Dumb, Dumber and Growing More So

dunce cornerA 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.

23 thoughts on “Dumb, Dumber and Growing More So

  • ianl says:

    Google knows everything – as the millenials are wont to tell us. Ask a pointed question, note a fact that may contradict what people prefer to hear, and out comes the wifi-connected iphone to confer with Dr Google. Using google is ok as long as the methods google uses to rate and censor proffered responses are recognised and treated as likely tainted and biased in areas of controversy; the situation is circular as that presumes knowledge to begin with.

    As an example of an area that requires initial factual knowledge of some depth as a core to higher applied activity, examine the applied science, applied engineering, applied medical practice and logistical experience/depths to the current so-far successful rescue of the young boys trapped by monsoonal rain deep inside a limestone cave. One cannot learn or apply any of that with a ten second iphone commune showing google responses. To those who will reply that most people do not need to know any of that, I ask why such required factual underpinnings should *not* be required from basic curricula. The ability to read a real map, even perhaps how to create a simple one, is not a google-inspired skill set.

    The Fed Education Minister is carrying on yet again on the need to supply more “specialised” maths and science teachers (presumably to high school staff, although that presumption may be wrong). This righteous bleating is periodic and knowingly empty. There is no hope of that happening – there is no general respect for these areas as knowledge so people who have these skills in depth have no motivation to expose themselves to that. This comment may elicit responses to demonstrate this.

  • Keith Kennelly says:

    ‘But intelligence is aided by nurturing. nurturing of the right kind, that is. That much we know.’
    I think it more appropriate to say: that much some of us once knew and very few if us now know.

    That is the answer to the two questions you then ask.

    Basically mist no longer know.

    Oh dear, ‘ but the internet isn’t the only tTHINK hi that has occurred…’
    I agree and this sentence bears it out.

    How do we change these things?

    Abandon the mores of the Managerial Elites. See James Burnham. The Machiavellians.

    I had heard of the results of this Norwegian study. Well last week I was in a shop when a muddled aged white msn uttered out loud and with a degree of passion.
    ‘I’ve been a labor voter all my life but I agree with Tony Abbott when he said why would we destroy our economy by tgying to change something that might or might not occur in 100 years time especially when our impact is neglible.’

    Well the bright young thing serving him, a university student said. But look how your generation has wrecked things?’
    Silence reigned. There were 8 people in the shop all middle aged or over.

    When I addressed the young woman and told her if the results of the Norwegian study.

    Her response was ‘ That can’t be right!!

    Everybody laughed.

    Such was the self evident truth.

    Cheers and good luck Paul. You are in the right track.
    Destroy the Manageriak Elites greatest tool. Today’s fake degree from the fake universityies.

    Trumpism is on the rise. Attack the fakery.

    Wooooohooooo or woooopeeee

  • Keith Kennelly says:

    I have difficulty with one figer typing.

    Mist s/b most,

    tThink hi s/b think

    Muddled s/b middle but muddled us probably apt.

    Tgying s/b trying. (Although I sometimes invent my own words.)

    Self evident should have a hyphen.

    And finally Manageriak s/b Managerial.

    Finally Jez Jody this bloke really has had a go at you fake degree holding teachers.

    Is he to be accused of bashing you, too?

    • Jody says:

      What dreadful insecurities in evidence with you; once again. You try to make yourself bigger by belittling others. It never works, mate; nor will it ever work. Looking at your, er, typing errors I’d say it’s a case of the pot calling the kettle black!! LOL

      • Keith Kennelly says:

        It’s fine for you to say these things about me Jody, but to be relevant and show up the argument put by Paul, and not be evidence supporting it, you should at least show how your 3 degrees are of some value, by putting a reasoned and nuanced argument in support of your wild assertion that I have ‘dreadful insecurities’

        At the very least show how I’ve belittled people.
        That will be truely revealing lol.

        Paul’s argument belittles you or can’t you comprehend that?

        My typing errors are acknowledged and I’m laughing at them and Paul’s ‘think’.

        It’s You who never makes mistakes and can’t laugh at them and that Jody exhibits insecurity. I don’t make a judgement on whether it’s dreadful on not. I’m not so insecure as to make those sorts of judgements.

        Cheers little one.

        • Jody says:

          Infantile comments. Again. It’s typical of the bullying narcissist to ATTEMPT to project his own perfidy onto others. These are called PROJECTIONS.

          • Keith Kennelly says:

            There you go again. You with three degrees and all.

            Yet all you can do is yell abuse and make unsupported, by reasoned argument, tested evidence or actual interview, wild pseudo psycho babble assertions.

