Should We Rethink Our Notion of Who is ‘Smart’?

People who happen to be good at school and college are often described as ‘smart,’ and our systems tend to reward them with cultural status and good jobs. But what if the key to expanding educational access comes down to rethinking our concept of smarts and who has them?

That’s the argument made by scholar and author Freddie deBoer in his book, “The Cult of Smart: How Our Broken Education System Perpetuates Social Injustice.”

deBoer has taught in both the K-12 and college setting, and he has served as an academic assessment manager at a college. These days he’s often weighing in on education policy issues in his personal newsletter.

He argues that public discussions of education too often center on what he sees as a “crisis narrative” that schools in the U.S. are losing pace with those of other nations and need significant reform. He traces that viewpoint back to the 1983 government report, “A Nation at Risk,” which he says coincided with a decline in manufacturing jobs in the U.S. along with other options for obtaining a middle-class wage without a college degree, putting more pressure on the education system.

“That’s where the sort of cultural push to send everyone to college comes from,” he says, adding that before that, “it was not necessarily assumed that every bright young person was going to go to college—college was a minority track even for people who were considered academically successful just a few decades ago.”

EdSurge connected with deBoer this month to hear his ideas, big and small, for how to move to a system that rewards different types of abilities.

Listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever you listen to podcasts, or use the player on this page. Or read a partial transcript below, lightly edited for clarity.

EdSurge: What do you see as flawed about our narrative around smarts?

Freddie deBoer: It would not disturb us to hear a parent describe their child as not having a facility for the arts—not having the artistic touch. It would not disturb us to have a parent say of their child that they don’t have an ear for music. It would not disturb us to hear a parent say of a child that they are not good at sports. It does, however, tend to disturb people very much if they say that they think that their child is not smart.

In other words, there are all kinds of ways to be a useful human being that we recognize, and we also recognize broadly that there are skills some people just don’t have. And that’s typically uncontroversial.

However, when it comes to smarts, that is taken to be something that is existential, that is totalizing—that encapsulates an entire individual. My book was an effort to ask why that’s the case, and to argue that the need to turn everyone into what used to be quite a rare thing, which was someone who acquires the kind of skills that make it possible for them to go to college and from college to go on to be a member of the professional managerial class.

So you’re saying the only kind of smarts that are valued are ones that work in the academic world. But what would you say to those who worry about education not being broad enough and being too focused on skills employers want?

I would say first that I am a big fan of unbundling—the notion of unbundling the degree into the discrete skills so that people can receive some kind of license or certification or assessment that demonstrates that they have a certain sets of skills which when bundled together [form] a college degree or a major.

If we unbundled, we could at least say, OK, you were gonna earn this badge or this certification or this training in your first year and then this one in your second year, et cetera. And people who dropped out could still walk around carrying at least some kind of value-bearing credential from their time at college, which at present does not happen.

But as you alluded to, we want to be very careful about trying to predict the labor market. … Labor market trends move very quickly, sometimes in a way that can make us look very foolish.

There was a period of time when petrochemical engineering looked like an extremely safe haven because oil prices had gone quite high and there was a fracking boom. Unfortunately to get trained in petrochemical engineering to the degree that anyone would want to hire you for one of the high-paying jobs, you would have to have at least a master’s degree. And what happened was that the price of oil collapsed pre-pandemic. But you can say, Hey, the price of gas is back up. But that just better underlines the fact that these are conditions that people can’t control.

If you ask people what the biggest, the fastest growing sector of the economy is, they very often will say STEM. But that’s not true. It’s not even particularly close to true. It’s the service industry. Many of those service-industry jobs are low pay and low prestige, though. Then there are what Richard Reeves of the Brookings Institution calls, HEAL jobs, which is health, education, administrative and literacy. There’s three times as many job openings for that today than there are for STEM jobs. And so we have to be careful about thinking that we’re Nostradamus and can predict what’s going to come next, and we have to train students to be nimble and to be adaptable to changing labor market conditions. But I don’t think that that’s incompatible with training them with a career orientation.

We did a podcast series earlier this year that was called Bootstraps, where we looked at myths around meritocracy and the American Dream. It struck me that your book has a unique take on what you see as the problems of that narrative.

I would start with the beginning and say we should never moralize that which is contingent on history in terms of what is viable in the marketplace. In other words, being a physically strapping and strong person with physical endurance was something that not that long ago was something that could make you a big man in your tribe or village or town. Whereas now, unless you’re one of the very lucky few who can be a professional athlete, that is now not associated with good wages or with a strong labor market at all.

Because it’s fungible, and it’s always at risk of being replaced by automation. If you’re someone who’s born to be a big strapping guy, but you’re also someone who’s born like so many young men are with a real difficulty in sitting down and staying on task—if you have trouble following along in school which so many young men and young women, but particularly young men, do … it’s only an accident of history that you’ve been born in the time in which that’s a bad combination rather than a good one.

Hear the complete interview on the EdSurge Podcast.