Are People Getting Stupider?

In a comment on a recent post, it was claimed that:

“We are moving into a socio-economic system characterised by Keynesian economics, general licentiousness and mass rootless ignorance.”

The Keynesian economics could certainly be disputed, but I won’t focus on that. The relative ‘licentiousness’ is clearly true for certain sorts of activities, with the dispute being over the value or otherwise of such a development. But what does interest me is the ‘mass ignorance’.

It’s a sentiment you can observe quite widely; castigations of the mass media and popular culture, frenzied lamentations of the shocking ignorance of the average person. The same commenter links this point to “Jerry Springer”.

Now, I have no objection to cultural critique, but this sort of claim strongly implies that this ignorance is ‘new’ – we are ‘moving into’ rather than ’emerging out of’ mass ignorance. At some presumed point in the past, we are to understand, the overall state of human learning was more respectable.

This strikes me as very implausible. A few reasons include:

  • Global literacy is higher than at any time in history;
  • Average IQs have been rising steadily for some time;
  • The quantity of information available in pretty much every discipline is greater than ever, often radically;
  • The average person’s technical ability to access this information is greater than ever, often radically.

Now this sort of a question is incredibly hard to get precision on – what exactly is ‘ignorance’? How is it to be measured? But these are four of the things that would come to mind, if I were to ask myself what the most reliably and easily-measured indicators might be. I don’t really see any contrary indicators – that is, any remotely reliable ways to measure some important component of ‘ignorance’ and ‘knowledge’ that gives a different impression.

So given this, I can only see the sort of sentiments mentioned earlier as unfounded gripes without proper perspective.

But I’m no expert on the data or the techniques of measurement. Are there any rigorous ways to show (or even suggest – because yes, a rigorous suggestion is quite possible. For instance, literacy can be fairly reliably known to have increased, but this only suggests, and doesn’t prove, a greater diffusion of knowledge) a decline in the knowledge – or even wisdom – of ‘people’?

9 Responses to “Are People Getting Stupider?”

  1. Gabriel Says:

    As is the way with hastily written things, I certainly wouldn’t write that sentence again. First, “moving into” is completely wrong in as much as that it implies that we are replacing one system with another, wheras we are actually perfecting an already established system whilst flushing out the remainders of the past. “Moving into” also implies that this new polity will definitely be achieved, whearas I think there is a good chance of either the complete of civil society or perhaps a total change of course (to the Right or Left) thanks to the BraveNewWorldists pushing things too far. Secondly, I missed out the fourth component which is, of course, tyranny. Thirdly and most germanely, “mass” should be “general”. I’m not so concerned with the “shocking ignorance of the average person”, though it is shocking and the collapse of the working class education movement in this country is a real tragedy.

    I’ve run out of time, but will expand on the meat of the debate at a later date.

  2. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    “there is a good chance of either the complete of civil society”
    Very ominous. What if they accidentally the whole thing?! 😛

  3. XauriEL Says:

    I think the biggest change is that larger proportions of the general populace are getting more and more access to the ability to have their voices heard and decisions felt on a mass scale. For most of history for most of the populace, the only ones your stupidity could affect were your immediate neighbours. Only the stupidity of those in the power-wielding classes had a great deal of effect on the lives of the general public. In the age of democracy and mass media, then, there may not be a larger proportion of publicly apparent stupidity but there does seem to be a much larger net volume. We are denied the luxury of imagining that somewhere there exist people who are not as stupid as those who surround us and those who control our lives. That being said, I agree that people are on average becoming smarter. It’s just not happening fast enough to overcome the tide of stupidity that has overwhelmed us.

  4. SnowdropExplodes Says:

    One key phrase in your four points is “ability to access”.

    Having the ability to do something does not mean that a person will choose to do so. Indeed, in a market-driven society where the values of the free market are held up as the highest measure, it can be argued that that which is easy to acquire (in this case knowledge) comes to be seen (perversely) as being of lesser value. Or perhaps, people just never really cared that much about being involved in things in the first place, so finding out about them seems a bit pointless. It is just that now that the ability to find out about stuff is there, it’s more obvious that people aren’t choosing to do it.

    To pick up on the point by XauriEL, and perhaps invert it, people are now able to access easy answers more easily than ever, and many just don’t go looking for other answers than that. the whole teabagger/birther/”death panel” phenomenon in the USA right now seems to be the ultimate expression of that. The various “moral panics” generated by the media over the past couple of centuries show that this is not a new trend, but with modern media, modern levels of literacy and modern access to information sources, the “simple answer” phenomenon has reached new levels. it makes people look stupider, but really they are just not choosing to educate themselves, and that’s the same as it always has been.

