Meritocracy, Intelligence & Education

“…we need to dismantle meritocracy.

DeBoer is skeptical of “equality of opportunity”. Even if you solve racism, sexism, poverty, and many other things that DeBoer repeatedly reminds us have not been solved, you’ll just get people succeeding or failing based on natural talent…

…One one level, the titular Cult Of Smart is just the belief that enough education can solve any problem. But more fundamentally it’s also the troubling belief that after we jettison unfair theories of superiority based on skin color, sex, and whatever else, we’re finally left with what really determines your value as a human being – how smart you are. 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.'” DeBoer was originally shocked to hear someone describe her own son that way, then realized that he wouldn’t have thought twice if she’d dismissed him as unathletic, or bad at music. Intelligence is considered such a basic measure of human worth that to dismiss someone as unintelligent seems like consigning them into the outer darkness. So DeBoer describes how early readers of his book were scandalized by the insistence on genetic differences in intelligence – isn’t this denying the equality of Man, declaring some people inherently superior to others? Only if you conflate intelligence with worth, which DeBoer argues our society does constantly. 

-Scott Alexander, “Book Review: The Cult Of Smart
Summary and commentary on The Cult Of Smart by Fredrik DeBoer
.” Astral Codex Ten. February 17, 2021.

There’s a lot going on in this review. I’d highlight that Fredrik’s DeBoer’s blog has an RSS feed, which you can add to your RSS reader. I’m looking forward to reading more of his commentary.

Open Question: Is education an unqualified good?

I recently had an online discussion with someone who, in broad strokes, seems to agree with the above position, i.e., if we only had enough education, we would solve much of society’s problems. I think this is a standard U.S. liberal stance, which positions educational attainment as the means for advancement into the middle class.

Education is the great lie of U.S. liberal politics. Lest you think I’m a conservative trying to own the libs, let me first talk about the great lie of U.S. conservative politics in order to draw parallels.

The great lie of U.S. conservative politics is that you can have a global war-fighting capability and small government. The U.S. conservative lie is easy to grasp. There’s obviously a tension between government size and the ability to fight any war, much less a capability that involves nearly a thousand foreign military bases and nearly a trillion dollars of military spending every year, more if we include the debt servicing for past wars.

But, how is education like war? Isn’t education an unqualified good? The similarity is that just as small government caps one’s ability to fight wars, there is a demand limit on education. Most education is vocational instruction. People go to school in order to get a credential that gives them a better chance of getting a job. The education is, in large part, a secondary effect to the real demand for better employment opportunities.

It’s also possible to juice this demand. For example, I know of one university, and I imagine it is a feature of most universities, where jobs that used to employ people straight out of high school now require a university degree. The university, by implementing this requirement, increases demand for its product. But, does being an administrative assistant in the university organization really require this level of training? Does one need a Bachelor’s degree in communication, business, English, etc. in order to answer the telephone, write a Word document or navigate an Excel spreadsheet? Aren’t these skills acquired in the high school curriculum these days (and if not, shouldn’t they be)?

And you can see this happening at a broader scale as university administration has become professionalized. Instead of professors running university business in addition to their teaching, professors teach and the university business has been outsourced to administrators.

And, it’s not just universities. The same phenomena is happening across industries. It’s true of every level of government. It’s true of most industries, but particularly those that are tied closely to government. Look through the top industries by GDP in the United States: healthcare, durable goods manufacturing, food & travel, retail, etc. Almost everywhere you look, advancement implies management.

So, people go to school to learn a vocation. You get in the door, and then, in order to advance, no matter what industry you are in, you need to get into management. Leaving us to wonder, what exactly is vocational education for? Further, how large is the real need for managers, as opposed to front-line workers?

If you think it through, it is obviously a con, no different in its contradictions than talking about small government and global war. Management, by definition, has to be small. So, no amount of education is going to improve the lot of people getting educated to qualify for those relatively few positions. The only way that education works is if there are paths of advancement that actually require an education and aren’t management.

For example, if Dragon Naturally Speaking has taken over all the transcriptionist jobs, if Level 5 artificial intelligence has taken over from the teamsters, if 3D printing technologies have reduced the number of people working at construction sites, if fast food can become a largely automated process, etc., what will become of those people doing those jobs?

The most likely outcome is that there will be a compression of people into low skill jobs, driving down wages for everyone. There will be some people that will move into positions of managing machines. Someone will have to check on the artificial intelligence drivers, to make sure the results are as intended and to intervene when it starts to become very Sorcerer’s apprentice. But, the net is less jobs for people and more jobs for machines.

And, this is where the education argument starts to look plausible. People can be trained and are needed to supervise and inspecting the work of machines. In some ways, we are already preparing for that world, where people in low skill jobs are treated as if they are machines. For example, see some of the discussion about the conditions in Amazon warehouses and how that is breathing new life into the labor movement.

But, in the end, there is limited demand for education. Most people go through the process of getting an education credential for the vocational dividends that pays. But, it is clear that the university model and the push for education doesn’t deliver on its promise. And, when people are sitting on a mountain of debt and cannot find work, are they going to sell the educational dream to their children?

Another detail worth consideration, did the COVID-19 pandemic finally show that the promise of MOOCs are not something that can be delivered using the university model and university price points? At the very least, the focus on education and how it is delivered needs to be completely rethought. And, as DeBoer points to a deeper problem, our society’s focus on intelligence and expanding it through education is a fundamentally flawed project, as bad as small government and global war-fighting.


“The reality is that societal stigma limits young people’s ability to take control of their sexual health, enjoy healthy relationships and explore their identities.

We are committed to changing attitudes, challenging prejudices and championing equality so that all young people can lead happy, healthy lives.

Relationship and sex education that seems inspired compared to what is the norm in the United States.

