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Tilting at Windmills

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February 17, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

HOW DUMB ARE WE?....What a remarkable essay this is. Susan Jacoby spends 1,500 words telling us that Americans are getting dumber but doesn't offer a single piece of evidence to support this notion. Not one. She tells us that we're reading fewer books. She tells us that it's bad for toddlers to watch a lot of TV. She tells us that campaign soundbites are getting shorter. She tells us that FDR urged people to buy maps so they could follow his fireside chats during World War II. She tells us that kids today don't care much about geography.

But dumber implies a comparison over time. It demands evidence that kids (or adults, for that matter) are less capable, less knowledgable, or less adept than they were 50 years ago. And who knows? Maybe they are. But I'm only willing to be persuaded if Jacoby is willing to offer up some actual evidence first.

Kevin Drum 12:43 AM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (139)

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Comments

George W. Bush...OK, OK, I know. That was too easy.

Posted by: Bush Lover on February 17, 2008 at 12:46 AM | PERMALINK

Kevin,

Simply read what you wrote. Could you not see the forest for the trees? I think Susan's writing, which seems pretty stupid, speaks for itself. What more evidence do we need?

Posted by: anon on February 17, 2008 at 12:48 AM | PERMALINK

And their music is awful and they dress funny and talk too loudly. Obviously there has been a radical rearrangement in the way DNA is aligned along human chromosomes over the past 35 years.

On the other hand, I notice that the current younger folk are willing to support a presidential candidate of another race without being terribly bothered by it. Perhaps we ought to credit them with higher intelligence.

Posted by: Bob G on February 17, 2008 at 12:49 AM | PERMALINK

Well, people seem pretty dumb to me. Whether people are more or less dumb than in the past seems largely irrelevant to me. People are ignorant of situations, facts, and ongoing crises that will profoundly effect them adversely. And they won't even understand what happened much less what to do about it. You think this idiot pampered population is being prepared in any way for the sacrifice necessary for a better future? No one is talking about the pain that is coming. As Walker at the GAO says, we have a profound leadership deficit.

Posted by: Red Pill on February 17, 2008 at 12:54 AM | PERMALINK

Ask anyone on a college selection committee if American students are getting dumber.

Posted by: KathyF on February 17, 2008 at 12:54 AM | PERMALINK

It's pretty well established that, as measured by standardized tests, people are actually becoming smarter over time.

It's called the Flynn Effect

NB: Note that smart != rational.
Don't confuse the two.
Nixon was plenty smart.

Posted by: joel hanes on February 17, 2008 at 12:57 AM | PERMALINK

Well, it is obvious that Kevin doesn't use public transportation.

Posted by: Blue Girl, Red State on February 17, 2008 at 1:07 AM | PERMALINK

The evidence that Americans are getting dumber is that some Americans are still reading the Washington Post which publishes dumb articles by Susan Jacoby.

Posted by: Timothy on February 17, 2008 at 1:17 AM | PERMALINK

The Flynn effect is a bunch of bull*. Unless you believe that our great-grandparents were borderline retarded. If the Flynn effect is true, we did evolve from chimpanzees. Of course, we would have evolved from them in the 13th century.

* We're just getting better at taking standardized tests, we're not getting smarter.

Posted by: Mo on February 17, 2008 at 1:21 AM | PERMALINK

Probably not dumber in an organic sense. But we have so many distractions: TV, movies, sports, preachers, etc. that a plurality has become seriously uninformed, and easily misled. If measured by the banality of our politics, and public discource (excepting this blog) we have pretty much lost it!

Posted by: bigTom on February 17, 2008 at 1:23 AM | PERMALINK

She was on Bill Moyers Journal this week, and we had a great time jeering her and mocking the teevee as she made an ass of herself for 20 minutes.

Posted by: Blue Girl, Red State on February 17, 2008 at 1:25 AM | PERMALINK

You know, it shouldn't be impossible to determine something useful about whether we're getting increasingly more ignorant.

Just go back to achievement tests in public schools and compare results from many decades ago to those of now. What do they really show? What do we know less of now than we did before? What do we know more of now than we did before? Which segments of the population improved or deteriorated?

At least proceeding like that has some hope of achieving conclusions underpinned by actual science.

And, just as the Flynn effect was a pretty amazing and surprising finding, we might discover that a lot of our preconceptions are just flat out wrong.

Posted by: frankly0 on February 17, 2008 at 1:32 AM | PERMALINK

eye dont feel dummer

Posted by: Kill Bill on February 17, 2008 at 1:33 AM | PERMALINK

Elizabeth Dole came to my college 20 years ago to deliver a lengthy speech that was all about how stupid and worthless we all were and how everyone in her day knew fluent Archaic Greek and Latin.

Afterwards, a girl I knew, one of my best friends at college, gathered up a couple of eclairs at the post-speech soiree, giggling and being a little bit immature, as Dole watched and sneered.

Because, you know, all worthwhile young people dress and talk like Young Republicans, with phony maturity and phony smoothness.

My friend was the daughter of an important scientist and was herself an incredible student. The president of the college may have looked on worriedly, wanting his students to make a good show in front of the empty-headed snob Dole, but she certainly wasn't worth the bother.

People like Dole and Jacoby want to sneer and be displeased. And the sum total of human beings' talents and abilities and maturity and immaturity always adds up to around the same.

I'd rather giggle and eat eclairs than try to impress these kinds of assholes.

Posted by: Anon on February 17, 2008 at 1:37 AM | PERMALINK

Oh Kevin, Kevin, Kevin; what a goose you are! This is an opinion column in a mainstream media newspaper (one of the mainstreamiest: WaPo); she doesn't have to bother with such silly things as *facts*! Goodness, where have *you* been?

Posted by: Douglas Moran on February 17, 2008 at 1:45 AM | PERMALINK

You've gotta be pretty dumb to think Americans aren't getting dumber!

Posted by: Callimaco on February 17, 2008 at 1:47 AM | PERMALINK

I imagine there is an ongoing shift in intellectual abilities as a result of shifts in the way we live and in the cultural/technological landscape we inhabit.

Computing technology, for example, has its own structures and logic, which younger people absorb unconsciously as they go about their lives, interacting on a daily basis with machines their great-grandparents never imagined. Older folks are baffled by interfaces and systems which their grandchildren adopt effortlessly and intuitively.

But it's not just machines and technology. To young adults, reared in a multicultural world with different ethnicities represented in every classroom, little league team and TV show, not voting for Obama on account of his color is an utterly foreign concept. (As is not voting for Hillary on account of her gender.)

Is this "smarter?" Is leetspeak an advance or a degradation in language? Does the Flynn effect reflect an improvement in intellectual performance or merely an adjustment in cognitive styles? Are decreasing attention spans reflective of pervasive scatterbrainedness, or do they result from an expectation of a faster tempo of information transfer?

I wonder what sort of cognitive shifts will go on in the future. What sort of stuff will my grandchildren and great-grandchildren do to send my kids into head-scratching and "kids these days" mutterings?

Posted by: jimBOB on February 17, 2008 at 1:51 AM | PERMALINK

how everyone in her day knew fluent Archaic Greek

This brings up a point that has always struck me as pretty ironic.

Many snobbish people claim that knowing an ancient language like Classical Greek indicates depth of thought because of the profundity of the Greeks themselves. Yet how many foreign languages did the Greeks themselves know, with, I think, few exceptions? Why, none. In fact, they derided people from other cultures as being, in their term, "barbarians". The Greeks believed they had the best culture -- why trouble themselves with the culture of others?

You know who the ancient Greeks remind me of? Americans.

Posted by: frankly0 on February 17, 2008 at 1:54 AM | PERMALINK

You've gotta be pretty dumb to think Americans aren't getting dumber!

Thanks. I am impressed by your rhetotical skillz.

Have you read any 19th-century American newspapers, by any chance? Looked at the per-capita incidence of violence in those years? The per-capita consumption of whiskey? The percentage of the population that was illiterate?

The Flynn effect is a bunch of bull

Thanks. I am impressed by your evidence-based argument.

You,of course, have a competing explanation for the data series in U.S. Army tests of new recruits, of IQ testing in public schools, etc.?

You will have noticed that nothing precludes a cultural explanation for the Flynn Effect data.

I have not met your grandparents. None of mine could hold the job I hold, or be comfortable in the world I live in. Something has changed.

Posted by: joel hanes on February 17, 2008 at 1:56 AM | PERMALINK

Mo, you're right, but that's what the Flynn Effect is about. Joel Haynes miswrote it, and perhaps misunderstands it.

Kev, I heard her on Bill Moyers Friday night. Frankly, I think she's correct, and you're being too polite. Or, let's put it this way... our intelligence growth curve is lagging most the "first world."

So, Kev (and BG), gotsta disagree with you on this one.

What I really think is happening is an educational stratification that parallels socioeconomic stratification of the last 20 years. A smaller minority of smarter people and the "great educational unwashed" getting greater, while deliberately committing brain suicide with made in China electronic entertainment crap.

