. Whatever we do I think it is highly immoral to try to level down the child that has loving parents to the outcome of the child that does not have parents that love them. That is the enormous moral hazard that Freddie seems willing to accept.

Scott correctly points this out.

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DeBoer seems to accept as default that school is at least acceptable as an experience while Scott's "School is child prison" seems pretty clearly to differ.

Does anyone know where a typical fourth grader or whoever falls on the love - hate spectrum about school?

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> "racial income gaps are not due to differences in income/poverty"

probably a typo

> "The 1% are the Buffetts and Bezoses of the world"

Pet peeve: The 1% (of the USA) are households with incomes over $300k or so. They are successful doctors and lawyers (in certain subfields), successful small business owners, senior management at medium-sized business, and the like, especially when they are dual-income couples. By definition, they are 1 out of 100 households. Billionaires are more like 0.0002%, and "people who are legitimately jockeying for wealthiest in the world" are rarer still.

However, everyone does this conflation.

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Wouldn't it be "The Cult of Formal Educational Success"? :/

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One of the arguments in favor of economic mobility I haven't seen mentioned yet is that even if some jobs are objectively more desirable than others, there's a lot of variation between jobs and a lot of variation between people which means that being able to choose jobs lets people improve their own utility and results in an non-zero sum game.

This of course doesn't fully excuse a high mobility/low equity society but it's still better for outdoorsy types to be able to choose to be loggers while unathletic introverts work data entry, even if both of those jobs are less desirable than being a banker who makes six figures.

A caveat is that economic mobility doesn't exactly capture this dynamic but a society with with strict caste based assignment of jobs is almost certainly going to be less economically mobile than free market society, even one with low economic mobility.

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School is a way to get children away from their parents. Of course children hate it. Parents can't function without it, though.

And dealing with pointless regimen, bullying, and busiwork are essential skills for a modern human. Education is about more than intelligence in whatever way "IQ" supposedly measures, which by the way is a whole can of worms that I suspect, if I opened here, it would attract some unpleasantness.

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I'd love to know more about your opinions on Montessori. We seriously committed to it, moved across town for it and our son attended it from age 3 to 11. In hindsight, the best one-line description of our feelings about Montessori was, "It is an over-reaction to the problems of public education.". I've forgotten who said this, but it seems perfect.

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Freddie's book argues many of the same things I did in 2000 in a five essay series called "How to Help the Left Side of the Bell Curve:"

"Stifling discussion of intelligence differences allows the IQ upper class to quietly push its interests at the expense of the rest of society. Denouncing Arthur Jensen and Charles Murray proclaims your faith in empirical egalitarianism. Then you can ignore the irksome demands of moral egalitarianism. ... Our political discourse is dominated not by a concern for the needs of the American people as a whole, but by the self-interest and unexamined assumptions of the verbally facile."


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Outstanding rant on the child prison. I agree--I send my kids to Montessori school! I would check out the work of Prof Angeline Lillard at UVa, who has done actual honest-to-god RFTs on Montessori charters and they show a real step-up. You can also download a PDF of the first chapter of her book, which includes a great history of how child-prison was conceived in the 19th century as a direct analogue of the factory.

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"The kid will still have to spend ten hours of his day toiling in a terrible environment, but at least they’ll get some pocket money! At least their boss can't tell them to keep working off the clock under the guise of "homework"!"

And I'm betting that, on their breaks, the child laborers will be allowed to microwave a fucking burrito without asking fucking permission (facilities permitting).

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My biggest issue with DeBoer's principle argument is that it's based on this thesis of "if everyone has a different natural intelligence then not everyone can go to college/get post-secondary education/can have a non-Labor centered career". There's literally zero sensible reason to think this is true. He uses algebra as an example of a thing some people just can't do, but is that actually true? Look at a different example: reading. Everyone has a different innate ability to read, but despite of that basically every single person that can either see or feel can learn to read (and basically everyone in America CAN read). He at no point establishes what the level of intelligence needed to get post-secondary education is and at no point establishes what the distribution of human intelligence is, both of which are needed for his primary anti-meritocracy argument to make any sense at all. I mean if you need an IQ of 110 to be a good doctor or lawyer or researcher then ya those fields are essentially off-limits to some 75% of people, but what if you only need an 80? Then more than 75% of people CAN do it. What that cutoff is super matters here, and without it the book is just a kind of defeatist speculation.

This doesn't even touch the fact that "intelligence" is not a singular trait but instead a series of different "intelligences" for a variety of subjects and fields. The chances that the cutoff for what we'd view as a "good" career are so high for every field or that someone is low enough intelligence in every field for there to be any more than a really small number of people who are destined at birth to be cashiers seems insanely unlikely.

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It would be nice if Scott could review some Adam Tooze. It's not quite up his alley, but Tooze (bleeding Marxist though he may be) has a lot of interesting things to say on the economics of the Second World War, the interwar period, and the recent global financial crisis.