  5. Lindsay Says:

    There’s also the fact that when people make comparisons between their own time and an earlier historical era, they are often not comparing themselves to their actual counterparts in that time, but to the political and cultural elite.

    Consider the older version of Gabriel’s lament, that no one learns Latin anymore and therefore are so much the poorer in cultural heritage. What this ignores is that, after the Romans, most people in other historical periods didn’t know Latin, either. Those who did were clergymen, lawyers, scholars or other highly educated people.

    Similarly, moaning and groaning about falling standardized-test scores in America ignores the fact that, due to the increasing rate at which people go to college, more and more people are taking the tests.

    I also agree with what Snowdrop and XauriEL say.

  6. Gabriel Says:

    Down to business, but first I’ll deal with some preliminaries. One, I did not claim that people are getting stupider and I wouldn’t presume to comment: I said and meant ignorant. (I also said “rootless”, which is just as important, as we shall see.) It’s quite possible that average IQs are going up because of better in-utero nutrition or whatever, though I’m mildly intrigued as to whether, since you accept the “fact” that IQs are going up you also accept the “fact” that blacks have lower IQs than whites. Next, just because other quite different societies have been characterized by widespread ignorance is no argument that ours or any other are not. Nor does it do much good to cite the middle ages as if the hard fought achievements in the revival of civilized life in the five hundred and fifty or so years after 1400 were merely so much dross to be tossed away without a care. This is rather reminiscent of Guardian twits who dismiss the rise of pubic drunkenness and associated criminality (which overwhelmingly affects the working class of course) with references to Gin Alley as if a graph may not go up as well as down (or vice versa).

    Anyway down to brass tacks. Paul may be pleased to know that I’m at least one step more reactionary than he might think, which I’ll illustrate with a quick observation. At our old Alma Mater, Luke, until not so long ago a prospective history candidate was required to have a good working knowledge of Latin. This requirement was then changed to at least one contemporary foreign language, but within the last decade this stringency was downgraded to “highly recommended” and then in the last few years quietly dropped as the first year foreign text paper was all but replaced with the abomination known as “Approaches to History”. The upshot of all this is that a large amount of people in our year who managed to graduate with firsts wouldn’t, within living memory, have eligible to study at Oxford at all even at the end of their degree.

    In our civilization, to put matters crudely, a man who can read or write has a basic education, one with Latin is educated and one with Greek is well educated. Since it is often asserted that the pre-occupation with Latin is just guff designed to mask a class designator, I’ll digress to explain its importance (the same argument applies to further education in Greek), which is twofold: form and content. The first consists of the study of grammar, which has a number of functions. First, it is exceptionally good training for the human brain, but more importantly, since language acts as both the necessary condition for and limiting factor to human thought, being able to understand and manipulate language from the outside, so to speak, has invaluable power in raising us from the condition from brutes. It will be objected that the first function can be filled perfectly adequately through the study of mathematics and the second by the study of any language or even of English itself. It will in response be admitted that is all this is quite true with the small caveat that Latin happens to provide a more convenient training for the study of grammar than other languages. However, the important point is that in the world we have had the misfortune to be thrust into Latin, for the most part, hasn’t been replaced by either but with, basically, nothing (and, no, GCSE classes in persuasive writing and how to read the newspaper don’t count).

    The second side of the equation is content. The Latin poets and prose writers were judged by our forefathers to have produced a storehouse of ideas, opinions, arguments, beautiful images and the like that were often wrong and sometimes quite wicked but had the merit of being cogently argued (where applicable) and elegantly expressed. Other cultures have their own equivalent foundational canon and though we may believe ours to be better the only important point is that they are ours. Because human beings do not think in a vacuum, it was thought necessary to feed them will texts of high quality (both in form and content) and in order to have a common culture it was thought best for these texts to be the same. [Here it is is relevant to note that western civilization also had another canonical set of texts, those known as the “bible”. However, the New Testament is not notable for its elegance of expression and Hebrew is an exceptionally difficult language for the European mind to get its head around. In any case, it has always been accepted in Christendom that the Bible can and should, by and large, be read in translation, whether in the Vulgate or in vulgar translations in general.]

