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.