It may also help with how ACX frames history and economic policy in general.

Henry Kissinger has excellent stuff too.

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I much enjoyed this; though largely because it confirmed my priors. Several years ago the parents of about half of our youngest son's 4th grade class were summoned for a meeting with the teacher at our private school. There the teacher and principal informed us that sadly our kids regularly failed to obey. While the others sat quietly while the teacher spoke ours were often fidgeting and getting up and wondering about looking in this box or on that shelf. They recommended Ritalin for all of them. It would, they assured us, make everyone much calmer and more amenable to schooling.

We've homeschooled ever since. Save mindless TV watching we've encouraged their interests. One is good at math (we finished algebra II before he was 13) and the other found R and GitHub and is curiously interested in modeling, investing and Civilization V. Best of all they're happy.

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"I turned out okay!" is one of those statements that is almost always self-refuting, as I've come to learn when I feel the need to utter it myself. At best it is an aspiration, something akin to the serenity prayer. As you allude to, the US public school system in the 90's and early 2000's hardly let anyone "turn out okay", you and me very much included, regardless of what successes or failures we have achieved in the years since our respective escapes.

The entire conception of school is fundamentally flawed. Theoretically it's supposed to instil knowledge, or better yet skills for acquiring knowledge. In reality, however, it is a ruthless social experiment where kids basically teach themselves how to navigate hierarchies, where the most valuable lessons occur in the hallways and the playgrounds instead of the classroom. That sort of education actually has its place, but as it's informal and unregulated, it does maximum damage to everyone (including the people who excel at it).

The pandemic has cracked the door to alternatives to the false assumptions of school. A more radical approach can follow, where kids spend half the day learning facts (and more importantly acquiring the skills to learn more) in very small modules, if not individually, from home through their computers; they can then spend the rest of the day gathered together in (slightly) larger groups for (lightly) supervised and (gently) guided social activity, where they more explicitly learn the useful skills of navigating society.

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Great review, Scott. I'm especially delighted that you have so forcefully expressed something I felt intensely as a child: that school had its occasional good moments, but mostly it was about depriving me of my freedom.

I also continue to be enraged and baffled about why we insist on ignoring the innate sleep cycles of kids in setting school hours. The result for me was 12 years of misery; yes, first grade through high school, ending only when I got to college and could pick my own hours.

Your clear distinction of intelligence and success at formal education is crucial. It’s something I’ve long felt without always articulating explicitly. Some teachers get this in the form of “everyone learns differently,” yet despite the fact that this observation has been around long enough to become a cliche, school systems rarely take it into account.

I going to have to think some more about DeBoer's critique of meritocracy. I found your surgery example counter argument convincing, but there's a fairness angle to DeBoer's idea with a sneaky appeal, even if we probably can't realize such a utopian state of affairs short of the post-scarcity society posited in Banks's Culture series.

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This book sounds extremely similar to Michael Sandel's The Tyranny of Merit. Sandel also sees a meritocracy as conferring some moral value on those who participate which he finds unfair because of genetic differences (among others), which then results in a gated class relying on universities to keep out the unwashed masses. He neatly side-steps the whole matter of IQ though and as such doesn't feel the need to tie himself into knots explaining whether or not group-level IQ differences exist or are allowed to.

I had a hard time wrapping my head around this view too, since every time Sandel introduced morality into meritocracy, I couldn't help but think that it didn't belong there and wasn't relevant to the concept of a meritocracy. In the end I have somewhat settled on the suspicion that, consciously or not, the argument rests on a certain ambiguity with regards to words like 'merit', 'desert' and 'value'. I personally agree more with the way Scott framed the issue when he was removing 'desert' from the argument.

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There's a lot more to the whole meritocracy concept than either your gloss of de Boer's understanding (that Society straightforwardly hands rewards to people who do well in school because they are Better) or your own explanation (that people individually allocate rewards based straightforwardly on competence, resulting in rewards for intelligence).

One of the first authors to use the term, Michael Young, used it to describe a system in which political power accrued to those with perceived merit. The mechanism for this is simple and plausible: merit -> financial rewards -> political influence. Perhaps this is not a bad system on its face, but then you have to consider how its outputs (financial rewards and political influence) impact its inputs (merit - or more accurately, perception of merit). In other words, if I can pay for my kids to get credentials, and many/most people determine merit based on credentials, then what you have is a cycle in which credentials -> financial rewards -> political influence -> credentials. This cycle is obviously easily corruptible and will be rife with nepotism, cronyism, fraud, etc.

