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America Dumbs Down



American intellect seems to be deteriorating. There may be proof at the stoplight.

Back in 1984, a study called the “Flynn Effect” was published by a New Zealand Ph.D. named James R. Flynn announcing massive IQ gains all over the world, including in the United States. However, the results of other forms of testing recently published suggest that, to the contrary, some kind of decline is afoot here.

I don’t have a television, so I’m not sure how much of the research I see in publications gets to the general public. That’s another question: How many people depend on TV for their news? So is everyone aware of the number of recent studies revealing how poorly American students are faring in tests of literacy, math, and skills with technology? Will news that is a bit of a bummer enhance ratings? Isn’t enhancing ratings what news is about?

Of course dramatically bad news is the best for increasing viewership, and I guess really wonderful news would also get attention. Unfortunately, this news is about test outcomes that are uncomfortably close to mediocre–unless they drift into the zone of inferior. Who wants to hear about that? But here goes.

Let me say at the outset that there has been some controversy about the construction of the tests and the demographics of participants. I am referring initially to the results released in December 2012 about the TIMSS and the PIRLS tests that were given in 48 countries to evaluate international educational achievement. The first is about mathematics and science, and the second is about literacy. The students tested were in the 4th and 8th grades.

The details are complicated, but the bottom line is that American 4th graders scored 7th and 11th in science and math. Eighth graders scored 10th in science and 9th in math. Fourth graders were 6th in reading. (Eighth graders were not tested in reading.) American students were outdone by those from East Asia, Finland, and, with regard to 8th graders, Russia.

Again, the tests were given in 48 countries, so we weren’t near the bottom in achievement. Still, the fact that we weren’t closer to the top is a little unsettling. We have always thought of ourselves as “exceptional.” This is not very exceptional.

Now more information is coming in based on tests (the PISA) developed by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. These were administered to thousands of individuals between the ages of 16 and 65 in 23 countries in 2012.

The news here is more depressing. Among the 23 countries, the United States ranked near the middle in literacy and near the bottom in skill with numbers and technology. Even among those individuals with graduate and professional degrees, we trailed behind the international average. Only those individuals in the 55-65 age group excelled.

Ready for more? This summer, the results of the ACT tests nationwide, which are designed to assess readiness for college, revealed that about a third of high school graduates are not ready. Scores have been deteriorating since 2009.

The Thinker by Rodin, Rear View

This does not look good, does it? Forget that the younger population is showing a shortage of skills needed for higher education and eventually to compete for jobs internationally. What does this reveal about our fabled devotion to excellence? If the people in that 55-65 cohort have been observing changes in our culture that are concerning, apparently we have had good reason.

So it looks like time for a bit of a heart-to-heart with our collective selves in America. The cause for our apparent decline must be extremely complicated. On the other hand, maybe something about it is a bit simple, and this takes me to another study.

In May of this year, researchers in Brussels, Amsterdam, and Ireland published findings based on statistics about reaction times collected between 1889 and 2004. Their findings contradict the “Flynn Effect.” Assuming that reaction time is associated with intelligence, they concluded that IQ in Western nations has declined 14.1 points since the Victorian era.

Hmm. Reaction time. Assuming that these researchers have a point, can it be that Americans–especially younger Americans–are so over-stimulated that they can hardly think? I know you’re going to bring up the shortage of stimulation in places like Zimbabwe and the Sudan, but let’s go with this for a minute.

And this is where the stoplight comes in. As I drive around alone during the day, I often notice that when I am one of the lead cars at a stoplight, I am regularly the first one moving into an intersection when it changes. That’s the reaction thing. The light turns green; you’re supposed to go. I’m not a genius; I’m just paying attention. Maybe everybody camped out at the light is texting or talking on the phone or something.

What if the development of American intellect would be enhanced by turning a lot of those devices off? Could we do it? Interesting question, but I’m not sure any young person would volunteer for a study. And if we are dumbing down as it seems, how do we reverse that trend? Should that cohort between the ages of 55 and 65 that excels internationally intervene? Time to think.




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