Smarter?  Or Are We Getting Worse?


Intelligence in the Internet Age

I regularly read Internet user groups filled with messages from people trying to solve software incompatibility problems that,
in terms of complexity, make the US Tax Code look like Dr Seuss.

- Dave Barry

by Stefanie Olsen

It's a question older than the Parthenon: Do innovations and new technologies make us more intelligent?

A few thousand years ago, a Greek philosopher, as he snacked on dates on a bench in downtown Athens, may have wondered if the written language folks were starting to use was allowing them to avoid thinking for themselves.  Today, terabytes of easily accessed data, always-on Internet connectivity, and lightning-fast search engines are profoundly changing the way people gather information.  But the age-old question remains: Is technology making us smarter?  Or are we lazily reliant on computers, and, well, dumber than we used to be?

"Our environment, because of technology, is changing, and therefore the abilities we need in order to navigate these highly information-laden environments and succeed are changing," said Susana Urbina, a professor of psychology at the University of North Florida who has studied the roots of intelligence.  If there is a good answer to the question, it probably starts with a contradiction: What makes us intelligent - the ability to reason and learn - is staying the same and will never fundamentally change because of technology.  On the other hand, technology, from pocket calculators to the Internet, is radically changing the notion of the intelligence necessary to function in the modern world.

Take Diego Valderrama, an economist with the Federal Reserve Bank in San Francisco.  If he were an economist 40 years ago, he may have used a paper, pencil and slide rule to figure out and chart by hand how the local economy might change with a 1% boost in taxes.  But because he's a thoroughly modern guy, he uses knowledge of the C++ programming language to create mathematical algorithms to compute answers and produce elaborate projections on the impact of macroeconomic changes to work forces or consumer consumption.  Does that mean he's not as bright as an economist from the 1950s?  Is he smarter?  The answer is probably "no" on both counts.  He traded one skill for another.  Computer skills make him far more efficient and allow him to present more accurate - more intelligent - information.  And without them, he'd have a tough time doing his job.  But drop him into the Federal Reserve 40 years ago, and a lack of skill with the slide rule could put an equal crimp on his career.

Intelligence, as it impacts the economist Valderrama, is our capacity to adapt and thrive in our own environment.  In a Darwinian sense, it's as true now as it was millions of years ago, when man's aptitude for hearing the way branches broke or smelling a spore affected his power to avoid predators, eat and survive.  But what makes someone smart can vary in different cultures and situations.  A successful Wall Street banker who has dropped into the Australian Outback likely couldn't pull off a great Crocodile Dundee impression.  A mathematical genius like Isaac Newton could be - in fact, he was - socially inept and a borderline hermit.  A master painter?  Probably not so good at balancing a chequebook.

What's undeniable is the Internet's democratization of information.  It's providing instant access to information and, in a sense, improving the practical application of intelligence for everyone.  Nearly a century ago, Henry Ford didn't have the Internet, but he did have a bunch of smart guys.  The auto industry pioneer, as a parlor trick, liked to claim he could answer any question in 30 minutes.  In fact, he had organised a research staff he could call at any time to get him the answer.  Today, you don't have to be an auto baron to feign that kind of knowledge.  You just have to be able to type G-O-O-G-L-E.  People can in a matter of minutes find sources of information like court documents, scientific papers or corporate securities filings.

"The notion that the world's knowledge is literally at your fingertips is very compelling and is very beguiling," said Vint Cerf, who co-created the underlying architecture of the Internet and who is widely considered one of its "fathers."  What's exciting "is the Internet's ability to absorb such a large amount of information and for it to be accessible to other people, even if they don't know it exists or don't know who you are."  Indeed, Doug Engelbart, one of the pioneers of personal computing technology in the 1960s, envisioned in the early '60s that the PC would augment human intelligence.  He believes that society's ability to gain insight from information has evolved with the help of computers.  "The key thing about all the world's big problems is that they have to be dealt with collectively," he said.  "If we don't get collectively smarter, we're doomed."