Alternatively, perhaps perception of merit comes not from credentials but from identity - given a choice between two surgeons, maybe I pick the white man because he just seems more competent, somehow, in a way I can't quite put my finger on. Maybe I pick the American because she speaks English at a native fluency, but the Indian immigrant surgeon is actually a better surgeon. Perhaps a little girl's perception of her *own* merit is influenced by stereotypes such as the idea that girls are bad at math, and so she never becomes a surgeon because she was too intimidated to take an organic chemistry class or a statistics class as a prerequisite. Maybe I pick the Jewish lawyer because he just seems more... lawyerly. Maybe I pick the programmer with a better "cultural fit" because he laughed at my Star Trek joke during the job interview, but the programmer who grew up in a different cultural milieu would be better at the actual job. Etc.

de Boer surely has this conceptual framework in mind when he writes something like "no matter the criteria and regardless of the accuracy of the system contrived to measure it" - and I expect he also expects his readers, at least on the left, to be familiar with it as well. I think he's wrong to gloss over the implementation problems in "meritocracy" because that is where the whole concept starts to fall apart a bit. That's where you get a lot of the structural/cyclical inequalities from - especially once those with "merit" create their own standards for what counts as "merit" and their biases (perhaps inadvertently) influence those standards.

There's another problem where the merit->financial rewards formulation is somehow reversed in people's minds such that they come to believe that the possession of financial resources and political influence is an *indicator* of merit. In other words, if money accrues to the best surgeons, then when you see a rich surgeon, you assume he is very good at his job. I don't think I need to point out the flaws in this thinking, but I do need to point out that it is just ridiculously widespread and completely pervades almost every public discussion about the distribution of power and wealth in society. In particular, this reverse formulation (which many authors call the "myth of meritocracy") lets people argue things like "taxing wealth is equivalent to punishing success" - the implication is that wealth comes about *only* or perhaps *primarily* as a consequence of merit, and not, e.g. inheritance, rent-seeking, luck, or fraudulent/exploitative practices. Obviously the question of how much of wealth is actually due to merit, and how much due to corruption/luck/etc., is important for determining how much socialism and how much unfettered capitalism we should have in a society. de Boer takes the extreme position and says "even merit is actually luck" but I think in order to understand this extreme position you need to acknowledge the context of what it is extreme in comparison to - the conceptual framework that de Boer is in dialogue with when he says he rejects meritocracy. He's not so much rejecting your conception of meritocracy (the idea of rewarding merit) as he is rejecting the framework in which it would be fair to have a ruling class whose membership was based on criteria like "being really good at surgery" if those criteria were applied fairly and objectively, rather than corruptly and subjectively.

Tied up in this "myth of meritocracy" idea is the related argument that reducing financial rewards for merit will somehow discourage people from being meritorious - that is, if you don't make the best surgeons rich, they'll decide (perhaps subconsciously) there's no point in being good at surgery anymore. I may not be doing this argument justice, but thinkers like Rawls have argued relatively convincingly that some level of inequality is necessary to incentivize merit, otherwise (my example, not Rawls') future surgeons will just sit around all day watching TikTok rather than studying hard to get into the best medical schools. I think there's something to this, but of course the question becomes one of tradeoffs - how much inequality are we willing to tolerate in order to motivate people to excel - and implementation - how vulnerable is the incentive/signaling system to corruption. Which brings me back to why I think deBoer should address the particular historical implementation problems of meritocracy rather than attacking the concept. But again, for a leftist audience, maybe he doesn't have to.

But to backtrack a bit and defend deBoer's thesis: even if meritocracy did only produce a system where good surgeons got more money, and this system did not become corrupt or lead to situations like a system of licensing which excludes perfectly good doctors trained in other countries during a time when there is a shortage of licensed doctors, and the system did not lead to the situation where going to an elite college increases your odds of gaining political power and influence - it would still be the case that people at this point in time seem to respect a good surgeon more than they respect a good plumber, that parents will want their children to become surgeons rather than plumbers, etc., and since sanitation arguably saves many more lives than surgery (at least in part because surgery without running water would be dangerous) there is an argument to be made that society needs plumbers at least as much as it needs surgeons and so there is no reason in principle why we should respect surgeons more than plumbers. So this sort of brings us back around to the "cult of smart" - if you think, as I do, that the reason surgery is a higher-status occupation than plumbing is because it's implicitly more intellectual and our society codes intellectual work as higher-status by default. And I agree with de Boer that this might not be very fair - giving smarter people more money might be a necessary measure to get them to do things like endure four years of residency, but do we also need to give them more status, and more respect, and more political power, and generally assume that they are more worthy as human beings? Probably not. And we need to acknowledge that a relatively wealthy kid will have an easier time at things like residency because they'll have a better support network, better nutrition, etc. etc. etc. and so, perhaps, although we can call the output "merit" (i.e. if you're actually a good surgeon, you have merit) perhaps we need to be careful about calling the input "merit" (i.e. did you get to be a good surgeon because you are Better or because you had genetic/environmental advantages - or, rather, to the extent that they amount to the same thing, do we want to describe those advantages as "merit" or "privilege"?).

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I agree with your "school is prison" hypothesis, but I think you're missing the obvious, it's prison because some kids need a prison...kids are stupid, and violent, and by the time they reach 12 large and agile enough to murder someone with ease.