See, it IS all a Commie plot!

Posted by: SocraticGadfly on February 17, 2008 at 2:02 AM | PERMALINK


As far as factual knowledge goes, Americans don't know much and never have. There hasn't been much change over the last sixty years. As for tested IQ, it looks as if the Flynn effect has stalled out. If things go on just as they are going today - and when has _that_ ever happened? - you would expect a gradual decline in IQ, since people with high IQs have fewer kids than average, and since IQ is somewhat heritable. The only way in which that would not happen would be if there were _no_ genetic influences on IQ.

I look forward to a myriad of posts suggesting just that, another myriad of posts citing a single example of someone they know who has an IQ of 150 and five kids, and after that a discussion of Muggsy Bogues.

Posted by: gcochran on February 17, 2008 at 2:02 AM | PERMALINK

Evidently the Clinton campaign thinks we're pretty dumb:

Harold Ickes, a top adviser to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's campaign who voted for Democratic Party rules that stripped Michigan and Florida of their delegates, now is arguing against the very penalty he helped pass.

In a conference call Saturday, the longtime Democratic Party member contended the DNC should reconsider its tough sanctions on the two states, which held early contests in violation of party rules. He said millions of voters in Michigan and Florida would be otherwise disenfranchised — before acknowledging moments later that he had favored the sanctions.

Campaigning in Wisconsin after Ickes' remarks, Clinton echoed his contention that a suitable arrangement could be worked out to seat the Michigan and Florida delegations.

"The rules provide for a vote at the convention to seat contested delegations," she said. "This goes back to the 1940s in my memory. There is nothing unusual about this. My husband didn't wrap up the nomination until June. Usually it takes awhile to sort all this out. That's why there are rules. If there are contested delegations, the convention votes on it."

That's right everyone, relax, this is all normal, go back to sleep and let Hillary steal the nomination.....

For a long time I thought all this anti-Hillary venom was the result of Clinton Derangement Syndrome, where otherwise rational people lost their minds and ability to reason when it came to any topic regarding the Clintons. But outright bullshit like the above is making me reconsider....

Posted by: Joe on February 17, 2008 at 2:02 AM | PERMALINK

If kids are getting dumber why does my dad need me to connect the HDTV?

Posted by: john stephen lewis on February 17, 2008 at 2:06 AM | PERMALINK

not to belabor a worn out cliche, but what proof do you need more than the silent acquiescence of the people to the foreign policy fiascoes of the last five years and to the wholesale breaking of the law by the current administration?

Posted by: gregor on February 17, 2008 at 2:06 AM | PERMALINK

Joel: Neither knowledge nor test-taking skills have anything to do with intelligence. Socrates couldn't do either your work or mine because he wouldn't know how to use a computer, and you and I are standing on an edifice of 2,500 years of knowledge he didn't have.

But, in the sense of wisdom or reasoning, not knowledge or skill at taking a test, are you going to put yourself ahead of Socrates?

As for being comfortable with the world we live in, given that the whole population of the Eastern Mediterranean of Socrates' time would comfortably fit into one of NYC's five boroughs today, of course he'd be uncomfortable.

Posted by: SocraticGadfly on February 17, 2008 at 2:06 AM | PERMALINK


Unfortunately for some, IQ scores _do_ have something to do with intelligence, because they do a decent job of predicting how you'll do in a calculus course.

Calculus is important and useful.

Posted by: gcochran on February 17, 2008 at 2:18 AM | PERMALINK

When people start with the "things are going to hell in a hand-basket" or "what's the matter with kids today," the only thing you can conclude is that the speaker, or writer, has himself (or herself in this case) entered middle age.

Posted by: Nancy Irving on February 17, 2008 at 2:40 AM | PERMALINK

I'd say the article itself is evidence enough

25 years back, shit like that wouldn't make it past the editor's "circular file"

Posted by: free patriot on February 17, 2008 at 3:12 AM | PERMALINK

Someone upthread mentioned that his grandfather wouldn't do well in our time, and another comment asked why dad needs help hooking up his toys. But those aren't really functions of intelligence, per se. Those examples are more functions of the process of socialization into the larger culture and being adept at. Adaptability is a function of intelligence, sure, but don't forget the effects of the socialization process, and how well one functions in their environment when you these questions are considered.

Posted by: Blue Girl, Red State on February 17, 2008 at 3:17 AM | PERMALINK

The ability to hook things up is precisely what's going on with the Flynn effect. It's great that the kids know how to do so many different things with their phones! It would have been really great, though, if they'd realized a couple of years ago that our brand new war was criminal, and if now they were a little bit more cognizant that driving their own personal trucks is not a socially responsible thing to do.

Posted by: bad Jim on February 17, 2008 at 3:32 AM | PERMALINK

I lay no blame at the feet of the children or juveniles or young adults of the USA. My daughter gives me every hope of improved intelligence. But, given relatively recent history of this land, when we have a Presidential executive that ignores the Constitution and breaks the laws of the land, an Attorney General that makes excuses for breaking the law, a Supreme Court that excuses those lapses, a legislation that has no intent on upholding their responsibilities of oversight, a media that uncritically reports on these felonies, and a public that does not rebel . . . WHEN this has included illegal surveillance and interception, the widespread suspension of the writ of habeas corpus (one of our most fundamental rights) even for US citizens (including abduction and torture), the broader use of illegal and indeterminate isolation and detention, cruel and unusual punishment, torture, unprosecuted murder, and an illegal war, the raising of the presidency to one that can ignore the nation's Constitution and laws, act with impunity and without oversight, and receive the blessing of the Court, one has to worry about the intelligence of the present populace.

And that would probably include Kevin, 'cos I haven't seen much continued outrage here.

Posted by: notthere on February 17, 2008 at 3:37 AM | PERMALINK

It's been a long time since I considered Kevin any sort of liberal/progressive. A Pundit and stimulator of discourse, now...

Posted by: opit on February 17, 2008 at 4:00 AM | PERMALINK

We're as smart as we need to be. Honestly, is somebody really "dumber" if they don't know geography? If I am going to India, I am going to use a map even if I hold a Master's Degree in Geography. Has anybody died from not knowing the longitude of Perth, Australia?

I'm glad Jacoby has an internal map to guide her through the quotations of Emerson and Moynihan. (Two people I've never had an interest in studying.) However, I wonder how long it would take her to write an interface class for the java gui that I am coding? I wonder if she would follow the Gang of Four's design patterns or if she is so uber smart that she has her own? (Surely she read the GoF book in her treehouse!)

Now if you will excuse me I need to go play Nintendo and watch Youtube.

Posted by: Tuna on February 17, 2008 at 4:03 AM | PERMALINK

There was a similar article that's topped the NYT's most-emailed list for the last several days. Of course, what she's saying is that people are uniformed not dumb. What I don't get---and this applies also to a recent study showing that people are least happy in their 30s to 50s--is why these facts aren't connected to the ever-increasing time Americans spend at work. It hard to be informed, or happy, when it's all daily grind. Fortunately, there do seem to be a lot of folks wasting their work time, and getting smarter, reading blogs.

Posted by: matt on February 17, 2008 at 4:28 AM | PERMALINK

I'm also guessing she couldn't get dropped into the middle of the Kalahari and make her way through life there without any technology (and not a lot of water) as people have been doing for tens of thousands of years.

Intelligence divorced from environment is meaningless. The environment we now live in requires not facts and knowledge, but the ability to learn and adapt very quickly, and most of all the ability to learn how to learn. That's not measured (well) by intelligence tests, because it's not static, and the rules are constantly changing.

Posted by: Charles on February 17, 2008 at 4:30 AM | PERMALINK

I wanted to read Jacoby's article but I couldn't concentrate that long. But how smart can we be? George Bush, Fox News, CNN, and, oh yeah, The Washington friggin Post.

Posted by: capitalistimperialistpig on February 17, 2008 at 5:27 AM | PERMALINK

On the other hand, intelligence as measured by SAT and IQ tests is going up. She is probably right about political intelligence related to knowledge of American history and institutions.

Posted by: bob h on February 17, 2008 at 6:48 AM | PERMALINK

I saw Ms. Jacoby interviewed on Bill Moyer's Journal on PBS amd I found here arguments to be very compelling. She talked about how Americans had gotten lazy in their learning and that had opened the door for right-wing propagandists to convince people that folktales like creationism had equal validity as the theory of evolution. Or, as she put it, "that science and fables are equidistant from the truth". And that the Internet had made people think they could do a couple of Google searches and become instant experts on any subject, without spending the time and the years of discipline to really study a subject to become an "expert". It was really a good analysis, I thought. She noted that only 23 percent of college graduates could find the countries of Israel, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Iraq on a map - countries that have a huge influence on America's foreign policy.

She skewered the right-wing mightily, but also lobbed a few bombs at the left, including pedantic left-wing bloggers (she didn't mention Kevin by name). I wouldn't be so dismissive of Ms. Jacoby's views until you read her new book, The Age of American Unreason. That is, if you are one of the few Americans who still read books!

