A study in 2013 claimed that Western IQs had fallen 14 points over the previous century. More recent research, involving a Norwegian sampling, also captured media attention with its observation of a decline in that country’s IQ amongst those born since 1975.
The Norwegian study listed various potential explanations for the decline, including “social spillovers from immigration”. Oh dear, best not go there. As the great Charles Murray learned to his peril after daring to observe the relationship between the distribution of IQ, race and ethnicity, to merely touch on that topic is enough to see the tumbril rolled out and pyre lit.
But there was another element of the Norwegian study that’s safe — well, relatively safe — to mention, and here I reference “education”, which raises all sorts of fresh questions. For one, the findings challenge the myth that education levels rise inexorably from generation to generation as more people receive a greater quantum of schooling. It also raises uncomfortable questions about how we now learn and the value we get from the money we pour into our schools.
Aren’t we meant to be the most educated generation ever – especially our current young people, the millennials, aka Gen Y? We hear endlessly this meme, which surely is being confused with the most “schooled” generation ever. Now this claim is certainly true. We live in an age of “lifelong learning”, as we often hear. This is surely one of the most pernicious marketing campaigns ever rolled out — perpetrated mostly by self-interested institutions of higher education and their useful idiot pals in politics and government.
We also live, or so we are are assured, in an age of technology-enabled education, with formal learning commencing at much younger (pre-school) ages. Surely these are good things, having more tools at students’ disposal and extended time to master them? The push in this direction has been substantial and unrelenting. On top of starting earlier, we also insist on formal schooling to a higher age for a much higher proportion of the population, with many laments for those poor souls who fail to matriculate. It is, apparently, a terrible to master a trade when one might be working toward a degree in womyns’ studies, gay cinema or advanced aboriginality.
On top of all that, we have fostered the growth of mass tertiary education over two generations, from the Menzies era onwards. There are those who want what are now the very large percentages of people going to university to soar still higher, with some even suggesting 100% as a target.
We have also introduced new, hip methods of teaching replete with buzz words and catchphrases — “child-centred learning”, for instance. The claim that “we all learn differently” has meant all sorts of strategies have been introduced to promote better educations. We have reduced class sizes. We have ditched “the sage on the stage” for the “guide on the side”, all in the name of better outcomes. We have even made classroom furniture more comfortable.
And, perhaps most interesting of all, we turned teacher training and pedagogy into a scholarly (if that is the right word) discipline, shaped by John Dewey and others all the way down to the overrated, though much quoted, and massively misleading sage Ken Robinson, who asserts that conventional schooling drains students of creativity.
So, we start them younger. We make them stay much longer at school. We urge them to sign up for further post-school education. And we inculcate the expectation that they will need to keep on learning forever, to acquire those elusive “twenty-first century skills” that will be in demand for all those “twenty-first century jobs”. We make them more comfortable at school. Anything to make learning easier. And we manically race to spend more and more money on education. See under Gonski, mark one, two or whatever.
Would not we expect all this extra education to lift IQs, rather than coincide with their diminution? It might be objected that IQs specifically and general intelligence are inherited and not affected by what we actually learn with the brains we are given at birth. Maybe. But intelligence is aided by nurturing — nurturing of the right kind, that is. This much we know.
Two questions are obvious. One, why aren’t more people talking about this? And two, what has led to the mediocre outcomes revealed in the IQ studies and in so much other research that fails to show the massively increased standards we might have expected from all the extra investments and much-vaunted reforms in teaching methods. They have been designed and presented as making things better, but clearly that is not the case.
The IQ tests suggest some very worrying things about the way we now learn, and about the traditions of learning that we have junked.