Schools seem at least in part design to handle this aggression. More select schools handle this by never selecting the very aggressive children. But some schools will always have to be prisons. But maybe I'm missing something? Historically this wasn't the case, but historically 100% schooling wasn't the case, and moving to 100% schooling seems to always come with moving to a prison system of schooling.

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I read Scott's warning: "I try to review books in an unbiased way, without letting myself succumb to fits of emotion. So be warned: I'm going to fail with this one."

I peer down the paragraph and see Scott descend into a capitalized fit over bathroom passes lmao

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"He could have written a chapter about race that reinforced this message."

I get the impression you think this is a contradiction? I understood what you represented to be something like someone arguing that the monarchy is illigitimate and terrible and dumb, and then arguing that -- I dunno -- the Jordanian royal family are not living up to their responsibilities as monarchs. There's no contradiction here: I'm saying the whole system is dumb, but I'm saying that this is compounded in this case by the fact that the system is not living up to its own success-modes (for what they are) by the Jordanian royal family not caring about their subjects as they should.

So he's saying that valuing people based on their intelligence is bad. But highlights the special case of race to say that there is more going on in this case which makes it even worse?

"white supremacy touches on so many aspects of American life that it's irresponsible to believe we have adequately controlled for it"

I don't know if this is true for this issue. I feel I can't explore it without causing explosions. But there are similar-sounding things I believe that mean I'd rather not just dismiss this.

"Then he goes on to, at great length, denounce as loathsome and villainous anyone who might suspect these gaps of being genetic."

So... is there any chance that -- for him --this is similar to the case where one feels very uncomfortable when somebody starts a rant about how many of such-and-such-a-race are in the media or banking? Ideally I'd like to meet this and every other comment with an open mind and take it for what it is -- but I really struggle in this case because the probability is so high that it is not a coincidence this this a malicious trope (whether or not the person saying it is oblivious or not)?

"Some people wrote me to complain that I handled this in a cowardly way"

"But that's kind of cowardly too"

I'm literally only replying to this because I remember a post a while back where you posted all these nasty comments people had written about you over the years, and I felt sad for you taking this stuff to heart.

So in-case it helps purge your heart of this sentiment: /not/ holding an opinion is not cowardly -- not /wanting/ to hold an opinion is not cowardly -- being cognizant and sensitive around an issue is not cowardly -- people aren't entitled to your pleas for leave to just leave an issue alone or not feel like investing time in it. I didn't read your bell curve comment and think cowardly: I thought it was a sensible clarification with wisely chosen words that defended your declared distance from this issue. It was a great example of how an unaligned person can respond to an allegation they're aligned one with, without it somehow turning into being defacto opposite aligned.

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"I will ban anyone"

Out of interest, how does banning work on this platform? I don't recall ever logging in or creating an account. I was wondering about this because I was never sure how much banning was core to keeping the comments interesting on SSC, or how much it was that triggering things in these essays seem to generally follow 1000 calming things? Do you understand?

Is it IP based? The IP this site sees I share with a LOT of people.

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I get to disagree with Scott for once!

1. His school criticism doesn’t make sense in context — Freddie suggests more pre-K and after school programs and Scott responds with GOING TO CLASS IS PRISON. I get he has an axe to grind but not sure why he did it here. I loved after school daycare as a good social setting that was more fun than either class or home. If not all schools have them I think that sucks.

2. Scott is speaking from a statistically rare position as the kid who wanted to learn on his own instead of being in class. The vast majority of kids aren’t that intellectually curious naturally, and of the ones that are, many (like myself) aren’t motivated enough to learn without authority saying we have to. Scott’s dream society would work very well for him and imo drastically underserve almost everyone else.

3. That said I agree there are many ways to make school less terrible (like bathroom freedom, looser requirements when a kid is just bad at something, more life advice classes) that we should pursue, probably through charters since they’re easier to experiment with.

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Where I live, my kids love after-school day care. The state school day-care teachers are young and fun and get the kids doing loads of activities. But much of this depends on the age of those day-care teachers. My eldest son, went to a different school that had old ladies as day-care teachers who just sat there and talked while the kids played with wooden blocks day in, day out. I wonder whether (like the UK's Marks and Spencers and some airlines) those young and fun day-care teachers will become the jaded old ladies and and change the institution back to boring because you can't replace them back with young and fun because that's ageist. Maybe more schools should employ former students as day-care teacher for fixed-term-only contracts and as great way to offer part-time work experience once you've left school.

Where I live, most children go to after-school care and a very high percentage of mothers work full-time jobs.

I also wonder how much American children are damaged by the US' litigious culture in that any possible fun/adventurous activities for children are disallowed because the risk of getting sued.

Also is bullying still such a big thing as it was in the 70s, 80s and maybe 90s? From what I've online (Reddit, etc.) children are much nicer these days and the stereotypical movie bully just doesn't really exist. I may be wrong. I guess kids will always be cruel.

