Kurt Vonnegut’s classic 1961 short story “Harrison Bergeron” pictures a supposedly utopian version of the United States in which strict equality is enforced through the use of mandated handicaps such as earpieces that transmit piercing sounds to disrupt thought for those with above-average intelligence. Few of us would take our commitment to equality to such lengths. Yet many of us do view equality – of opportunity and outcome – as something worth approximating as a benchmark for justice in our society. But is such equality achievable, and is it even necessary for the well-being and flourishing of all?
Fredrik deBoer’s The Cult of Smart complicates this question by forcing us to consider the limits of education as a viable path to full equality. Even if we implemented all the education reforms imaginable, deBoer argues, we would still have undeniable variance in individual natural intelligence and aptitude, which would lead to disparate outcomes. DeBoer asserts that if we are serious about justice, we need to take seriously the fact that natural intelligence is not equally distributed. Given this inequality, one’s degree of natural intelligence is not an appropriate basis for assigning value or determining who gets to live the good life any more than race or some other contingent factor of human existence.
DeBoer further argues that our current economic system suppresses these truths in favor of commitment to the ideology of meritocracy (itself a term coined in Michael Young’s 1958 dystopia The Rise of the Meritocracy). Whereas Vonnegut’s dystopia seeks to blur or remove all distinctions in ability and talent, meritocracy justifies those distinctions in ways that undermine any sense of solidarity. Specifically, meritocracy allows us to take credit for our luck (having a natural aptitude for academics, for example) as though it were our virtue, while blaming others for their lack of luck as though it were a vice. Just as insidiously, meritocracy seduces those committed to social justice to focus on facilitating upward mobility within the current economic system rather than changing the status quo to something that better serves the needs of everyone regardless of their abilities. Thus, while neither deBoer’s nor Vonnegut’s work should be read as an attack on progressive efforts to achieve greater equality of outcome, both invite readers to question the assumption that equality of opportunity should be the basis for individual and communal wellbeing.
Once we step away from that assumption, we can begin envisioning a society in which everyone, regardless of intelligence or talent, is valued and can experience the fullest possible flourishing. One of the worst features of the world of Harrison Bergeron is the impoverishment of the fine arts. Such a loss is also present in approaches to education focused exclusively on utilitarian ends, such as workforce development. If we could reject the cult of smart and develop an education system that supports and rewards everyone, there would also be more room for the pursuit of beauty, truth, and goodness.