Posted by: The Conservative Deflator on February 17, 2008 at 7:05 AM | PERMALINK

Susan Jacoby expended 1,541 words to tell us how dumb we are as a nation, but the smug, condescending tone made an interesting subtext. The impression I was left with was that the piece was really an appreciation of her own intellect.

I'm not saying that she was incorrect about our national dumbness, though.

Posted by: Helena Montana on February 17, 2008 at 7:42 AM | PERMALINK

Susan Jacoby expended 1,541 words to tell us how dumb we are as a nation, but her smug, condescending tone made an interesting subtext. The impression I was left with was that the piece was really an appreciation of her own intellect.

I'm not saying that she was incorrect about our national dumbness, though.

Posted by: Helena Montana on February 17, 2008 at 7:46 AM | PERMALINK

Sorry about the double posting. My computer had a hiccup.

Posted by: Helena Montana on February 17, 2008 at 7:50 AM | PERMALINK

Because I talk to many Americans on the phone every day as part of my job I can tell you many are dumb. And petulant. And worse than 5-year olds. Experience tells me many are dumber than ever before. How else do you explain two terms of W? The dumb, suckered in by dumb.You could say this is the dumbest country on the planet.

Posted by: animaux on February 17, 2008 at 8:22 AM | PERMALINK

Someone ought to do some research on those Leno "street interviews," those people are either immensely stupid or great jokers -- I can't decide which it is... but I have noticed similar behavior among young people I've over heard on the subway.

Posted by: joe on February 17, 2008 at 8:26 AM | PERMALINK

Cleaning out the rooms of an old house we bought years ago, I ran across an ancient math and science textbook from the 1920s. My husband and I paged through it in awe (we're both college-educated), and found we could not answer almost half of the questions on any given page.

It was an 8th grade textbook.

Posted by: Riggsveda on February 17, 2008 at 8:30 AM | PERMALINK

Here's an argument for physical deterioration:

Linky thingamabob that didn't exist when I was a whippersnapper.

It's reasonable to presume there's a link between physical and intellectual health. Every generation, though, ends up thinking the ones that come after it are worse, and it's human nature to see the world as deteriorating all the time, so I'm always cautious about this stuff. I do think the evidence for the physical decline of Americans, relative to the rest of the developed world, is pretty irrefutable. We're fatter, shorter, and live less long. And we seem unable, as a nation, to even care, let alone begin doing something about it.

Posted by: MG on February 17, 2008 at 8:42 AM | PERMALINK

IF we are dumber, which I refuse to believe, it is because our government since Reagan has attempted to make sure we are less well educated by attacking the public school system and making the welfare of our children no longer a priority. It comes well behind corporate welfare and military spending, which take a huge amount of our tax money.

You get what you pay for. We pay for war and inequality, and lo and behold, look what we get.

Posted by: bloomingpol on February 17, 2008 at 8:43 AM | PERMALINK

Ah, Kevin.

I think the phenonmenon we're seeing is that certain segments of our population of getting dumber.

For instance, today, we have large huge numbers of illegals crossing into our boarders. These people are little educated, and don't speak english. So these people are, in a sense, contaminating our knowledge base.

Second, we have large segments of the population that repudiate western civilization and everything it stands for. For them, the adopt this faux multiculturalism for their culture and faux religion (like wicca or panthesim) for their religion. They have no cultural literacy, and thus no context for which to fit facts to. Liberals are included in this group.

Posted by: egbert on February 17, 2008 at 8:46 AM | PERMALINK

Laura Miller had a very good review of the book in Salon that actually did the book more justice than Ms. Jacoby's own column in the Wapo. The Wapo column seems to focus on lowest-common-denominator pop culture, which of course has always been with us and always will be - though sometimes the lowest denominator is bear-baiting or feeding Christians and other assorted slaves to lions and sometimes it's "Bachelor Island Adolescent Sex Fantasy" on Fox. The more salient aspect of her critique (which has been made by plenty others, including Al Gore in "The Assault on Reason") is the anti-intellectualism of people who might be called public intellectuals, i.e., movement conservatives who devalue all inquiry, open-mindedness and objectivity in order to stoke the subjective cultural anxieties of people resistant to change.

Posted by: Geoff G on February 17, 2008 at 8:47 AM | PERMALINK

Laura Miller had a very good review of the book in Salon that actually did the book more justice than Ms. Jacoby's own column in the Wapo. The Wapo column seems to focus on lowest-common-denominator pop culture, which of course has always been with us and always will be - though sometimes the lowest denominator is bear-baiting or feeding Christians and other assorted slaves to lions and sometimes it's "Bachelor Island Adolescent Sex Fantasy" on Fox. The more salient aspect of her critique (which has been made by plenty others, including Al Gore in "The Assault on Reason") is the anti-intellectualism of people who might be called public intellectuals, i.e., movement conservatives who devalue all inquiry, open-mindedness and objectivity in order to stoke the subjective cultural anxieties of people resistant to change.

Posted by: Geoff G on February 17, 2008 at 8:51 AM | PERMALINK

What Jacoby needs to acknowledge (and, maybe she does) is, Americans may also be showing the effects of a sensory overload of sorts. Although reading less books certainly cuts down on knowledge and information, just as long viewing periods of television, or for that matter any extended exposure to screen/tube has produced clinical signs of depression in studies, these issues do not necessarily point to actually lowering an IQ, but more or less in creating a "dumbing down effect"

The video visual revolution stared in the sixties, and has escalated to the sensory inundation we witness today. The video/electronic infatuation has also created an alienation in many, reducing interaction and communications and the skills one normally develops when not obsessed with devices. Just watch kids with the phones, I-pods and hand held gaming devices...they literally shut the world out. But they are the ones that will tell the story, we are the transitional generation, and will be long gone before the true effects will be observed. Does all of this lower IQ? Don't know, but it sure is creating social change. The new age electronic revolution spoke of years ago was to enhance or enrich human communication and development, I am not so much convinced of that.

Posted by: benmerc on February 17, 2008 at 8:51 AM | PERMALINK

Also, I think you also have to blame our flagging public school systems and their socialist foundations. The schools today are more concerned with teaching kids about same-sex marriages and the virtues of condoms than teaching the controversies and the 3 r's.

Posted by: egbert on February 17, 2008 at 8:52 AM | PERMALINK

I think the columnist was trying to say that we are becoming less intellectually engaged, not "dumb" as such. Americans aren't stupid. They just don't choose to inform themselves. Education is rarely a big election issue. American test scores slip further back in the pack every year. You can say that test scores aren't always indicative. But when american students are falling behind in almost every study, surely we have to admit that something is wrong. There are developing nations that score much better than we do.

And I do think electing George Bush can be taken as an indication of American awareness of the world around them. This was a man who was clearly not gifted or developed with the talent, skills and knowlege to be president of the United States at it's peak moment in power. Yet he became president. And the unspeakably lousy administration he conducted was sufficent to get him a second term.

There is a problem. You get the government you deserve. And maybe we are "dumb" enough to deserve this one.


Posted by: kla on February 17, 2008 at 8:55 AM | PERMALINK

Of course, what she's saying is that people are uniformed not dumb.

Exactly. But that doesn't sell books or TV appearances.

Posted by: Econobuz on February 17, 2008 at 8:56 AM | PERMALINK

"American test scores slip further back in the pack every year."

False

Posted by: reino on February 17, 2008 at 9:07 AM | PERMALINK

"The schools today are more concerned with teaching kids about same-sex marriages and the virtues of condoms than teaching the controversies and the 3 r's."

False

Posted by: reino on February 17, 2008 at 9:08 AM | PERMALINK

"Second, we have large segments of the population that repudiate western civilization and everything it stands for. For them, the adopt this faux multiculturalism for their culture and faux religion (like wicca or panthesim) for their religion. They have no cultural literacy, and thus no context for which to fit facts to. Liberals are included in this group."

Jonah Goldbergesque

Posted by: reino on February 17, 2008 at 9:10 AM | PERMALINK

Of Course we're getting dumber, and the documentary Idiocracy proves it. ;-)

Posted by: Psyberian on February 17, 2008 at 9:12 AM | PERMALINK

I think she has a great point in the beginning of the article about smart people being labeled elite. Somehow in our society, being smart has become a "bad" thing. People who know a great deal about their subjects are nerds or wonks, not experts. And the terms nerd and wonk have a perjorative connotation. Our schools no longer teach how to think, they teach how to take a test. Too many people think that if they see it on the internet or TV it must be true. Critical thinking seems to be in shorter supply today. I learned how to think at the dinner table in discussions with my parents. I had to defend my stance against the death penalty to my father. (yes, we talked about things like the death penalty and politics.) But fewer parents have or take the time to discuss these things with their children, and schools can't discuss them, for fear of offending someone. So today we get talk about who's hottest on American Idol and did we see the "dick in the box" video on YouTube (which was actually pretty funny and creative).