    The obvious objections are that there is nothing qualitatively distinct about the Latin authors that makes them necessary to education (but I have already admitted this) and, further, that we have Penguin and Everyman translations nowadays anyway. Further, we Englishmen are better off than our medieval forebears in that we have our own collection of texts that can rival and perhaps surpass the Romans and so we can just read those. Abolishing the centrality of Latin to education would be a radical move (and might, one notes, have certain deleterious effects for the western civilization as a larger and connected entity), but need not mean the abolition of education altogether.

    Fine, we hopeless headbangers of yore say, but what, in this world and not some fantasy has it been replaced with? Adolescents don’t read the Aeneid anymore, but do they read the Faerie Queene to compensate for it? But it gets worse still. Without a grounding in our classic texts (sacred and secular and those in between) how possible is it to make use of those that have been built up on their shoulders? I can still remember the enduring A level classes on Shakespeare which were, instead of a liberating foray into unpacking the wordplay and ideas of a not un-lucid poet-playwright, a largely vain exercise in decoding mysterious alien entity wrapped in an impenetrable layer of classical and biblical allusion. But it gets worse still. The overwhelming majority of history curriculums for those above 14 now dare not leave the safe confines of the 20th century, abrogating whatever ability History as discipline has to elevate the intellectual faculties through contact with the alien. But it gets worse still. In the un-natural dens of far and confinement that are schools, justified only by the enormous difficulties involved in turning brute man into someone who can plausibly imagine himself as half-way to the angels the poor children, instead of doing something useful like playing waste their precious lives on Citizenship classes and human geography and design technology* and, heaven help us, PSE. And it gets worse and it will continue to get worse.

    (*there is value to learning woodwork, cooking, electricals and the like though it is not educative value. There is no value whatsoever in conducting some absurd pastiche of how to design and make a “product” for industry.)

    The general situation was put into quite sharp focus for me during the American Presidential election. It was widely observed that Sarah Palin was ill-educated and I have no quarrel with that, though even a mad snob like me found the vitriol poured out in condemnation of this a little quirky. However, what did puzzle me was the equally widespread view that Barack Obama was educated. I couldn’t figure this out: he obviously didn’t understand Latin, let alone Greek, he hadn’t demonstrated any familiarity with the western cultural tradition; as far as I could tell he didn’t even take the desultory Western Civ. classes American undergraduates are offered. All it, seemed to me, he had done was read a bunch of New Left trash in between snorting coke. Of course, he could read and write so he had a basic education, but as far as I could tell, so did Palin. And then it hit me: Obama was educated because of his accent, because he had the right circle of friends and because, above all, he subscribed to a set of approved opinions and Palin failed on all these counts. (This is of course, almost precisely the caricature that progressives threw at the old system of education.) A world that considers Obama as educated was clearly one that had abolished education as a meaningful concept, as anything other than a social designator. In the Middle Ages (perk up Lindsay) very few people were educated, but now no-one is or at least no-one will be if and when the teleology of our current system is achieved.

    So what’s the upshot of all this? Well, a liberal education had many purposes, but its most vital was to help those it was bestowed upon escape the tyranny of the present, to give them material and space to think beyond earthly limits and transcend the drudgery of life. Its almost total absence (and that is what we have, for it was abolished, not replaced) achieves the opposite. We are fast approaching the point where anything written before about 50 years ago will be utterly incomprehensible to all except specialist historians (and of course we have Quentin Skinner and his brood to tell us this is how it should be). Accordingly our ability to think widely and think well, as well as to experience ennobling beauty is diminished almost to nothing. I consider this a tragedy, but I have expended enough words so will leave you to work out why, for I still unfortunately have not completed my point.

    It still has to be explained why general ignorance is an important and not merely incidental feature of the contemporary western polity. Since the early 20th century the idea has progressively become established that “under-consumption” is the chief underlying problem in modern capitalist economies. Accordingly, as this idea has achieved hegemony, the duty of the good citizen has become more and more to consume more than his means can stretch to and of the good government to facilitate this. (It is the opinion of our betters that we can go on interspersing decades of debt based consumption with orgies of bailout and stimulus more or less indefinitely. Many people of my political persuasion are convinced that economic law forbids this and collapse is on the way, I’m not convinced or sure which prospect I find scarier).

    Anyway, why is general ignorance important in this sort of polity? There are two reasons. As I have already pointed out, the effect of not being educated is to abolish ones links to the past and place existence in an endless present. It should be easy enough for any one to see why this is conducive to broken-windowsonomics. The ideal situation is one where people are dimly aware of some sort of beforetime in which rapacious industrialists feasted on orphaned factory workers, but from which nothing resembling an idea can spring.