According to at least one definition, intelligence is the "ability to reason, plan, solve problems, think abstractly, comprehend ideas and language, and learn."  Yet intelligence is not just about book learning or test scores; it also reflects a deeper understanding of the world.  On average, people with high IQs are thought to live longer, earn more money, process information faster and have larger working memories.  Yet could all this information provided by the Internet and gadgets dampen our motivation to remember anything?

Working with the Treo handheld computing device he helped create, Jeff Hawkins can easily recount exactly what he did three years ago, factor 9,982 and Pi, or describe a weather system over the Pacific Ocean.  But without his "smart" phone, he can't recall his daughter's telephone number offhand.  It's a familiar circumstance for people living in the hyper-connected Internet age, when it has become easier to program a cell phone or computer - instead of your brain - to recall facts or other essential information.  In some sense, our digital devices do the thinking for us now, helping us with everything from calendar scheduling and local directions to in-depth research and "Jeopardy"-like trivia.

"It's true we don't remember anything anymore, but we don't need to," said Hawkins, the co-founder of Palm Computing and author of a book called On Intelligence.  "We might one day sit around and reminisce about having to remember phone numbers, but it's not a bad thing.  It frees us up to think about other things.  The brain has a limited capacity, if you give it high-level tools, it will work on high-level problems," he said.

Only 600 years ago, people relied on memory as a primary means of communication and tradition.  Before the printed word, memory was essential to lawyers, doctors, priests and poets, and those with particular talents for memory were revered.  Seneca, a famous teacher of rhetoric around 37AD, was said to be able to repeat long passages of speeches he had heard years before.  "Memory," said Greek playwright Aeschylus, "is the mother of all wisdom."  People feared the invention of the printing press because it would cause people to rely on books for their memory.  Today, memory is more irrelevant than ever, argue some academics.

"What's important is your ability to use what you know well.  There are people who are walking encyclop√¶dias, but they make a mess of their lives.  Getting a 100% on a written driving test doesn't mean you can drive," said Robert Sternberg, dean of Arts and Sciences at Tufts University and a professor of psychology.

Source: 19 September 2005

American Kids, Dumber than Dirt

Warning: The Next Generation Might Just Be the Biggest Pile of Idiots in US History

by Mark Morford

I have this ongoing discussion with a longtime reader who also just so happens to be a longtime Oakland high school teacher, a wonderful guy who's seen generations of teens come and generations go and who has a delightful poetic sensibility and quirky outlook on his life and his family and his beloved teaching career.  And he often writes to me in response to something I might've written about the youth of today, anything where I comment on the various nefarious factors shaping their minds and their perspectives and whether or not, say, EMFs and junk food and cell phones are melting their brains and what can be done and just how bad it might all be.

His response: It is not bad at all.  It's absolutely horrifying.

My friend often summarises for me what he sees, firsthand, every day and every month, year in and year out, in his classroom.  He speaks not merely of the sad decline in overall intellectual acumen among students over the years, not merely of the astonishing spread of lazy slackerhood, or the fact that cell phones and iPods and excess TV exposure are, absolutely and without reservation, short-circuiting the minds of the upcoming generations.  Of this, he says, there is zero doubt.

Nor does he speak merely of the notion that kids these days are overprotected and wussified and don't spend enough time outdoors and don't get any real exercise and therefore can't, say, identify basic plants, or handle a tool, or build, well, anything at all.  Again, these things are a given.  Widely reported, tragically ignored, nothing new.

No, my friend takes it all a full step - or rather, leap - further.  It is not merely a sad slide.  It is not just a general dumbing down.  It is far uglier than that.  We are, as far as urban public education is concerned, essentially at rock bottom.  We are now at a point where we are essentially churning out ignorant teens who are becoming ignorant adults and society as a whole will pay dearly, very soon, and if you think the hordes of easily terrified, mindless fundamentalist evangelical Christian lemmings have been bad for the soul of this country, just wait.