Posted by: cyrki on February 17, 2008 at 9:26 AM | PERMALINK

The question is not whether people are dumber, but rather that the American secondary schools leave them ignorant. For this I blame the Democrats and the teacher unions, unfortunately.

Let's face it. American public high schools are largely state babysitting services, where access to Latin is typically dropped in favor of an additional football coach (a true event in the high school I had the misfortune to have attended, in Kevin's Orange County no less).

Perhaps another way of putting it is that American culture appears to have been bifurcated. On the one hand we've deified pop culture, even as 'high culture' has become technical. Cultural products tend to be either sentimental slop or febrile and formalized pyrotechnics (as examples perhaps Anne Proulx and Milton Babbitt or Paul Austin will do). In this respect it is, in my opinion, not chance that the most interesting and best American cultural products are those that are members of a genre (detectives, SF). So far, it seems, Americans are better at amalgamations than syntheses.

In short, education/intelligence is after all but the possibility of appreciation of that which is the non-self. I would hold that the latter is only feasible through the intermediation that is knowledge. It really does help to know that Perth, WA is named after Perth, Scotland.

Posted by: Pip's Squeak on February 17, 2008 at 9:30 AM | PERMALINK

You wanted proof that Americans are getting dumber, and egbert promptly obliges.

Posted by: DJ on February 17, 2008 at 9:47 AM | PERMALINK

When I was young the grass was taller, the trees were taller, and the vacant lot behind our house was at least twice as big.

I'm not sure if my political perspective is similarly biased but I have come to a Jacobyesqe conclusion concerning the intelligence of the media and it's pundits.

Posted by: people on February 17, 2008 at 9:50 AM | PERMALINK

I know there are similar lamentations over decreasing intelligence - written decades or even centuries ago.

On the other hand, many of the comments here sound to me like - "It's obvious that people are less intelligent - except for me and my friends and some intellectuals and my kids and some really bright nephews and nieces..."

Posted by: ClareA on February 17, 2008 at 10:00 AM | PERMALINK

perhaps another op-ed article published in the WaPo today provides some insight into this controversy: E.D. Hirsch's view that reading scores have not risen in the higher grades since No Child Left Behind was instituted, because teachers are not (or can no longer) provide thorough instruction in various areas of knowledge because they must focus on the mechanics of "teaching to the test"; therefore students do not have the cultural background they need to achieve higher reading comprehension scores. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/02/15/AR2008021503008.html

Posted by: Mary on February 17, 2008 at 10:05 AM | PERMALINK

I don't know, Pip's squeak...
The teachers unions and Democratic party have been out of power in my state for 10 years now...and since then we have sunk several rungs to near the bottom in academic standings, the Republican's efforts in educational protocol has been a complete failure, even the current Republican gov. has acknowledged as much (in his typical round about spin-speak).

Posted by: benmerc on February 17, 2008 at 10:14 AM | PERMALINK

I saw the interview on Bill Moyers and was not impressed. This discussion is interesting but I don't think comments like: "My grandparents couldn't do my job" are hardly the point..

What I think is important is the extent to which each generation can face the challenges of its time and learn from the mistakes of the present and of the past.

I think there is a decided lack of intelligence when society repeats recent mistakes and ignores important information....I suspect that looking back at this time we will say that the current credit crisis and the disaster that could come with it was a repeat of mistakes that were learned at the time of the last great stock market crash.

But ideology has trumpted reason and knowledge..
It does very often in our country. That is disturbing

Posted by: MsComment on February 17, 2008 at 10:17 AM | PERMALINK

so... The editors at the Washington Post don't even have the same standards as your average community college instructor?

Posted by: Soullite on February 17, 2008 at 10:17 AM | PERMALINK

frankly0:

The Greeks believed they had the best culture -- why trouble themselves with the culture of others? You know who the ancient Greeks remind me of? Americans.

Er... thanks for gratuitous insult to our nation.
Since you regard that sort of thing as clever. Let me spin it and spit it back at you full phlegm:

You know who the ancient Greeks remind me of?
They remind me of Pro-Clinton voters who snot up threads with know-it-all-non-stop arrogance in regards to the greatness of their candidate. For them all other cultures/candidates are just so much worthless shit to be denigrated around the clock as non-American.

Posted by: frankly pissed in Hawaii on February 17, 2008 at 10:21 AM | PERMALINK

At least where I am, it seems like people read more books since the internet culture and the rise of computers and the nerd culture took off in the '90s. Maybe its just the red states where people are reading so much less that they makes up for the increased bookishness of book-cafe-laden places like NJ.

Maybe the WaPo/MSM is just concerned about the red state hicks being uninformed relative to West Europeans and blue staters.

Posted by: Swan on February 17, 2008 at 10:31 AM | PERMALINK

Yepper, out here in flyover country we don't know nuthin' bout no readin' or in-tie-leckshul stim-u-lashun. Most of us carved our computers out of hickory foraged from the hillsides. Idiot.

Posted by: Blue Girl, Red State on February 17, 2008 at 10:43 AM | PERMALINK

Pip's Squeak,

How have Democrats and teachers unions caused secondary schools to leave their students ignorant?

Posted by: crimelord on February 17, 2008 at 10:46 AM | PERMALINK

lso, I think you also have to blame our flagging public school systems and their socialist foundations.

Foundations? Really? The foundations of public schools is capitalism. The first public schools were created around Philadelphia by mill owners in hopes of better educated workforce. Schools are designed to create adults that are well versed in working based on regimented system of schedules, while teaching enough basic facts to be able to succeed in the job/adult marketplace. (Which of course includes sex education. Unless you hope that people don't have sex as adults.) And of course to socialize and Americanize those very undocumented immigrants of which you speak. (Because documentation is only a recent phenomenon, frankly. So it's definitely not at the foundation.)

I'm not sure why I'm arguing with egbert. You'd think my public school education would have taught me not to argue with stones. But I just didn't want that to stand out there unchallenged.

Posted by: Christopher on February 17, 2008 at 10:47 AM | PERMALINK

It would be just like a red-stater to do things like raise his kids to care only about football or church and to hate the nerds, tell his kids that what the teacher in school is actually teaching them is wrong (and that some fake history is real), teach his kids things like the Earth is only around 5,000 years old or that it was populated by God in the Garden of Eden (a notion the only support for which is a very old book, written when people were uniformly very ignorant-- and we don't know who wrote the book), and teach his kids that it's comtemptible to be really thoughtful and curious about the world-- and then get pissed off when he realizes his kids have grown up to not care about loads of things serious people know are important, and think about, and have such small vocabularies and rough outlooks on the world that many people rightly think they're stupid.

That's why I go and write a joke comment like this sometimes.

Posted by: Swan on February 17, 2008 at 10:50 AM | PERMALINK

Tom Lehrer had a wonderful response for those who think the whole world is getting dumber in that those persons' lifetimes. When discussing, "new" math, Lehrer noted the following:


"Consider the following subtraction problem, which I will put up here:
342 -
173.

Now remember how we used to do that. three from two is nine; carry the one, and if you're under 35 or went to a private school you say seven from three is six, but if you're over 35 and went to a public school you say eight from four is six..."

Apropos of Jacoby, the reason FDR wanted people to buy maps in World War II is because polling showed a significant number of Americans did not know where Germany was located on the globe, and of course, at that time, there were far more people than today who believed the earth was not a sphere, but essentially flat. My question to Jacoby would be "How many people really went out and bought maps--and of those, how many were the ones who didn't know where Germany was?"

Yes, one can be frustrated, as we get older, at the ignorance within our nation's public policy discourse, but my ire is far more directed at the elite pundits and university professors, and think tankers, etc., than regular folks who put too much trust in what they see on t.v. or hear on radio.

Posted by: mitchell freedman on February 17, 2008 at 10:50 AM | PERMALINK

Blue Girl, Red State at 10:43, you must not really be a red-stater or you must not be much of a liberal if you don't know that the southern and western states generally really fail their kids in terms of what kind of a public education they provide, and that for a very long time southern white kids have done very bad on standardized tests relative to northern whites.

Nothing I wrote was prejudiced against southerners, and I'm not- but it's a fact of life in modern America that there's a very destructive culture alive in the south that has a lot of negative characteristics, mostly rooted in ignorance. Hell, the south and rural states are the homes of the KKK. That wasn't 1,000 years ago.

Think first before you get nasty, please.

Posted by: Swan on February 17, 2008 at 10:53 AM | PERMALINK

Swan, you already know I have no little regard and no respect for any of the blather you obsessively post. It was a display of poor judgment on my part that I even responded to you at all. The only reason I even saw your comment is because I have not gotten around to adding Greasemonkey and Cleek's disemvoweler to this machine. I will be taking care of that oversight today.

Pie anyone?

Posted by: Blue Girl, Red State on February 17, 2008 at 11:00 AM | PERMALINK

Some of you people seem to think the aim of schools is to prepare citizens. Bullshit! Kids are taught to show up on time, sit quietly at their desks, do what they are told and keep their mouths shut. All so they will spend the next 40 years showing up on time, grinding away in their cubicles, and most of all keeping their fat mouths shut.