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"Society obsessively denies that IQ can possibly matter."

You say "society" but you only mention a narrow set of progressive critics. But look at pop culture! The innate genius is an extremely common and positive character type, the basis of some of the most successful TV shows ever. And of course many elite institutions are still gated by tests that weigh heavily on intelligence, even as some on the left are trying to change this.

I think Mensa loses respect for being ostentatious. IQ, like wealth, is highly valued, but classy people are subtle about it.

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Just as clue, I believe that the prevalence of anxiety dreams about school are a strong indicator that there's something wrong with school.

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I am really intrigued by what you make of Proust's saying (rough translation of the first sentence of his essay "Contre Saint-Beuve"): "Everyday i attach a lesser price to intelligence".

Or Tolstoys:

"I know that most men—not only those considered clever, but even those who are very clever, and capable of understanding most difficult scientific, mathematical, or philosophic problems—can very seldom discern even the simplest and most obvious truth if it be such as to oblige them to admit the falsity of conclusions they have formed, perhaps with much difficulty—conclusions of which they are proud, which they have taught to others, and on which they have built their lives."

I haven't read De Boer's book yet, but if his whole point includes an issue with the business of defining smarts by the certified smarts (which is a good business model, but comes with a price) he would seem to have a point.

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I agree with Scott wholeheartedly about school. I did a phd in a physical science, and this process is notorious for being terrible in all kinds of ways. All of those things that are said about it are correct. Even still, if I had to choose between doing the phd over again and doing elementary school over again, I would choose the phd easily.

I laugh at the indignation over schools closed because of covid. People are talking like the kids are somehow being harmed by this, as if school actually taught people something rather than just wasting their time and abusing them. People say that school gets kids away from abusive parents, but I bet for each kid that is abused at home, there's at least one other kid who is abused at school.

I do think that a big part of what people are pissed about is that they have to work and thus can't look after their kids. School solved this problem, and now that they're closed it's come back. I'll grant that this is an issue, but maybe society shouldn't be structured in such a way that parent's don't have the time to care for their own children. Just a thought.

I know I'm ranting here. and it's late and I should go to bed, but I did have to get in my school is worse than useless rant when I read this article.

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"everyone gains by having more competent people in top positions, whether it's a surgeon who can operate more safely, an economist who can more effectively prevent recessions, or a scientist who can discover more new cures for diseases. Social mobility allows people to be sorted into the positions they are most competent for, and increases the general competence level of society."

I think that there is a hidden assumption here that "top" positions are more important than "non-top" positions. There is a robust argument for square-peg-in-square-hole allocation for jobs and other positions (ie putting people in "the positions they are most competent for", as you put it). But that only works if you assume the absence of a general factor of intelligence (ie people who are good at one thing are no more likely to be good at another than anyone else) and the fundamental thesis of both the book and this review is that there is a general factor of intelligence.

If there is a general factor of intelligence then the people with more of it will be better at almost any job they do. This means that jobs that concentrate lots of those people will be done well; jobs that don't, will not be done well (to the extent that those jobs require intelligence). Obviously it's true that you want a better surgeon than a worse surgeon, but at the level of societal allocation, to the degree that general intelligence matters (and no-one argues that there isn't some specialisation of aptitude), having that better surgeon means that you have a worse person doing whatever that better surgeon isn't doing because they became a surgeon.

The not-so-hidden assumption is that some jobs are more important than others and that we can safely allocate higher intelligence people to those important jobs and lower intelligence people to other, less important jobs.

The really hidden assumption is that the allocation system we currently have for doing so (pay) is actually usefully correlated with the more important jobs. I think that is something that Freddie De Boer, being a Marxist, assumes is not true without consideration, and that Scott Alexander, being a liberal/capitalist, assumes is true without consideration.

I think it's a question that needs to be answered. Both the question of whether the market does a good job of evaluating the relative value of jobs and the even deeper challenge of whether there is any mechanism that is capable of evaluating that.

It is obviously the case that having a more intelligent person working at McDonald's means that customers get their orders screwed up less often. They may be able to innovate better flow mechanisms that result in people being served faster. That is a benefit. I think it's not as big a benefit as having a better surgeon, but I wouldn't know where to start at proving it, especially proving it to someone who doesn't accept financial valuations as having any moral significance.

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I appreciate the review, and share many of your criticisms. In particular, the rant about schools at the end was--is soothing an odd word to use to describe an angry rant about school being prison-like? Perhaps, but it was soothing nonetheless. As a kid, I kicked perpetually against everything I found facing me in the school system, and when deBoer finished his book describing his paradise of everyone attending public schools with no alternatives, forever, I was almost ready to take up arms against the vision.

I've provided my own take on the book before, but it fits here nicely, so I'll repeat it once more:

Before The Cult of Smart was released, I was writing rapturous praises of it, with language like "he is by a long shot the single clearest thinker in the education discussion." I have been anticipating the book from the first moment I heard of it, eagerly ordered it well in advance of its release, and stayed up until I should have been waking up to finish it the first day I got it. My copy is littered with emphatically felt marginal notes and highlighting.