It's gotten so bad that, as my friend nears retirement, he says he is very seriously considering moving out of the country so as to escape what he sees will be the surefire collapse of functioning American society in the next handful of years due to the absolutely irrefutable destruction, the shocking - and nearly hopeless - dumb-ification of the American brain.  It is just that bad.

Now, you may think he's merely a curmudgeon, a tired old teacher who stopped caring long ago.  Not true.  Teaching is his life.  He says he loves his students, loves education and learning and watching young minds awaken.  Problem is, he is seeing much less of it.  It's a bit like the melting of the polar ice caps.  Sure, there's been alarmist data about it for years, but until you see it for yourself, the deep visceral dread doesn't really hit home.

He cites studies, reports, hard data, from the appalling effects of television on child brain development (that is, any TV exposure before 6 years old and your kid's basic cognitive wiring and spatial perceptions are pretty much scrambled for life), to the fact that, because of all the insidious mandatory testing teachers are now forced to incorporate into the curriculum, of the 182 school days in a year, there are 110 when such testing is going on somewhere at Oakland High.  As one of his colleagues put it, "It's like weighing a calf twice a day, but never feeding it."

But most of all, he simply observes his students, year to year, noting all the obvious evidence of teens' decreasing abilities when confronted with even the most basic intellectual tasks, from understanding simple history to working through moderately complex ideas to even (in a couple recent examples that particularly distressed him) being able to define the words "agriculture," or even "democracy."  Not a single student could do it.

It gets worse.  My friend cites the fact that, of the 6,000 high school students he estimates he's taught over the span of his career, only a small fraction now make it to his grade with a functioning understanding of written English.  They do not know how to form a sentence.  They cannot write an intelligible paragraph.  Recently, after giving an assignment that required drawing lines, he realided that not a single student actually knew how to use a ruler.

It is, in short, nothing less than a tidal wave of dumb, with once-passionate, increasingly exasperated teachers like my friend nearly powerless to stop it.  The worst part: It's not the kids' fault.  They're merely the victims of a horribly failed educational system.

Then our discussion often turns to the meat of it, the bigger picture, the ugly and unavoidable truism about the lack of need among the government and the power elite in this nation to create a truly effective educational system, one that actually generates intelligent, thoughtful, articulate citizens.  Hell, why should they?  After all, the dumber the populace, the easier it is to rule and control and launch unwinnable wars and pass laws telling them that sex is bad and TV is good and God knows all, so just pipe down and eat your Taco Bell Double-Supremo Burrito and be glad we don't arrest you for posting dirty pictures on your cute little blog.

This is about when I try to offer counterevidence, a bit of optimism.  For one thing, I've argued generational relativity in this space before, suggesting maybe kids are no scarier or dumber or more dangerous than they've ever been, and that maybe some of the problem is merely the same old awkward generation gap, with every current generation absolutely convinced the subsequent one is terrifically stupid and malicious and will be the end of society as a whole.  Just the way it always seems.

I also point out how, despite all the evidence of total public-education meltdown, I keep being surprised, keep hearing from/about teens and youth movements and actions that impress the hell out of me.  Damn kids made the Internet what it is today, fer chrissakes.  Revolutionized media.  Broke all the rules.  Still are.

Hell, some of the best designers, writers, artists, poets, chefs, and so on that I meet are in their early to mid-20s.  And the nation's top universities are still managing, despite a factory-churning mentality, to crank out young minds of astonishing ability and acumen.  How did these kids do it?  How did they escape the horrible public school system?  How did they avoid the great dumbing down of America?  Did they never see a TV show until they hit puberty?  Were they all born and raised elsewhere, in India and Asia and Russia?  Did they all go to Waldorf or Montessori and eat whole-grain breads and play with firecrackers and take long walks in wild nature?  Are these kids flukes?  Exceptions?  Just lucky?