            Good on you Jody. The more you indulge yourself in this sort of behaviour the more you prove Paul’s hypothesis and supporting arguments.

            And hey try to remember ‘Duck’s back and water’.

  • Jody says:

    Shunting more students through the education system was always going to erode standards of education. I saw that in my post-graduate years at university; English Honours = 12 hours of exams and 1 x 15000 word thesis. Having sat through that horrible open-book exam with super tough questions my lecturer said “this is the last year we are having exams”. When I inquired why he said, “there just is no call for the skill it demands these day”. I looked at him askance, “oh, except for journalists who have to process complete budget documents and put their review into print within hours…”

    You’d see it in everything at university, except the tough disciplines like STEM. There they can afford to be choosy. When I started my MA by research I was given an office space, my own laptop, various free staff lunches and encouraged because each research student was paid by the government to be there and the extra money went to the university because of the ‘value-adding’ of the research. No so with MA by coursework, which was actually easier (looking at the syllabus) than Honours. Far less onerous, in fact.

    The one thing about having a demographic of dumbed down individuals: I don’t have to complete with them for tickets to the opera or classical concerts. They’re going to be addicted to anything ‘postmodern’.

    Today my husband bought building materials for a project here; we were at the supply company and a whole lot of ‘tradies’ turned up in their ‘utes’ to buy theirs. All of them affable and decent and I kept thinking “a great number of these self-employed people are the salt of the earth as farmers were once regarded”.

    • Keith Kennelly says:

      I’m self employed … too
      I’m affable and decent …too
      I’m salt of the earth … too
      I don’t have a dumbed down fake degree or even a non dumbed down real one.

      Yet you despise me.

      Is that because I actually understand you and challenge your more idiotic managerial elitist ideas.

      I think those tradies would be much more severe on you if you actually engaged with them, instead of treating them as examples and of viewing them as something less that you.

    • lloveday says:

      “Shunting more students through the education system was always going to erode standards of education” coupled with “We have reduced class sizes” is a sure recipe for reducing the quality of teaching.

      Halving class sizes, for example, requires twice as many teachers, and presuming they are selected on a basis reasonably related to ability, their average ability must be diluted. Similar consequences arise from a greater percentage of student in higher school years and tertiary institutions. Then we have the lesser appeal to men of becoming a teacher – as a friend who clocked up over 40 years of teaching before retiring said “I could no longer recommend teaching to any male”, which again reduces the pool from which teachers are drawn and dilutes their average ability.

      “All of them affable and decent and I kept thinking “a great number of these self-employed people are the salt of the earth”.
      I went “home” for Mother’s (or Mothers or Mothers’ as you prefer) Day and stayed a month. Early every morning I walked to the 24-hour Service Station for a pie and coke, and concur from the example of the many tradies who were doing similar, although far more bought flavoured milk than Coke. Same at the pub after they knocked off – it was as if nothing had changed in that small part of Australian life; going next door into the Pokies bar and shopping malls soon brought me back to earth. And a delightful young man who knocked on the door trying to recruit people for an upcoming Ronald McDonald event – I said I’d be far away and offered him $50 in lieu, but he said he could not take it.

      I was in classes of 40 in Year 12 double math (Mathematics 1 and 2 as they were known), my sister in a class of 56 in year 8 at the same school. These days it’s more like 20 and 30, but we were well educated and readied for work and, or, Uni. That was pre-Whitlam (and pre-HECS), but there were ample uni scholarships available for the cleverest and, or, hardest-working boys and girls, the subjects were rigorously assessed and degrees worthwhile and valued.

  • CharlesKidd says:

    What has happened I think is that education has been transformed from an education system to an education administration system, or otherwise a make-work scheme for public servants. In this administration system most of the outcomes and benefits of the system are captured by the educational practitioners as opposed to the supposed educational recipients (students). In fact students only serve one purpose in this system which is to dictate the amount of funds the educational entity can claim from the government.

    Under this system you can have an individual graduate through 15-16 years of school and university education and still be effectively illiterate and innumerate.

    Unfortunately it seems that none of our current politicians have enough wit or nous to be able to do anything about this imbroglio and so it continues on as the expensive and wasteful farce that it is

    • Keith Kennelly says:


      Most of our politicians have come through this education system why would you given your argument expect them to be able to do anything.


  • johanna says:

    I do get a bit tired of this ‘the internet is changing children’s brains’ stuff, which is a rich new field for aspiring academics and commentators. Surely learning to read would have been as apocalyptic? They follow in the well rewarded footsteps of those who told us that watching television would ruin childrens’ eyesight.