With all that buildup, it's almost inevitable, perhaps, for there to be some sort of letdown. But did it have to be quite so dramatic?

The core disappointment, I think, came in reading his book after listening to him talk about it. He frontloads all the most cogent, valuable points into the podcast, then fills the rest with self-conscious reassertions of his progressive values and, in what was surely the low point of the book, a seven-page boilerplate argument for Medicare for All that could have been lifted straight out of Bernie 2020 campaign material. I came for his insights on education, and left feeling like he never quite dove into it as far and as concretely as I had hoped, while spending altogether too much energy on routine ideological arguments that have already seen a thousand thousand repetitions.

It is an intensely political book, and a book that wants to be two things at once. On the one hand, you read a leftist pleading with others on his team to internalize the weight of realizing the insistent, inconvenient fact of varying academic talent. On the other, you read an evangelist, eager to convert others to his team. This might prove beneficial in the end, because the same shibboleths and diversions that so frustrated me may successfully serve his goal of making his critical message about varying aptitudes palatable to those who share his politics and dislike my own, something much more important than my own enjoyment of the book. It put a damper on things, though. It is a work I can wrestle productively with, but not one I can endorse.

In the end, deBoer does indeed shatter a myth, though at least for me not the myth he was aiming to shatter. No, the one he consigns to oblivion is the myth that a part of me always yearns to believe: that if you could just show somebody the right data, if you could just build enough of a shared understanding, you would arrive inexorably at the same conclusions. The shared understanding is there. To his credit, I never feel as if I am occupying a different world to him when he presents his factual case. He is thorough and honest. It's this that really lays the values gap bare. He shares point after point that I nod eagerly along to, all building up to what I would describe as the book's true thesis:

If we all came together and acknowledged the innate, intractable gaps that exist in people's academic potential, everyone could finally agree that Marxists have been correct about everything this whole time.

This is not an uncommon thesis to find in this genre. He shares that distinction with Charles Murray in The Bell Curve and Bryan Caplan in The Case Against Education ("If we all came together and acknowledged the innate, intractable gaps that exist in people's academic potential, everyone could finally agree that libertarians have been correct about everything this whole time"). It is frustrating nonetheless, and leaves the book a shadow of what it could have been.

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[Content warning: rambling thoughts; I have not yet read the comments]

I do not agree with a crucial piece of the argument and, as far as I can tell, Scott endorses the argument at least implicitly.

I do not think society at large values intelligence above all else. At the very most Scott and DeBoer do. As far as I can tell, the only thing that distinguishes intellectual endeavours from others is that the curve of reward vs achievement is much less tail heavy.

Let me try to clarify what I mean by that a bit.

If you look at a graph representing average income of football players by the percentile they land in, I expect the graph to look roughly even till it explodes at the tail end, skyrocketing to millions of $.

What would the equivalent graph look like for accountants? I expect it to be on average higher (ie. that the average accountant earns more than the average football player), except with the blow up on the tail being much much smaller.

That is my intuition about this anyhow.

That does not mean that society values intelligence higher than other qualities. In fact, I'd argue the opposite — collectively humanity values great football players much much much more than great scientists (even though the latter arguably contribute more to the well-being of humanity). Heck, we even value extremely good looking people (or charismatic people) than smart people considering how much the top actors earn, and how much attention and undue credence is given to various celebrities (note: we == humanity at large, you personally might have different values). Unless there are some magical schools of acting that bestow the ability to sway crowds to their alumni, all these qualities are equally arbitrary as skill at manipulating algebraic terms.

Likewise, people focusing on sending their offspring to best possible schools is not inconsistent with that model — if my child is not extremely gifted at kicking balls, I expect his prospects to be better if he *doesn't* become a footballer, since I doubt any ball kicking school will push him to the tail end of the relevant distribution. However, if the school makes him slightly better at accountancy career, that is a straight up boon (and it is irrelevant whether the improvement is from being a better accountant, or being able to signal quality from graduating the "best" accountancy school around).

My prior on "society values intelligence above all else" is quite low. Nothing in the article so far has convinced me otherwise.

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Let us not be naïve. The die has recently been cast. Brazil's future is America's future. If the self-coup fails, then the world might have a new birth of freedom, but, if it succeeds, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. Therefore, send not to know for whom Brazilians are fighting. They are fighting for us.

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Have you considered that maybe you are suffering from a bad case of typical mind fallacy in your opinion on schools ? I don't think the average child experience is as bad as you make it happen, and I don't think the average child would do as well as you without school.

Just to give an opposite data point: I loved my school time from the beginning to the end (not saying there were no bad or boring moments but overall highly positive), and I am very confident that I would be less intelligent, less scientifically inclined and less socialised if I had been homeschooled.