My friend would say, well, yes, that's precisely what most of them are.  Lucky, wealthy, foreign-born, private-schooled ... and increasingly rare.  Most affluent parents in America - and many more who aren't - now put their kids in private schools from day one, and the smart ones give their kids no TV and minimal junk food and no video games.  (Of course, this in no way guarantees a smart, attuned kid, but compared to the odds of success in the public school system, it sure seems to help).  This covers about, what, 3% of the populace?  As for the rest, well, the dystopian evidence seems overwhelming indeed, to the point where it might be no stretch at all to say the biggest threat facing America is perhaps not global warming, not perpetual warmongering, not garbage food or low-level radiation or way too much Lindsay Lohan, but a populace far too ignorant to know how to properly manage any of it, much less change it all for the better.

What, too fatalistic?  Don't worry.  Soon enough, no one will know what the word even means.


Virtual Degree Course

A university has launched the first "virtual" degree course where students attend all their seminars and lectures online.  Undergraduates will be able to study business studies at Essex University without ever leaving home, reports the Daily Mail.  They will log onto the Internet to hear their tutors delivering lectures in real-time before taking part in seminars with fellow students.  A special icon on their computer screens will allow them to click to put their hands up and contribute to the discussion.  Other icons even allow them to laugh at jokes or clap.

It ties in with a Government plan to boost the numbers at university by "widening access" and giving workers alternatives ways of studying.  Students will never have to leave home - not even to take exams.  Instead the course will assessed entirely by essays and projects which are emailed to tutors for marking.

Online degrees firm Kaplan has been allowed to set up a college affiliated to Essex University to deliver the courses.  Alan Jenkins, managing director of Kaplan Open Learning, said the course was the first to be offered "entirely online".  He added: "It is purely online and there is no classroom attendance at all, so a person from Penzance does not have to travel into Birmingham or London to attend a tutorial.  It includes online real-time lectures.  It replicates everything that is the classroom but in an online environment, for example students discussing, students asking questions and students handing in work."

Source: 9 May 2007

Web Cam to Validate Test-Takers

Software Secure demonstrates fingerprint recognition with Securexam Remote Proctor -
hardware used to monitor distance learning test-takers at remote locations.
The new technology would allow cameras to be placed inside students' homes,
solving a problem for the growing field of online education:
how to make sure students aren't cheating on their exams. (AP Photo/Lisa Poole)

Having taken a few online courses recently, I can appreciate the problem.  But it seems to me this is overkill.  If the online test is timed, why care if the taker references his books, his notes, or even the internet?  On the job, if an employee gets the job done by the deadline, do you really care that he had to look in a book to do it?  (Okay - maybe something like open heart surgery would be an exception.)  Certainly, if someone has to look up each answer - or even many of them, then the time will run out and it will be clear that this student doesn't really know his stuff.  (But, then, I feel timed tests that allow the use of books and notes would be a good philosophy for tests taken in a classroom as well.)  Otherwise, it seems to me the only thing you want to be certain of is that it is indeed the student (and only the student) who is taking the test.  A thumbprint keypad could make sure this is the right student - and the test could randomly call for re-verification.

If it's okay to use books and notes, is it okay to use another person as a quick reference?  Not really.  You can't own that person, or have him in a file where you know you can always access him, nor do you really understand his mental filing system and know just where to go to find the information you seek.  So, I'm afraid I reluctantly will have to come down on the side of a proctor after all.  Anything that encourages online classes and their acceptance as valid must be a good thing.  My biggest concern is that often requirements for online courses are even more onerous than for those taken in a classroom.  Professors vary far too widely in attention and quality.  Perhaps classroom tests should be electronically proctored as well to level the playing field...

Literacy Falls for Graduates from College, Testing Finds

by Sam Dillon

The average American college graduate's literacy in English declined significantly over the past decade, according to results of a nationwide test released yesterday.  The National Assessment of Adult Literacy, given in 2003 by the Department of Education, is the nation's most important test of how well adult Americans can read.  The test also found steep declines in the English literacy of Hispanics in the US, and significant increases among blacks and Asians.