Posted by: Mike on February 17, 2008 at 11:01 AM | PERMALINK

It's not just the kids who are getting dumber, it's everybody. The corporate owned media and government has encouraged Americans of all age groups to be more uncritical and self indulgent.

In addition, we live in a more complicated and morally ambiguous world than people 50 or 100 years ago. There are no "right" answers to many of our pressing problems and other problems have such complex and counterintuitive solutions that most people could not follow them. Most people have problems with this sort of ambiguity and respond by emotionally choosing a "right" or becoming completely apathetic.

So the problem isn't the people per se, the problem is that we're living in Rome 375 AD, again.

Posted by: anon on February 17, 2008 at 11:09 AM | PERMALINK

Swan,

One of the modern resurgence efforts of the KKK in the fist half of the last century was head quartered in Indiana, and was also well supported in other northern states. Most of this was in reaction to the large influx of eastern and southern European immigrants. Nevertheless, the same hateful propagandistic tactics and actions were used, and lives were lost.

Posted by: benmerc on February 17, 2008 at 11:09 AM | PERMALINK

The People are ignorant, base, frankly uncivilized and therefore cannot be counted on to make the right decision. This is probably the oldest political argument in favor of elite government. It is a stock argument against unchecked democratic political organization. The House of Lords, and its descendant the American Senate, is supposed to cool the sentiments of the hoi polloi and act as a bulwark against the People’s natural susceptibility to destructive demagoguery.

In the West the ideal of civilization was created as a reform of the primitive ways of man, including the blindness of religion. To those with a favorable view of humanity republicanism and civilization are necessary features of the good state. You must spread the latter to make good citizens for the former. Neocons in the tradition of Leo Strauss have a darker view. They do not think the People are capable of civilization. In this view an enlightened oligarchy should dominate behind the scenes and, as in pre-modern times, preach virtue to the People. Liberal reforms are dangerous because they try to civilize and politically enfranchise those that are incapable of or unwilling to grasp the whole matter. Liberals free the unwashed from the preserving force of virtue (religion in the neocon view has a political function) but the People do not gain wisdom. This ends in dictatorship.

The story goes that romanticism is a revolt against the civilizing program and the demands of elite virtue. The romantic revolt has been directed against foreign culture, the old aristocracy, organized religion, the centralized state, liberal education, bourgeoisie society, liberal society, the family, and every other form of oppression that enslaves men and women to be something other than their individual selves, in their native land with their natural customs.

Posted by: bellumregio on February 17, 2008 at 11:20 AM | PERMALINK

One reason I find it very hard to believe that the American public is, on average, less well informed than in decades or generations past is the simple fact that the years of education for the average American has increased dramatically from those past times to today.

Today, a very good portion -- I think half or more -- of the public attends college at least for some period of time. Back in, say, the forties or fifties, I think that the good majority of Americans had not even completed HS.

Is it really plausible that we're taking on many more years of education, but on balance know less? Apart from the usual simultaneously cynical and trite view that our society is subject to some kind of intellectual entropy, I don't see a good argument.

Posted by: frankly0 on February 17, 2008 at 11:27 AM | PERMALINK

Meh. I'm now a middle aged guy who is a legal aid attorney. A few months ago I told my intern to get document off of the network drive. After explaining to my intern what a network drive was, I had to show her how to access same from her computer. So much for the kids knowing technology ...

Several of my colleagues also graduated college without having to take calculus. Back in my day, everyone had to take at least calculus to graduate! And we liked it! We even walked uphill both ways in the summer blizzards to get to calculus class. Now get off my lawn!

Posted by: Richard Goblin on February 17, 2008 at 11:29 AM | PERMALINK

It is irrelevant to point out how you dad can't hook up the HDTV. Any one of us, if we were transplanted to 1870, or even 1920, would likely starve to death.

Are we getting dumber? I doubt it. I do think we educate people in the wrong things and in the wrong ways, so I think there is vast room for improvement, but there has always been vast room for improvement. A hundred years from now, I am sure the world would be unrecognizable to me, and people will be debating whether or not people are dumber than they were today.

Posted by: Yancey Ward on February 17, 2008 at 11:41 AM | PERMALINK

Apropos of my last comment, here's a Wikipedia entry that describes a bit of the history of educational attainment in the US.

Note particularly the graph to the upper right. (It doesn't deal with the issue of college attendance per se, though, but only that of receiving bachelors degrees.)

Again, it's little hard to see how the meaning of that graph translates into greater ignorance in the American people.

Posted by: frankly0 on February 17, 2008 at 11:50 AM | PERMALINK

Two quick points - First, cyrki mentioned it above - one of the great achievements of the American conservative movement is to inspire disdain for educated people among the general populace and to characterize them as "elites". What then do you call all of the members of right-wing "think tanks"? Are they not also "elites"? Disdain for knowledge and educated people does not bode well for the 21st Century. This viewpoint is not all that different than the Wahabbist view that only religious study has value.

Second, turn off your TV some night and sit motionless staring at the box for three to four hours. Does it occur to you now how pointless, physically debilitating and unproductive watching TV is? At least with surfing the Internet, you are choosing the content that is going into your brain. "Pull" technology is far better than passive "push" technology.

I think Ms. Jacoby's views need a thorough discussion in the forum of public opinion.

Posted by: The Conservative Deflator on February 17, 2008 at 11:57 AM | PERMALINK

Are decreasing attention spans reflective of pervasive scatterbrainedness, or do they result from an expectation of a faster tempo of information transfer? -jimBOB

What Jacoby needs to acknowledge (and, maybe she does) is, Americans may also be showing the effects of a sensory overload of sorts. -benmerc

This is what the problem is IMO. The *quantity* of information has shot up so dramatically that we are trying to absorb too much of it at once. It results in a lot of data haze. The duration of a moment has gotten a lot smaller. I'm back in college again for the first time in twenty years and there are way too many technological distractions in the classroom. I learn the best when the instructor is *talking* to me and using a blackboard and I am *listening* and taking notes. Now it seems they all have to use PowerPoint™ and quickly race through it with little chance for the class to ask questions and interact with the instructor directly. Students sitting next to me are tapping out term papers on laptops, or text messaging people and paying no attention to the PowerPoint presentations because they can just go and view them later on Blackboard™.

Posted by: Doc at the Radar Station on February 17, 2008 at 12:06 PM | PERMALINK

We must be getting dumber - look who we elected.

Posted by: nonheroicvet on February 17, 2008 at 12:12 PM | PERMALINK

One of the main problems of college is the lecture. Kids come into the system from school where they were taught. College expects them to go and learn. This is mainly due to the goal of universities. They are looking for "research" oriented students. Everyone else is simply a by-product.

My personal view is that there should be a welcome to college 101 that explains this. The core of your course should be aimed around a reading and exercises list, with a syllabus that states "you should know this, by this week". The seminar or tutor period is when students should come and ask questions of the profs/assistants to cement their learning.

An as such, this still doesn't provide a "rounded" education, unless the student who has learned to learn and learned to think, gets to turn those attributes over a wide ranging number of topics. If the goal of college is to turn out inquisitive, erudite, rational, educational powerhouses, we've still got some work to do.

Posted by: royalblue_tom on February 17, 2008 at 12:20 PM | PERMALINK

As for learning in college, royalblue_tom, has it exactly correct.

Posted by: Yancey Ward on February 17, 2008 at 12:35 PM | PERMALINK

are you going to put yourself ahead of Socrates?

First, neither Socrates nor I are anywhere near typical for our times and places. I agree with Ms. Jacoby that average Americans are woefully uninformed, and I agree with you that Socrates was both more wise and a better and more original thinker than I.

But I think that I'll put those Iowa farmers who recently caucused up against the agricultural workers of Socrates' time without much doubt about the outcome. And Socrates, brilliant as he was, still had a tendency to reason teleologically, which turns out not to work.

I think the Flynn Effect is cultural. I think the complexity and pace of our culture, and the cumulative knowledge of what works and what doesn't, is reflected in changes to the cognitive and verbal space we inhabit, and that far more is demanded of the average American of today than was demanded of the average American before WW II, and we have adapted intellectually. But different things are demanded: many of us routinely take our lives in our hands and drive at high speed in heavy traffic and think nothing of it. I think Socrates might find my morning commute terrifying. Perhaps I should too.

Those old eighth-grade math textbooks were hard, no doubt about it. And the content was presented in a dry, formal style that is alien to us now.
(I note that a century ago many Americans quit school after the eighth grade.)

That may be one of the causes of the Flynn effect; I think you might find it easier to become proficient at algebra using a modern, "dumbed-down" text, as I suspect today's students do. And it may well be that a greater percentage of Americans could do algebra in their heads in 1940 than in 2008; but the data series available don't seem to support that assertion.