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Saying "school is a prison for children" is like saying "police is legalized murder". Technically, this is true, but only in the same way as "Dorothy kills the first person she meets, then assembles a gang to kill again". It's not the whole truth.

Not every parent is a qualified surgeon, which is why parents must sometimes place their children's very lives in the hands of medical professionals. Similarly, not every parent is a competent teacher, nor is every child capable of productive self-study. Khan Academy videos are great, but they're no substitute for guided instruction, especially for children who are not geniuses. This is why parents must sometimes place their children's education in the hands of qualified professionals. And yes, it would be nice if every parent could afford a couple personal tutors for their child, but, well, most cannot.

As it happens, public schools in the US are pretty bad; similarly, policemen sometimes kill innocent people for no reason (or, arguably, for race-motivated reasons, which is even worse). But that's not a good reason to abolish the police altogether, because the negative consequences will overwhelm the positives. The same applies to schools.

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I'd love to read a post on schooling (decoupled from a book review) if it doesn't exist yet. I went to kind-of-charter-school (I think, I'm outside U.S and it doesn't look to be 1:1 equivalent) which was religious and suffered from most of the same issues as public ones here.

Also, what is bathroom pass? Google doesn't really seem helpful.

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The bit about school as school prison really rings true to me; I remember substituting at the elite private school of my area and just immediately being disgusted by the environment and especially the quiet servility. It instantly made me never want to be a teacher ever again

I think 16 and 17 year olds are the new women; they have a whole wide range right violations predicated on exaggerated notions of their biochemistry making them stupider (notions that if applied to adult disabled or even the old would be considered extremely offensive). It's a similar situation with younger children, but also different because the younger you go the more true claims about you being too stupid to make decisions on your own

The tricky and uncomfortable yet very fascinating question when it comes to children's rights id contract law and sexual consent. My gut reaction is allow much more contract law but keep sexual consent with an adult laws at 17 or 18.

Yet I look at austria sexual consent laws or even the old NL consent laws (15) and I have to admit 15 or 16 doesn't seem wildly immoral to me either.

Japan sexual consent laws seen much to low and very strange that it's not talked about.

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Some societies don't value intelligence as moral worth much and seem as a result to be more open to using IQ in the educational system, netherlands and germany comes to mind.

They have the least bad education systems imho, and NL had the happiest children.

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Concerning your confusion on meritocracy criticism. A useful distinction here might be between desert and entitlement. Someone who wins the lottery is entitled to their millions but we'd hardly say they deserved it or if I over-pay someone to do something, say 100k to dig a small hole, then they're likewise entitled to it but hardly deserve it. As you note, it may be best (for reasons of liberty or maximising utility) to arrange society with a system like capitalism whereby people will tend to choose to reward others based on their productivity (though this is not ofc guaranteed) even if that productivity isn't deserved or even if sometimes people do so for wholly subjective reasons unrelated to productivity. You say this system is what meritocracy is.

A lot of criticisms of capitalism or even just a given society on "meritocratic" grounds says people who do making money or advance in society don't deserve it. The most obvious meritocratic stance is "equality of opportunity" whereby you say that, while in the final distribution person A is more productive than person B, this is only because A was given unfair advantages in education, opportunities etc. compared with B. This is normally seen as the argument for meritocracy and a lot of societal criticism and reform is based on this idea - that they don't merit or deserve the income or productivity they've attained. But if we take your model of meritocracy, there can't be any objection re. A or B.

Now, I agree your approach is correct but I think the term meritocracy is usually seen to relate to this (thick) sense of equality of opportunity (as opposed to say a weak one of just letting anyone apply for a given opportunity) and many people and much politics is spent questioning the idea of who deserves to have become productive, not that we should chose productive people per se.

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A mishmash of thoughts in response:

1. Amen, amen to the idea that meritocracy (that is, benefits accruing to the intelligent and capable) is just a thing that emerges from situations in which people have the freedom to choose. It’s efficient!

2. Trying to prevent meritocracy leads to bad, weird outcomes, especially for the poor whom DeBoer wants to help. A Venezuelan acquaintance (émigré, lawyer, from a rich family) was telling me about how Chavez tried to widen opportunity by creating his own chain of professional schools. These took in poor students and churned out doctors and lawyers after three-week-long courses. These people were not capable lawyers or doctors, obviously, but various other Bolivarian social programs swallowed them up and deployed them around the country to serve the pueblo. Whom did this scheme harm? The poor, who couldn’t afford to avoid the fake doctors.

3. This article (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/15/magazine/white-fragility-robin-diangelo.html) quoted some anti-racist trainers who also want to undermine meritocracy. One of them talks about how law firms should try to hire compassionate people. But then, “Ron Ferguson, a Black economist, faculty member at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and director of Harvard’s Achievement Gap Initiative, is a political liberal who gets impatient with such thinking about conventional standards and qualifications. ‘The cost,’ he told me in January, ‘is underemphasizing excellence and performance and the need to develop competitive prowess.’”