When the test was last administered, in 1992, 40% of the nation's college graduates scored at the proficient level, meaning that they were able to read lengthy, complex English texts and draw complicated inferences.  But on the 2003 test, only 31% of the graduates demonstrated those high-level skills.  There were 26.4 million college graduates.  The college graduates who in 2003 failed to demonstrate proficiency included 53% who scored at the intermediate level and 14% who scored at the basic level, meaning they could read and understand short, commonplace prose texts; 3% of college graduates who took the test in 2003, representing some 800,000 Americans, demonstrated "below basic" literacy, meaning that they could not perform more than the simplest skills, like locating easily identifiable information in short prose.

Grover J Whitehurst, director of an institute within the Department of Education that helped to oversee the test, said he believed that the literacy of college graduates had dropped because a rising number of young Americans in recent years had spent their free time watching television and surfing the Internet.  "We're seeing substantial declines in reading for pleasure, and it's showing up in our literacy levels," he said.

Percentage of Adults in Each Prose, Document, and Quantitative Literacy Level, by Educational Attainment: 1992 and 2003

Prose Below Basic Basic Intermediate Proficient
  1992 2003 1992 2003 1992 2003 1992 2003
Percentage Percentage Percentage Percentage Percentage Percentage Percentage Percentage
Educational attainment  
Still in high school 11 14 36 37 47 45 6 4
Less than/some high school 45 50 38 33 17 16 1 1
GED/high school equivalency 9 10 42 45 46 43 3 3
High school graduate 11 13 37 39 48 44 5 4
Vocational/trade/business 9 10 29 36 53 49 9 5
Some college 4 5 23 25 59 59 14 11
Associate's/2-year degree 2 4 16 20 58 56 23 19
College graduate 2 3 10 14 49 53 40 31
Graduate studies/degree 1 1 6 10 43 48 51 41
Document Below Basic Basic Intermediate Proficient
  1992 2003 1992 2003 1992 2003 1992 2003
Percentage Percentage Percentage Percentage Percentage Percentage Percentage Percentage
Educational attainment  
Still in high school 10 13 24 24 57 54 9 9
Less than/some high school 44 45 32 29 23 25 1 2
GED/high school equivalency 9 13 31 30 58 53 3 4
High school graduate 12 13 28 29 54 52 6 5
Vocational/trade/business 8 9 22 26 60 59 10 7
Some college 4 5 15 19 67 65 14 10
Associate's/2-year degree 3 3 12 15 60 66 25 16
College graduate 2 2 9 11 52 62 37 25
Graduate studies/degree 1 1 5 9 48 59 45 31
Quantitative Below Basic Basic Intermediate Proficient
  1992 2003 1992 2003 1992 2003 1992 2003
Percentage Percentage Percentage Percentage Percentage Percentage Percentage Percentage
Educational attainment  
Still in high school 31 31 37 38 27 25 6 5
Less than/some high school 65 64 25 25 9 10 1 1
GED/high school equivalency 25 26 46 43 26 28 3 3
High school graduate 26 24 41 42 29 29 5 5
Vocational/trade/business 18 18 39 41 35 35 8 6
Some college 11 10 34 36 42 43 13 11
Associate's/2-year degree 8 7 29 30 45 45 18 18
College graduate 5 4 21 22 44 43 31 31
Graduate studies/degree 2 3 15 18 43 43 39 36

Note: Detail may not sum to 100% because of rounding.  Adults are defined as people 16 years of age and older living in households or prisons.
Adults who could not be interviewed due to language spoken or cognitive or mental disabilities (3% in 2003 and 4% in 1992) are excluded from this table.

From the US Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics, 1992 National Adult Literacy Survey and 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy.