    Still, diminishing returns are unquestionably a feature of the education industry, and good on the author and others who try to pin it down.

    • Jody says:

      I see your connection with the consequences, in the past, of rapid change. But the fact is that TV and the internet lend themselves to instant gratification; for reading the headlines and then scanning the rest. Few children land on a lengthy article which requires analysis and thinking. They learn that they can always be amused or entertained, that they don’t have to sit quietly and still (as you once had to do in church once a week) and that instead of socializing and developing manners with those physically around you the face buried in the screen is a better way. For them!! No matter, just entitlement. We have a rule in our house; no screens or phones when face-to-face communication/family business is taking place. There’s the door if anyone dislikes that idea.

      • Keith Kennelly says:

        Who watches tv anymore?

        Quite a few I know use Flipboard. You should try it. You’ll see there is quite a bit of sophisticated reading to be done there.
        All it takes is tto tuned kids into decent stuff instead of trying to ban stuff. And of course give the credit for having a few brains. All kids I’ve met respond positively to truth and technology etc.

        Your attitudes betray a lack of faith in their ability.

        Did you pass that attitude on, by osmosis, while you were teaching? And was it your way or the highway when you were teaching?

        jez Jody you give so much away.

  • en passant says:

    I am now retired (as of 30th June), so I thought I would take up a degree course in something I have been doing for the past 20-years. I spent part of the today scrolling through courses in my specialty from a dozen universities – and I have decided to remain experienced, capable, competent and degreeless in this area. EVERY ONE of them had segments in their courses that used words like ‘sustainability’, ‘diversity’, ‘equality and ethnicity’, gender, etc – none of which will help build a bridge … I’ll pass and erase that goal from my bucket list and do a jigsaw instead.

    30-years ago Melbourne had 20+ chess clubs and maybe 500+ active players. It is a fiendishly difficult game to learn to play badly and exponentially even more difficult to learn to play well. Also, it is like climbing the Eiffel Tower – the higher you climb, the narrower and harder it becomes. Today, I know of only 3-4 clubs with a total of no more than 100 players. Children will no longer spend the time learning as they do not seem to have the concentration span. When I was learning an expert presented for an hour. Now the sessions are <30 minutes and half the audience to not make it to the end.

    One other point is that I always understood that IQ was based in 'natural intelligence' and was supposed to be free of ethnic, educational and gender bias. I have struggled with how this can be determined in reality, but let the practicalities pass.

    Education was the channeling of understanding, facts (rote learning like the x-tables), problem solving, logic and collation of information (joining the dots to provide a solution – and this was defined as knowledge. If you gained enough of this in particular areas you received a certificate of various provenance.

    Wisdom was the application of that knowledge in practical ways – including knowing when to 'break the rules'.

  • whitelaughter says:

    I’ve no doubt that when writing was invented it was hailed as the end of people being able to remember things. Technology isn’t the problem.

    You’ve already touched on one problem: if you can’t follow an argument through to its end without fear of a politically correct lynch mob, your reasoning ability will atrophy.
    If the education system is focused on propaganda rather than skills, your brain with atrophy.
    And if you can’t work, your brain will atrophy. Remember that time spent at school is time you can’t be in the workforce, applying skills. The opportunity cost of more years in the education system is savage.

    • Jody says:

      Of course, as in most things in life, people have to develop values and the courage to defend them. Succumbing to the PC brigade is just cowardice. Three of my four children went to university (one in science) and all, including the one who didn’t, are rusted on conservatives. Sure, they heard the lefty cant at university but they laughed it off as stupidity. My daughter told her History lecturer just that..”I’m not regurgitating your lefty propaganda, thanks very much”. Yes, that was a proud day.

      And all this demonstrates one thing: for a lot of people education finishes the day they leave the campus gate. These people are called “progressives” and “lefties”. Those who are not so inclined are the people who’ve continued to learn – like the great Dr. Thomas Sowell. He was asked why, despite being born into poverty and living in the Bronx, he abandoned the Left early one. His answer was instructive: ‘FACTS’.

  • gardner.peter.d says:

    Here’s an amusing but chillingly accurate portrayal of the result. the causes are indeed wider than education because this trend has been occuring for a generation:

    • gardner.peter.d says:

      My spellllling mistook is a typo. promise!

      • lloveday says:

        You are not alone – what is that word ““instantaniously” in the presentation?

        Sinek left it to the last frame to, in my opinion, muck up – if “Windmills are the Future“, then the Millennials may have good reason to be depressed.

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