Some years back, the co-editor of First Things magazine and noted education scholar Mark Bauerlein penned a book called The Dumbest Generation. In it he worried about the impact of the internet on the brain and on learning. He even sub-titled his book “how the digital age stupefies young Americans”. The google machine does not, indeed, make for “google scholars”. Rather, digital tools are so good and so readily tapped they replace actual “learning”. Think here of pocket calculators, which have erased the former need to master multiplication tables and the ability to do long division with paper and pencil. Not to mince words, but giving students better access to “information” obviates the need to acquire actual knowledge, let alone wisdom. Accounts of first-year university students not knowing basic, essential facts and methods are legion, as are those same universities’ remedial classes in english and mathematics intended to impart knowledge and skills neglected in high school. According to physicist and author William Poundstone:
- a 2010 poll, a quarter of Americans don’t know which country their forebears fought in the War of Independence, according to a 2010 poll.
- In 2011, Newsweek gave the U.S. citizenship test to 1,000 Americans. Some 40% had no idea which nations the US fought in the Second World War.
- Another study found that only half of Americans could recognize Thomas Jefferson from a picture, despite the fact his countenance has been on the US nickel since 1938.
Many more writers have expressed wider concerns about the impact of the internet, and not just on learning. Here is Tom Jay, writing in Crisis magazine:
Is there something about the technology itself that, over time, impacts the way we think? In a very interesting article in The Atlantic in 2008, Nicholas Carr wondered if Google is making us dumber. He noticed that for some time he was feeling something “remapping the neural circuitry” of his brain. Carr believes it’s the Internet. He observed a change in the way he thinks, most in evidence when he tried to read a book.
Citing 1960s media theorist Marshall McLuhan, Carr asserts of media:
They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.
Another observer has referred to replacing “books and maps” with “screens and apps”.
Whether the coming of the internet and its ubiquitous effect on how we learn has anything to do with the apparent decline in global IQs is something well and truly to ponder. This horse has perhaps bolted, though there are ways that parents and educators can battle the pernicious effects of the internet on learning, on brain training.
But the internet isn’t the only think that has occurred over the timeframes of the Norwegian study. We have also changed what we teach. And this matters.
The recent ANU Ramsay Centre farrago has merely served to remind us how far we have journeyed from traditional understandings of disciplines (in the sense of subject areas), of scholarship, of curricula and of the relationship between these and learning. And we need not even go near soft marking, dumbing down, creeping credentialism, fake masters degrees, and all the rest of it. As they say, the science is in on these matters. And their impacts are all diabolical.
But as many of the participants in the ANU debate have correctly noted, understanding the “best” that has been thought or written, to borrow from Matthew Arnold, is way better than to study the “worst” that has been thought or written, brain training wise. What you get when you shuffle away from the teaching of broad history, for example, is a narrow focus with a peripatetic gait. This month we study the women of ancient Rome, with an emphasis on gender roles and sexist supression. Next month it’s the Industrial Revolution, child labour and what happens to the planet when those infernal mills started burning coal. If you see a Marxist sensibility in these topics and their presentation, go to the top of the class.
Thus are our rising generations stripped of historical perspective, denied the understanding of cause and effect and other hard, brain-hurty stuff. Niall Ferguson, our own wise educationalist Kevin Donnelly and others have spoken wisely and widely on the deleterious effect teaching history in the modern way, to name but one core discipline that has gone south.
Much more than another skirmish in the ongoing culture wars, the way we learn and, as a consequence, what we learn and are pre-conditioned to accept and believe are vitally important. The promoters and purveyors of these modes of thought and scholarship, from Adorno and Gramsci through Derrida and Foucault all the way down to their modern disciples standing in front of blackboarrds, need all to be held to account for what these theories and their coalface advocates have wrought.
Sadly and to our society’s peril, we have schooled more but educated less. We have introduced practices and tools that distract from acquiring knowledge, wisdom and the very capacity to think. And our educational institutions, experts and policy makers are decidedly not helping matters — least of all in demanding that even more public money be poured into schools and classrooms that already consume vast sums and whose results nevertheless continue to decline.
Learning matters. We need to be on our game — and more than, make sure the education establishment gets back on its.