Dumbing Us Down: An Interview With John Taylor Gatto

by Terry Everton


Here are some things that the top 20 elite private boarding schools think of as prime constituents of a good education:

  1. Strong competency in public speaking and writing
  2. The discipline of gracious manners - a discipline based on the understanding that civility and respect are the foundations of all productive relationships
  3. A comprehensive theory of human nature, drawn from history, philosophy, literature, theology and close observation
  4. Ease and fluency with the master creations in painting, music, sculpture, dance, design (and more) to stimulate the imagination
  5. Insight into the principal institutional forms
  6. A complete theory of access to any institution or person
  7. The ability to do battle in the marketplace of society
  8. A habit of caution in reasoning
  9. A well-tested judgment
  10. Intellectual courage, resourcefulness and self-confidence

So what, then, is the primary objective of compulsory education?

The primary objective is to convert human raw material into human resources which can be employed efficiently by the managers of government and the economy.  The original purposes of schooling were to make good people (the religious purpose), to make good citizens (the public purpose) and to make individuals their personal best (the private purpose).  Throughout the 19th century, a new Fourth Purpose began to emerge, tested thoroughly in the military state of Prussia in northern Europe.  The Fourth Purpose made the point of mass schooling to serve big business and big government by extending childhood, replacing thinking with drill and memorization while fashioning incomplete people unable to protect themselves from exhortation, advertising and other forms of indirect command.  In this fashion, poor Prussia with a small population became one of the great powers of the earth.  Its new schooling method was imitated far and wide, from Japan to the United States.

Which human characteristics does compulsory schooling try to develop the most?

Reflexive obedience is at the heart of the thing.  The principal way this is measured is through testing, and most recently through standardized testing.  Other vital attributes of a model modern citizen - each necessary to the health of a mass production economy - are an indifferent or poor ability to speak in a public forum or to write cogently (hence rendering all protest ineffective and short-lived) and an inability to think critically (which opens the mind to receptivity to various forms of coercion, like advertising).

The first thing you need to do is rigorously separate the term education from its cousin schooling.  Without that distinction, confusion reigns.  Schooling is administered from without, usually by total strangers.  Its success these days is measured by test scores and degrees.  You can be given - or subjected to - a schooling, but nobody can give you an education except yourself.  Education is assembled from the inside out.  Its quality is measured as you go along through increased awareness and understanding, as well as the ability to do things like analyze, synthesize and judge.

Consider the short-answer test which requires the commitment to memory of disconnected bits of information.  Good, perhaps, for quiz show contestants, but utterly detrimental to the high order thinking skill of reasoning from whole contexts.

State-approved standardized curriculum acts the way blinders do on a horse - they focus attention narrowly on a body of data arranged in a particular way by invisible employees of the political state.  This data cannot be argued with, substituted for or amended.  The dialectical processes with which thinkers like Aristotle were familiar thousands of years ago - and elite private boarding schools like Groton and St Paul’s are quite conversant with today - simply don’t exist for public school students.

Professionals represent no threat to the leadership groups because, literally, they are no more able to think in wholes or understand interconnections than the average cabdriver.  They are well paid to remove themselves from the competition for leadership positions.  In their subordinate role they provide direct service to ... management...

True school reform, system-wide, isn’t possible inside the existing institution because it isn’t wanted.  School does exactly what it was designed to do - school - and it does it quite well.  Because the economy is highly dependent on kids being schooled exactly as they are, to think about large-scale reform without some social/economic cataclysm first is [impossible].

Source: Alternate Press Review April 20 - Spring 2006

See also:

bulletNo More Teachers' Dirty Looks (further on in this section) - Why not turn all schools into apartment buildings and be done with it?  They're pretty much useless...
bulletOn the Other Hand, This Is What Some of the Students in Our Class Have Written (also further in this section) - "The best way our country can fight AIDS is to become more understanding about the disease by fighting discrimination..."  Huh?  Or, "Another reason why we do not want immigrants here in our country is because of crimes..."  This is sad.  Or, "Genetic Engineering is definetely against the 'natural order' of things. The role of God should be let only to Himself and not to people."  Enlightening reading.  Really.

For articles on education covering subjects taught, tests, costs, boredom, honour, rites of passage, rigid rules, cliques, thinking, learning, homeschooling, creating, brilliance, ongoing education and more, click the "Up" button below to take you to the Table of Contents for this section.

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