Posted by: joel hanes on February 17, 2008 at 12:35 PM | PERMALINK

*

Posted by: mhr on February 17, 2008 at 12:37 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin,

I read Jacoby's essay. She does present evidence rather than "not a single piece of evidence", as you claimed. You can certainly take issue with the evidence she presented, but the claim you made is completely wrong. Perhaps your blog entry is evidence of her thesis.

Posted by: Yancey Ward on February 17, 2008 at 12:38 PM | PERMALINK

Uh, Americans have never struck me (north of the border guy) as anything approaching dumb. Quite the contrary.

...how stupid and worthless we all were and how everyone in her day knew fluent Archaic Greek and Latin.

Odd position for Elizabeth Dole. For when Britain "lost" its Empire, it was because, according to some historians, people were overly educated in Classics and not science or engineering. I would have thought she would have been aware of that theory, since the English historians looked enviously at American education, hence Americans, as the model to follow.

Posted by: Bob M on February 17, 2008 at 12:43 PM | PERMALINK

Will Rogers once said, "The schools ain't what they used to be, and they never were." I have made that quote into a small poster that I keep above my desk in my high school classroom. At some point in each semester, someone will ask what the quote means and it usually triggers a good discussion. I THINK what it's supposed to mean is something like, "every generation has always believed that the next generation was going to hell in a handbasket, and yet things seem to work out." As a few other commenters have said, most people in high school and even college have a pretty narrow range of interests. It's only once you get out into the world that some of these things become a concern to us. I would venture to say that all human progress has been the result of about 5% of the population, if that much, dragging the rest of us along. Let's face it, the average guy is, well, average.

Posted by: Dennis on February 17, 2008 at 12:49 PM | PERMALINK

The evidence is the Bush administration. They wouldn't exist if it weren't for a bunch of dumb Americans. Also, Limbaugh's listening audience is proof.

Posted by: Mazurka on February 17, 2008 at 12:54 PM | PERMALINK

You can certainly take issue with the evidence she presented, but the claim you made is completely wrong.

But each and every bit of "evidence" is lame in the extreme.

One such is the claim that we must be dumber because politicians are using shorter and shorter sound bites.

But there's another way to look at that point. Quite possibly, it's been better and better understood, as these matters have been studied empirically, that shorter soundbites are simply more effective. Likely, if that's so, it's always been so, but politicians just didn't know it, because science had not really been applied to the matter.

In fact, while people blame politicians and society and God knows what else for the degradation of our political discourse, the most likely culprit is behavioral science, which has revealed unhappy truths about how people are most easily manipulated.

Posted by: frankly0 on February 17, 2008 at 12:57 PM | PERMALINK

Well, it is true modern society offers all sorts of fruitless entertainments. You should not waste time on them; you should eat right, exercise and get plenty of sleep. But there have always been such things; they are plentiful because we are rich. An old professor of mine was fond of relating the everyday lives of the ancient Sumerians as a way of getting across the point that human life had not changed much in 5,000 years. He told us the story of a sad scribe, one of the few high positions a relatively common person could attain, who complained, in cuneiform, about his son wasting time on the street corner with his friends when he should be studying. Today it would be an e-mail about your kid sitting mindlessly playing Halo 3.

Posted by: bellumregio on February 17, 2008 at 12:59 PM | PERMALINK

Susan sure struck a chord on Moyers. The comments at Moyers blog were virulant and bipolar. I was surprised that so many lefties took offense. What Jacoby said about some of the stupid, self-destructive, counter-productice activities of lefties in the late 60s, early 70s was right on!

Any thoughtful person who doesn't think that mainstream TV is at the best not harmful is well..stupid. In the first part of Assault on Reason, Gore talks about the hypnotic, passive, desensitizing effects of TV. Best part of the book,imho. Much of TV is now like watching a strobe-light. A device often used in brain-washing and torture according to Naomi Klein in The Shock Doctrine. Whether or not this being done deliberately, for malicious reasons, is certainly debatable. Whether done just for profit or not the effects are the same.

People are probably not stupider, they just know less of what is relevant to ethical, rational, independent citizens of a democracy. Their filters are either clogged or burned out.

Posted by: Michael7843853 G-O/F in 08! on February 17, 2008 at 1:58 PM | PERMALINK

If students are less informed in history, the arts, etc., and the degree they are gaining in knowledge, or intelligence, is due to their own computer skills, or computer/tech type classes in public schools, I will "blame" a variety of forces.

1. Schools in being too business-conservative, not liberal, for moving public high schools in a more vo-tech direction and less focus on the value of and need for liberal arts, and similar actions.

2. School bureaucracies for not leading the call for a school year long enough to match that in other Westernized countries. WHEN are we going to get a 200-day, or longer, school year here?

Posted by: SocraticGadfly on February 17, 2008 at 2:15 PM | PERMALINK

Call me a heretic. Not Ishmael. In any event, society does not value intellectuals right now. Children are reading a lot on line. Books were/are a diversion. Like My Space. Year-long school isn't the answer either--that makes school into day care, which Americans working those three jobs probably need, but point of fact: time with families and parents is what is already most lacking in the indictments of our general cultural decline. Teach your kids to value complex ideas and music. To be moved by great literature and writing. And to stop text messaging 'n stuff.


AND if you are watching NASCAR while reading this and listening to Toby Keith? You are an asshole. No need to google yourself further.

Posted by: Sparko on February 17, 2008 at 2:24 PM | PERMALINK

People were pretty stupid in the Fifties when I was a kid.
I don't deny they're dangerously stupid now. But to say that it's new is fallacious.
Cars with big fins! Joe McCarthy! Professional wrestlling! Dial soap has AT-7! Sixteen year old girls wearing girdles! Game shows! Segregation! Adding 'under God' to the Pledge of Alllegiance!

Learning was no more respected in the 50's than it is today. Pretty people dominated then as they dominate now. Eggheads were denigrated then as they're denigrated now. The powrful are apologized for now as they were then. We elected the stupider of two presidential candidates because he was a general and had these big friendly eyes.
Have we decayed since then? I don't think so.
And go read Sinclair Lewis if you think things were any better earlier on.
Or the American sequences in Charles Dickens's Martin Chuzzlewit.

Posted by: pbg on February 17, 2008 at 2:36 PM | PERMALINK

I volunteer once a year to be a judge in the state science fair finals, and it suggests a different conclusion from what I read in Jacoby's piece. I see students who have learned enormous gobs of scientific fact and have managed to put them in context based on scientific principles. Admittedly, this observation is tempered with the fact that the students are limited by age, experience, and the fact that they haven't picked up organic chemistry yet, but nevertheless, their achievements are often impressive. This suggests that at least some students, schools, and teachers have found a productive path to education and creative work. Curiously, one of the things I began to notice about a decade ago was that the students were keeping up with the latest technological gimmicks (ie: 3-D bar graphs using excel) even when I wasn't. Yes, there is a wide variation amongst the students in terms of brilliance, but there is no evidence for lack of intelligence in this media-intensive age.

I suspect that these screeds about falling intelligence come mostly from the humanities side of the aisle, and probably reflect the turning away from classical studies as students are challenged with technology and biology. The latter fields have been growing by leaps and bounds over the past half century, and it would be surprising if education didn't veer a bit towards that direction.

Jacoby's op ed suffers from following two different ideas down different paths. Let's consider the virtuous side: We certainly can recognize a strong anti-intellectualism in Mike Huckabee's message -- he rejects evolution based on the authority of the Bible without considering the more complex commentary by deeper thinkers. Worse yet, the mass media seem to have adopted a posture of neutrality on the battle between rationalism and anti-intellectualism. All I have to do is open my local newspaper and find a full page story on the latest naturopathy gimmick to recognize this immediately. There is a wing of conservatism that is based on the idea that a whole class of comments, thought, and commentary is dangerously seditious.

The problem with Jacoby's piece emerges in the form of a more learned version of the chronic complaining about how x percent of our people can't find Iraq on the map and don't know what century the Civil War was fought in. I am somewhat concerned about the latter, but not nearly so concerned about the former. What the former seems to be suggesting is that geography is not taught quite so intensely as we might like for it to be. Not only that, but Iraq is a little hard to find unless you know exactly where to look. One might equally complain that most people don't know the location of the pancreas vs the spleen. The larger point is that schools used to put a greater emphasis on memorization, back in the days of our grandparents. With loss of that emphasis, there is a loss in the ability of people to recite long lists of facts and locations.

Meanwhile, I see lots of extremely bright, well educated students who demonstrate excellent understanding of scientific principles.

I have a sneaking suspicion about these "end of civilization" types -- the ones who complain that Latin isn't taught anymore, etc -- and this is that their complaints are based on their having a classical humanities background and a near total ignorance of modern science and technology. Jacoby tosses a crumb to science early in her piece, but there is little to suggest that she has really thought about science education or the intellectual stimulus of mathematical theory.

Posted by: Bob G on February 17, 2008 at 2:42 PM | PERMALINK

"I read Jacoby's essay."

So did Kevin, so did I, and so did most of the people commenting here.