The Last Acceptable Prejudice

“We should focus less on arming people for a meritocratic race and more on making life better for those who lack a diploma but who make important contributions to our society — through the work they do, the families they raise and the communities they serve. This requires renewing the dignity of work and putting it at the center of our politics.

It also requires reconsidering the meaning of success and questioning our meritocratic hubris: Is it my doing that I have the talents that society happens to prize — or is it my good luck?

—Michael J. Sandel, “Disdain for the less educated is the last acceptable prejudice.” The New York Times. September 2, 2020.

Spaced Repetition for Efficient Learning

“Spaced repetition is a centuries-old psychological technique for efficient memorization & practice of skills where instead of attempting to memorize by ‘cramming’, memorization can be done far more efficiently by instead spacing out each review, with increasing durations as one learns the item, with the scheduling done by software. Because of the greater efficiency of its slow but steady approach, spaced repetition can scale to memorizing hundreds of thousands of items (while crammed items are almost immediately forgotten) and is especially useful for foreign languages & medical studies.

I review what this technique is useful for, some of the large research literature on it and the testing effect (up to ~2013, primarily), the available software tools and use patterns, and miscellaneous ideas & observations on it.”

-Gwern Branwen, “Spaced Repetition for Efficient Learning.” March 11, 2009.

The obvious application for spaced repetition is learning vocabulary.

OKIDO Magazine

“OKIDO’s philosophy is a simple one: every child is a creative scientist.

The OKIDO world immerses young children in a spectrum of playful activities and media, all intelligently designed by science and education experts. 

Whether watching the TV show ‘Messy goes to OKIDO’, engaging in family events and school workshops, or reading high quality publications and products, OKIDO children learn through play.

At the heart of it all lies STEAM learning (that’s science, technology, engineering, the arts and mathematics). Everything in the OKIDO world is designed by science and education experts to encourage collaboration, curiosity, exploration, discovery, creativity and critical thinking.


Messy grew up on the pages of OKIDO Magazine. An independent publication started by parents from a kitchen table in Brixton in 2007, it was designed to fire up young imaginations and spark a life-long love of art and science. Today its founders, scientist Dr Sophie Dauvois (PhD BSc PG Dip.) and artist Rachel Ortas, are still every bit as passionate about engaging young kids in the scientific world around them using play, art and fun.


OKIDO’s fun and games are for all genders. The OKIDO world is a stereotype-free zone, because we believe in promoting equality for all children.



“Noba is a free online platform that provides high-quality, flexibly structured textbooks and educational materials. These textbooks and materials are licensed under the Creative Commons CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 International License. Users may reuse, redistribute, and remix the content to suit their needs.

The goals of Noba are three-fold:

* To reduce financial burden on students by providing access to free educational content

* To provide instructors with a platform to customize educational content to better suit their curriculum

* To present free, high-quality material written by a collection of experts and authorities in the field of psychology


The 85% Rule of Learning

“…we learn best when we aim to grasp something just outside the bounds of our existing knowledge. When a challenge is too simple, we don’t learn anything new; likewise, we don’t enhance our knowledge when a challenge is so difficult that we fail entirely or give up. We learn best when we aim to grasp something just outside the bounds of our existing knowledge. When a challenge is too simple, we don’t learn anything new; likewise, we don’t enhance our knowledge when a challenge is so difficult that we fail entirely or give up.”

—Alexis Blue, “15% failure is the learning ‘sweet spot’.” Futurity. November 11, 2019.

Brahmin Left vs. Merchant Right: Rising Inequality and the Changing Structure of Political Conflict


Globalisation/migration (domestic vs external inequality) and educational expansion (education vs property inequality) have created new multi-dimensional conflicts about inequality, leading to the collapse of the postwar left-vs-right party system.

Why didn’t democracy reduce inequality?

Because multi-dimensional coalitions are complicated.

Without a strong egalitarian-internationalist platform, it’s difficult to have the low-education, low-income voters from all origins vote for the same party.

Racism/nativism & higher education = powerful forces dividing the poor if there’s no strong uniting platform.

-Thomas Piketty, “Brahmin Left vs. Merchant Right: Rising Inequality and the Changing Structure of Political Conflict.” EHESS & Paris School of Economics Sciences Po, January 24 2019

h/t Boing Boing, which provides a nice overview. Open Question: Am I a member of the Brahmin Left?

Liberatory Education | The Hedgehog Review

“In a psychic context, racial reparations may be less obviously needed, but needed nonetheless, for those of us from white families and communities that practice racial thoughtlessness. We, too, need to study race and racism in order to understand ourselves, because the implicit attitudes about race that we have consciously and unconsciously created and accepted are poisoning us and have imprisoned our minds. We are literally dying from our inability to break free of our prejudice, our unexamined opinions. There are direct correlations to be made between white attitudes about race, lack and fear of education, hopelessness and despair, and addiction. It is just not possible to think freely when you are also desperate to cling to your biases.”

—Leslie W. Lewis, “Liberatory Education.” Hedgehog Review. 21.2 (Summer 2019).

Read this essay. It is absolute fire, and equally applicable to gender, class, sexual orientation, disability and other prejudices.

Open Syllabus Project, Visualized

“A new interactive visualization from Open Syllabus turns this trove of data into a color-coded stippling of different-sized dots, each one representing a particular text. Float over each dot and a box appears in the corner of the screen, showing the number of syllabi that have assigned the text, and a link to a profile page with more detailed analysis. Called the “Co-Assignment Galaxy,” the infographic does what a list cannot: draws connections between all these works and their respective fields of study.

-Josh Jones, “A New Interactive Visualization of the 165,000 Most-Frequently Assigned Texts in College Courses.” July 22, 2019.

A list of the top 50 works is available from the Open Syllabus Project website.