Reviews > Culture

Smarter but dumber

Culture | Kids today have high IQs, just don't ask them to read or write

Issue: "Attack and dissent," May 19, 2001

As academic achievement scores-in reading, math, science, and general knowledge-keep plummeting, one test score has been shooting up, defying the trend in a way that baffles scholars. IQ scores, the measurement of basic intelligence and mental prowess, have been going through the roof. Somehow, young people today are both smarter and dumber.

The disconnect between the high intellectual ability of our children and their lack of intellectual content is both an indictment of our schools and an explanation for the malaise that characterizes many young people. When smart kids are given a dumbed-down curriculum, no wonder they are bored, underachieving, and diagnosed as having attention deficit disorder. When highly intelligent young people are nourished on nothing more than the mind-candy of pop culture and have no beliefs to get their minds around, no wonder they see through everything and become cynical, nihilistic, and, in some cases, criminal.

The Intelligence Quotient test-which quantifies mental agility by means of logic games, abstract puzzles, and fitting square pegs into round holes, and supposedly works independently of a person's cultural and knowledge base-has not changed much since it was first devised in 1918. But on the aggregate, the IQ of American children has gone up 24 points since then. In Argentina, scores have gone up 22 points since 1964, with similar gains throughout Western Europe and Asia. "The rise is so sharp," exclaims Newsweek's Sharon Begley, "that the average child today is as bright as the near genius of yesteryear."

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Scientists are at a loss to explain how this could be happening.

Not even evolutionists are invoking Darwinian progress, since the change has occurred too rapidly for any kind of natural selection to be at work. Previous research, studying the IQs of identical twins raised in different environments, has concluded that intelligence is essentially determined by genetics. So what accounts for these huge gains?

Ms. Begley cites various explanations, of how environment brings out genetic capabilities, but they all seem unconvincing. Maybe improvements in health care mean that our brains are in better physical condition. Maybe the media barrage and information overload that characterize our time are stimulating our neuron connections, making for improved mental agility.

But if our children, across the board, are really near geniuses, one would never guess it. Only 32 percent of American fourth-graders can read at or above the "proficient" level. Another 37 percent cannot even attain a "basic" level of reading. American high-schoolers are falling behind the Third World when it comes to math and science. In the third International Mathematics and Science study, American young people finished 19th out of 38 countries in math, and 18th in science.

Academic achievement has been stagnating or getting worse for decades, despite huge infusions of money and new ideas. Part of the problem is surely the dumbed-down curriculum. The average child with an IQ of 100 in 1932 had far more challenging textbooks, more demanding assignments, and harder teachers-all of which turned him into a far better reader and writer-than his "near genius" grandchild.

Such a "near genius" may well find cutting and pasting, getting in touch with his feelings, and exploring cultural diversity to be paralyzingly uninteresting. He may well have trouble even paying attention. His mind is always racing, but it is never engaged.

Such children today are often diagnosed as having attention deficit disorder and doped up with Ritalin to slow down their racing minds. Teachers know the stories: A bright kid keeps getting into trouble. A little girl won't take part in class because she just withdraws into herself. A black teenager may fail English but display dazzling virtuosity with language when he improvises complexly rhyming raps on the schoolyard.

Whether or not the IQ gap contributes to such problems requires more research, but children are capable of more than we realize, as the performance of many homeschoolers makes clear.

The IQ gap has emotional, cultural, and spiritual implications as well. If an idle mind is the Devil's playground, what happens in the mind that is idling at full speed? There is a darkness, a cynicism to youth culture-evident in music, language, and social life-that suggests sharp minds going unfulfilled, channeled instead into destructive or despairing nihilism. Without beliefs or ideals, having never been exposed to wisdom, meaning, or truth, the intelligence of many teens has nothing to work on, their searching intellects have nothing to think about, and they find themselves lost in the vast spaces of their minds.

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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