"She does present evidence rather than 'not a single piece of evidence', as you claimed."

No, actually she doesn't. Kevin's claim was precisely correct.

"You can certainly take issue with the evidence she presented, but the claim you made is completely wrong."

You'll have to do better than just assert this.

"Perhaps your blog entry is evidence of her thesis."

ROFL... If you consider Kevin's blog entry as "evidence of her thesis", then all you've done is demonstrate your own stupidity.

Posted by: PaulB on February 17, 2008 at 2:51 PM | PERMALINK

I agree! I was really unimpressed by her "argument" and I'm speaking as someone who was totally ready to be convinced.
I especially rolled my eyes at the part about how there used to be such lively discussions on college campuses whereas now everyone's just on their computers. Well, duh, we just moved the discussions online! Crikey, that's not too hard to figure out. :-P

Posted by: Julia G on February 17, 2008 at 2:55 PM | PERMALINK

I don't think the headline captures what Jacoby was trying to say, and I doubt that she wrote the headline. I think her topic, as stated in the first paragraph, was "anti-intellectualism, anti-rationalism and low expectations." She did provide evidence of that.


Posted by: nobody important on February 17, 2008 at 3:00 PM | PERMALINK

You wanted proof that Americans are getting dumber, and egbert promptly obliges.
Posted by: DJ on February 17, 2008 at 9:47 AM

but egbert does seem to have gotten hold of spell-check somewhere. either that, or someone is forging his posts in this thread.

your pal,
blake

Posted by: blake on February 17, 2008 at 3:32 PM | PERMALINK

"kids today don't care much about geography."

Trust me, Kevin, they do not.

Posted by: Where's Sally? on February 17, 2008 at 3:41 PM | PERMALINK

This was probably said before, but the evidence is that people read columns such as hers and actually post about it. They did not do that before.

She provides few if any comparisons or direct evidence to support her assertions. I'm sure you can find a similar article written years ago shortly after the teevee became common. It would be nice to know if it's actually true. Then again it's not as if measuring intelligence is truly science at this point.

There, I feel a bit less smart now.

Posted by: ahoyhoy on February 17, 2008 at 3:43 PM | PERMALINK

I work in Korea. As a Confucian society Koreans tend to see all relationships as have a vertical characteristic to them. Korean's who first received civilization from China, traditionally saw China a big brother, and Japan, who Korea passed civilization onto, as the wayward, ungrateful little brother. Korea was always a tributary state to China.

The American presence in Korea not only keeps Kim Jung-Il from harassing the country, but also the regional giants of Japan and China. Koreans fear being sandwiched by the two.

But that creates a hug problem. The United States is in the vertically superior role. Yet the American people elected George Bush.

When my students want to humiliate me they bring up Bush, calling him Bushie, in mocking tones.

And believe, me - as a westerner I don't believe in vertical relationships, but it is humiliating to be overseas while Bush is in office and is president.

By the way, I have a geography degree. What amazes me is how little value people put in it. And how little value I get directly for knowing stuff about the world that nobody else knows.


Posted by: Bubbles on February 17, 2008 at 3:51 PM | PERMALINK

Thanks for the link, Kevin. It was an interesting opinion piece. (And, by the way, she did provide data. Skim better next time.)

Quick question: Why are so many commenters so dismissive--sometimes angrily so--of Jacoby and her thesis? Her argument is plausible and deserves a hearing. So what's up with all you Jacoby haters? Feeling guilty about all of the trash TV you watch?

Posted by: Jim on February 17, 2008 at 4:29 PM | PERMALINK

Bubbles: how little value I get directly for knowing stuff about the world that nobody else knows

You aren't kidding. Just last week a commenter here, after a stunning display of historical ignorance, boasted of a college degree. Someone else remarked "your degree clearly isn't in history." Response, and I wish I was making this up: "History? You can get a degree in that?"

Nowadays if you can't patent your knowledge and launch an IPO worth millions, your knowledge is without value. We may or may not be dumber as individuals, but as a society we've lost a boatload of wisdom somewhere.

Posted by: thersites on February 17, 2008 at 4:32 PM | PERMALINK

Don't know much about history
Don't know much biology
Don't know much about science books
Don't know much about the French I took ...

Don't know much about geography
Don't know much trigonometry
Don't know much about algebra
Don't know what a slide rule is for ...

Sam Cooke 1960

Posted by: joel hanes on February 17, 2008 at 4:43 PM | PERMALINK

Blue Girl: Most of us carved our computers out of hickory foraged from the hillsides.

Which goes to prove the point: We sophisticated easterners use only the finest oak for our computers.

Posted by: thersites on February 17, 2008 at 5:18 PM | PERMALINK

Tuna: Has anybody died from not knowing the longitude of Perth, Australia?

Well, no. But lots of people have died because a certain prominent dimwit couldn't tell Iraq from Afghanistan.

Posted by: thersites on February 17, 2008 at 5:20 PM | PERMALINK

I'm old enough that I wish I had a nineteen year old to show me how the latest gadgets work. But be careful about generalities.

Even in the early 70s, there was a vast difference between knowing how to use a hand calculator and knowing how to do the mathematical operations yourself. That applies today. A lot of people know how to use today's technology but they don't necessarily know how to build it or how it works.

There's a general rule of thumb that graduate students are up on the latest knowledge in their field. Undergraduates are up on the latest in the last ten years. High school students are up on the latest in the last ten to twenty years. And Washington pundits are up on the latest in the last thirty years. (It's anyone's guess how far back the neocons go though).

Posted by: Craig on February 17, 2008 at 5:31 PM | PERMALINK

kids today don't care much about geography."

Trust me, Kevin, they do not.

posted by where's sally.

Thing of it is, they never do until it matters. How many 18-year-olds in 1958 would have been able to find Vietnam on a map? Compare that with, say, 1968 and my guess is that you would have found a significant difference.

and speaking of geographical ignorance, when i lived in west virginia it always amazed me the number of times that when i met someone from out of state and i'd tell them where i was from, they'd always say they had a friend/relative who lived in richmond or something similarly misplaced. young or old it made no difference. they were ignorant, perhaps, but not stupid.

Posted by: mudwall jackson on February 17, 2008 at 5:55 PM | PERMALINK

Frankly0 -

I think you are mistaken about the Greeks not having interest in other cultures. Herodotus did. Thucydides did. Xenophon in his Anabasis certainly did. Aristotle praises Carthage in the _Politics_. Plato in the _Laws_ and elsewhere shows a knowledge of other cultures. The _Trojan Women_ is about, well, Trojan Women. Even Homer in the _Odyssey_ has things to say. Were they ethnographers or anthropologists like we have today? No. Did they have the high standards of historical accuracy that we now have? No. But while they may have thought their culture was the highest (this leaves aside the question of the degree to which the citizens of, say, Sparta thought of themselves as Greeks rather than Spartans) at Athens at least they were not dismissive of other cultures.

Posted by: Ted on February 17, 2008 at 7:37 PM | PERMALINK

What I don't get---and this applies also to a recent study showing that people are least happy in their 30s to 50s--is why these facts aren't connected to the ever-increasing time Americans spend at work. It hard to be informed, or happy, when it's all daily grind. Fortunately, there do seem to be a lot of folks wasting their work time, and getting smarter, reading blogs

Posted by: steven on February 17, 2008 at 9:41 PM | PERMALINK

Ted, were Aristotle, Thucydides, Xenophon and Herodotus ordinary Greeks? Historians and philosophers are certainly going to tend to be more interested in other cultures than their fellow citizens. Americans also tend to be not terribly interested in other cultures, but I don't have to look to hard to find counterexamples, either.

Posted by: mwg on February 17, 2008 at 10:09 PM | PERMALINK

I have a friend who taught college lit at an average college here in NY. She told me that when she assigned a book of a couple hundred pages on Monday to be read by the following Monday, the students would groan and complain. I can tell you that never happened once in my experience in ANY college classes back in the late 60's. Sheesh, don't these kids know that they're going to college to learn? and sometimes that requires reading??? Something's amiss in education these days.

Posted by: nepeta on February 17, 2008 at 10:28 PM | PERMALINK

Ted,

How many even of these intellectually eminent Greeks actually knew a language other than Greek? Wouldn't that be a reasonable index of the degree of their interest in other cultures? How hard is it to know a few features of other cultures? Most Americans know something about other cultures -- just not very much.

Besides, mostly the compelling examples of Greeks who knew about other cultures are historians -- naturally they will know things about other cultures, because they represent an inherent part of those histories.

But how extensive was the interest of, say, any Greek philosopher in other cultures? How much time does Socrates or Plato or Aristotle devote to matters having to do with other cultures? Very, very little, I should think. In contrast, their discussions of all manner of Greek polities is extensive.

In fact, the Greeks were pretty notoriously insular and dismissive of other cultures -- certainly compared to what is considered acceptable nowadays. They clearly regarded their own culture as simply superior.