4. Tangential and just conjecture, but: I sometimes wonder if meritocracy (benefits accruing to the capable, unimpeded by human constraints like sexism) itself isn’t responsible for the (maybe illusory?) decline in the quality of American education. In the Bad Old Days, it was much harder for women to become surgeons and rocket scientists, or whatever. Now it isn’t as hard. The very smart women who would have been stuck being teachers or nurses in 1950 are now likelier to be surgeons and rocket scientists.

5. Another spicy-but-unverifiable claim: meritocracy probably feels more unjust now that we mate assortatively. It looks more like inherited, class-based benefit, which it probably partially is, but it’s also because smart men marry smart women now, and they have smart children.

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I mean, I think the great debate about intelligence determining your value as a human being might be a short lived thing regardless purely because of AI. Strength used to determine your value as a human being too, but then we automated all the STR jobs.

Silicon Valley is automating all the INT jobs right now, and when that's done in a decade or two we might be having giant arguments about how CHA or WIS determines your value as a human being.

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This review feels half-finished. Like, you got so worked up about the charter schools and compulsory education thing you didn't have the energy to properly discuss the more core idea of the book. Which is - after we have done exhausted every possible educational intervention and the dust has settled, there will still be winners and losers - based on innate ability.

Is it psychologically realistic to completely decouple the sense of one's worth from intelligence/educational achievement? What would the society look like in this scenario? Can we significantly diminish the rewards to talent without completely destroying the incentives that compel people to do socially useful work?

I hope you can spend more time on those questions in another post.

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"Universal school": orphanages for everyone! I think it's a leftover from High Modernism.

About a hundred years ago, any look at trends in the organization of society would find what I call the disassembly of the home. Before the Industrial Revolution, people mostly worked at home (be that a farm or a workshop attached to the house), mostly gave birth at home, mostly received medical care at home, cooked and ate at home, etc. In cities, artisans sold their wares from the streetfront room, too.

The Industrial Revolution separated these functions, creating specialized factories, hospitals, shopping venues, etc. because this enabled stunning gains in efficiency. Extrapolate this, to scry what the far-off future of the mid-20th century may hold, and the obvious prediction is that more and more functions will leave the "home" until it's literally a dormitory. To the extent children are not a good fit for a dormitory-for-adults, or one happened to pick an ontology where childcare is a separate function, the logical consequence is that all children are to be raised in what are basically orphanages.

As a matter of cognition, this is the sin of mentally setting variances to zero. Sure, if all people (or all "normal" people, there being discrete internally-homogeneous categories of variously "broken"/"insane" people) were in fact identical, something of this sort might even work. To be very charitable, the effort to approximate such a state of affairs was a resounding success in the physical industries. The huge expenditure on standards organizations, metrology, quality control, mechanization, etc. did in fact make parts exchangeable! Professional education and certification is but a pale shadow, comparatively, and at a time before individual genetic variance was understood (instead society was just shaking off a religion which very much taught that people are spiritually exchangeable, "soul" and "free will" and all), it was a reasonable mistake to assume that society could be reorganized on similar principles.

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This reinforces my belief that leftist tend to be very good at discovering and describing problems, but tend to be bad at finding effective solutions.

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I realize I'm risking a ban by commenting on that section, but I'm not gonna say anything about race and IQ.

However, you were begging for evidence to change your mind? What? How is that good practice? Unless you do that in both directions, on all occasions, you're going to end up with biased conclusions!

There is always evidence for both sides of a controversy! You can't decide which conclusion you want to arrive at a priori, then specifically seek out evidence that supports it!

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I like to think of it in terms of power. What one believes they are capable of heavily determines what they can accomplish. And also what they are *allowed* to accomplish by the system (resources/laws/etc.) In the current educational system both are being actively repressed. What, how, where, when children learn is decided mostly by politicians and administrators. Children have no say. Parents have little. Teachers have a small amount of power. Administrators have more but are still heavily constrained. So what are we all learning? That our voices don't matter, what we want isn't important, from a very very early age. We learn the opposite of democracy from a very young age and then are surprised when our "democratic" society has turned into a corporate oligarchy. There have been many many experiments in small democratic schools, where children have a voice in what they learn and how. Where if a child isn't happy and engaged by school it is considered a failure. But these haven't been widely adopted. Why? I agree with Freddie deBoer that there is a cult of "smart" or a cult of intelligence that is a little bit sociopathic that can optimize success in our current competitive culture and economy. Everyone wants their children to succeed. Success in our world, in our economy, is correlated with success in a public school system that rewards a very specific type of intelligence, compliance to status quo, deference to power and the systems that support that power. So it's rational for parents, educators, and politicians to think that trying to enforce more compliance will lead to more success. That's not the kind of world I want to live in though, and I would love to see little community based schools, where students, parents, educators are empowered by the system to search out their talents and interests and recognize they can have a say in shaping the world around them and our collective future.