It is at least plausible that a good deal of their unmatched success in intellectual realms had to do with the self-absorption they indulged. While such self-preoccupation may represent a bad moral position, and be damaging in other ways, it may have, for all we know, provided them with the self-confidence, even cockiness, or simple focus, necessary to achieve what they did.

At bare minimum, they present a pretty convincing counterexample to the claim that we can't be fully creative and profound without great exposure to other cultures. That, though, is not a lesson people nowadays want history to be teaching.

Posted by: frankly0 on February 17, 2008 at 10:50 PM | PERMALINK

Further to Bob G's comment: There is a wing of conservatism that is based on the idea that a whole class of comments, thought, and commentary is dangerously seditious.

A good reference is James Loeven's "Lies My teacher Told me", which demonstrates how 12 of the major high school textbooks whitewash American history. His root point is that the ability for critical thought, and for confronting the nation's complex problems in a rational way, is undermined when you go out into the world with a head full of mythology instead of reality.

Appparently, the textbook publishers are only responding to what the school boards want: non-controversial pablum that won't bring down the wrath of rightwing, super-patriotic parents. I don't have any comparison stats, but it seems obvious that these pressures are growing, especially in the "heartland".

Oh, Loeven has a history test on his website that even well-educated people might fail.


Posted by: LeRoy Ferguson on February 18, 2008 at 2:08 AM | PERMALINK

Selbstverstndlich.

Posted by: Luther on February 18, 2008 at 2:25 AM | PERMALINK

ClareA,

On the other hand, many of the comments here sound to me like - "It's obvious that people are less intelligent - except for me and my friends and some intellectuals and my kids and some really bright nephews and nieces..."

You got that right. Even worse it sounds live "Everyone except me is dumber than they used to be."

Bah. Rosy memories are skewed. So are many examples. "I talk to a lot of dumb people on the phone." Well yeah, years ago the ignorant and uneducated (not at all the same thing as "dumb") didn't have phones.

I was in high school during Watergate and I thought my friend, who would rush home to watch the hearings, was dumb. I didn't give a rip about politics and the only thing I really knew about Vietnam was that I didn't want to go there.

But hey, my views are skewed too because I actually like the public schools my children attend. I like (most of) the teachers and I like the subjects.

Posted by: Tripp on February 18, 2008 at 10:27 AM | PERMALINK

nepeta,

I can tell you that never happened once in my experience in ANY college classes back in the late 60's.

Students never complained about a reading assignment then? How conformist. How docile. See the thing is that I remember in the late 60's (say the "Summer of Love") that the elders were all concerned about the sorry state of youth at that time.

Honestly, it absolutely amazes me how the turmoil of the late 60's is now remembered as the time of docile compliant students.

But I also remember the controversy about the "new math" we were all learning then. Imagine my amazement when a few years ago I read a letter to the editor complaining about the current "new math" and how we should go back to the basics like we had in the 60's!

Posted by: Tripp on February 18, 2008 at 10:33 AM | PERMALINK

Tripp,

No, I would never call the late 60s/early 70s generation 'docile.' Of course one can't make sweeping generalizations about a whole generation, but in my experience there was a seriousness about learning (in the sense of a good foundation in liberal arts) that is not present today. Part of it may be the emphasis put on choosing a career path at a very early point these days, at least by the end of HS. Maybe that's a good idea, I don't know, but things have changed. You're right that the 'elders' were worried, but that was a worry about values, not education.

Posted by: nepeta on February 18, 2008 at 11:59 AM | PERMALINK
….students would groan and complain. I can tell you that never happened once in my experience in ANY college classes back in the late 60's…nepeta at 10:28 PM
You must have done an astonishing amount of drugs during that period if you were so out of it that you didn't notice students complaining. People, including students, of any era complain about work loads. Posted by: Mike on February 18, 2008 at 12:47 PM | PERMALINK

As a retired college professor, I can tell you that the smajority of students we were getting (junior/senior) can't write, spell or write a paper that makes sense...and I taught nursing! Our students have two years of regular core University courses and it is competitive to get into the College of Nursing, usually requiring GPA's of 3.5 or higher.

These are skills I know my parents learned in high school and so did I. Obviously these skills are not being learned in high school or the first two years of college. In Texas, most Freshman who have to take a math placement exam, end up in at least one semester of remedial math.

My adult daughter can write excellent papers but then she spent three years in an International School in Europe taking the I.B. program. I know in some areas we are less well educated in the traditional sense. In other areas like technology (but not math), kids may be better educated. I think the balance is skewed for those kids who do not have naturally inquiring minds. The minimum these days is far below the minimum in days gone by, I think.

Posted by: Rain39 on February 18, 2008 at 1:31 PM | PERMALINK

nepata,

No, I would never call the late 60s/early 70s generation 'docile.' Of course one can't make sweeping generalizations about a whole generation, but in my experience there was a seriousness about learning (in the sense of a good foundation in liberal arts) that is not present today.

I don't doubt your experience. My experience as an Electrical Engineering major was that we took one single course in 'English' (Rhetoric for Engineers) and we would sneak into the LAS buildings and write "LAS Diploma" on the sheets of toilet paper.

We had zero respect for an LAS degree.

Rain39,

I have to wonder what sorts of papers a Nurse is required to write? I don't mean to be mean but you must admit nursing students are probably not the top of the class.

And everyone knows Texas schools are bad. If we are simply complaining about Texas schools then I agree.

Posted by: Tripp on February 18, 2008 at 2:28 PM | PERMALINK

We may or may not be getting dumber as a nation. We're certainly becoming less articulate. A large percentage of my co-workers are college graduates; those under the age of 30 have the vocabularies of 1960's era junior high school students. I've been tempted to offer a reward to the two on the other side of my cube wall if they can complete ten sentences in a row without using the words "like" and "awesome."

Let's not even begin to discuss their writing skills. It's like dealing with foreigners who have learned individual English words but who can't yet put them together into coherent sentences.

Posted by: Mandy Cat on February 18, 2008 at 2:53 PM | PERMALINK

Mandy Cat,

I suppose that is what happens when 57% of high school students go on to college. In the 70's I think that number was closer to 34%.

Posted by: Tripp on February 18, 2008 at 5:03 PM | PERMALINK

Mike,

Your venom has rather obviously changed the point of the discussion. I was talking upthread about students nowadays complaining in the classroom about workload, directly to the professor, which in reality (one book/week) is hardly an exceptional workload for a lit class. Obviously, people and students always complain among themselves about how much they have to do, etc., etc. See the difference???

Posted by: nepeta on February 18, 2008 at 5:13 PM | PERMALINK

Wait... wasn't it Kevin Drum who mocked Kurzweil's Singularity graph by extrapolating through the axis on a log graph? The same Kevin Drum who studied math a while at Cal Tech?

Stupidity creeps up everywhere.

Posted by: weeping willow on February 18, 2008 at 7:49 PM | PERMALINK

Am amused by the comments about the use of the history degree. From what I've experienced, good historians are the most cynical bunch of realistic bastards around documenting the foolishness of humans.

I also think a good historical background (if you go into the nitty gritty) makes a great basis for business and negotations. The problem with your standard MBA is a) it doesn't teach you exactly how likely you are to get blind-sided by some nutty thing you never even planned for, and b) a lot of the good stories of How To Lose At Business remain unspoken because everyone's worried about the lawyers and libel suits.

Posted by: grumpy realist on February 19, 2008 at 1:48 PM | PERMALINK

but who can't

I have never text communicated on a cell phone. I have no ability to use grammatical symbols to communicate the way young people do with text. We live in a post literate world. Those who think the sequentialness of the printing press was the height of knowledge are going to think people who do not consider the printing press the supreme technological achievement as less educated. I bet the feeling is mutual, especially when one has to ask the post literate to set up a printer.

Posted by: Brojo on February 19, 2008 at 2:33 PM | PERMALINK

I don't know if we're "dumber", but I do know we're less educated. Public Grade School children are no longer taught the parts of speech, how to parse sentences, read maps, interpolate, extrapolate or do basic arithmetic in their head.

Posted by: Asteroid AL on February 19, 2008 at 2:35 PM | PERMALINK

I read the Jacoby op-ed. I felt stupider afterward.

Posted by: paxr55 on February 19, 2008 at 3:03 PM | PERMALINK

My students in college French do not know enough geography to learn the prepositions that go with geographical names....this is common the last several decades. They do not know grammatical vocabulary to allow them to discuss gramar.

Posted by: William Plank on February 20, 2008 at 4:23 PM | PERMALINK

My students in college French do not know enough geography to learn the prepositions that go with geographical names....this is common the last several decades. They do not know grammatical vocabulary to allow them to discuss gramar.

Posted by: William Plank on February 20, 2008 at 4:24 PM | PERMALINK

The recent article "Reading in the 21st-Century" may be of interest:

http://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/news/opinon/opi_view.asp?newsIdx=16388&categoryCode=162

Posted by: C. Ikehara on February 20, 2008 at 10:19 PM | PERMALINK




 

 

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