    The second reason is because, as it happens, very substantial parts of the western tradition are bound up with ethics proper to a system where over-consumption is the chief fear. Restraint in all areas of behaviour has been widely, consistently and powerfully praised and, of course, if people act like that, then our system has sunk. So older forms of ethics have been replaced with a new system in which people learn to repeat by rote “that’s sexist/homophobic/racist!”, which provides no challenge to a life of mindless consumption and, even better, provides a useful tool for further trashing the whole western canon even further, whether unfairly or not. It’s notable that when people do manage to conceive ideas genuinely subversive of the emerging order they are rendered completely impotent by their amazing ahistoricity and their total lack of grounding in an intelligent and powerful tradition of text and ideas (“Hey what if there was no property?)

    Anyway, I don’t have time to go on. I’d simply advise reading Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, with an eye to observing the key features of our constantly emerging society. Of course, what results will look different in many ways, I doubt that all the technological feats will be achieved and I doubt further the ability of this sort of society to control lawlessness and casual violence or provide a sustainably standard of living, so in many ways Clockwork Orange provides a better prediction. However, even the parts of “Brave New World” which once seemed most absurd are now coming to pass: witness the use of the education system to sexualise pre-pubescent children and to inculcate the belief that chastity is a perversely absurd ideal.

    Anyway, that’s what I was talking about. You can believe me or not, or you can talk about something else, it’s your blog.

    P.S. Apologies for the numerous errors of grammar and expression that no doubt lurk above. I simply have no will to check it.

  7. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    So first, there is a major issue which you put aside in a single line but which I don’t think you can legitimately do, namely the relationship between ‘mass’ ignorance (or the ignorance of ‘people’) and the ignorance of highly-educated elites. You aver that you are not concerned with the former, and so presumably what worries you is that now, relative to certain times in the past, our educated elite is less educated. Yet in explaining the drawbacks of this, you speak indiscriminately of ‘us’, of ‘our ability to think widely and think well, as well as to experience ennobling beauty’. You then speak of the replacement of an ethics of restraint with an ethics of indulgence as something that bears on ‘the good citizen’ and ‘people’, and similarly for ‘people’ being encouraged to over-consume by their temporal ‘rootlessness’.

    Now, I don’t believe that the economic imperative you refer to is for the educated elite to consume extensively, since they are 1) usually pretty well off anyway and have plenty of money to spend, compared to the average, and 2) not numerous enough to determine aggregate demand. So it seems that you are speaking of people in general or at least some wide section of ‘the masses’. But all of your claims make sense only in relation to the numerically small minority of Latin-readers. So I don’t really see how any of this holds together.

    Apart from that the main issue seems to be about what sorts of learning are most valuable. You say that learning Latin (and Greek) so as to study Latin literature is the most valuable form, on the grounds that it teaches people to manipulate grammar and that it is important to have at least some literary canon that people are familiar with. You speak similarly of history as something that is important to give us perspective beyond the present. You aver moreover that nothing of substance has replaced this.

    Now, to respond in substance: a number of forms of learning seem to be more widespread nowadays, even if it’s true that familiarity with the whole of a literary canon is less common. Why is a basic familiarity with the scientific method and the established facts, as far as we know them, regarding our origins, our place on earth, and the nature of the universe, not a compensation for that literary canon? Why is a more diffuse and less detailed awareness of a wider range of literary traditions from across the world, not a compensation for detailed familiarity with one? Why is what you call ‘ability to repeat by rote “that’s sexist/homophobic/racist”‘, i.e a critical awareness that recorded history reflects certain perspectives and ignores or excludes others, not a compensation for knowing the facts of battles and rulers in the past? After all, you suggest that what’s important is, among other things, giving a broader perspective and an ability to ‘think widely’, and it’s not at all obvious that excessive study of a single tradition isn’t potentially inimical to that.

    Indeed, I remember reading somewhere that playing a range of computer games had been found by scientists (i.e. scientists had produced data suggesting the possibility) to increase people’s mental flexibility and capacity to reason. Does it do so better than studying Latin? Who knows.

    More specifically, why is Latin such good training for Grammar? Having studied it for 4 years, it never seemed as grammatically elegant to me as, say, Spanish (though admittedly more so than English or French). And having read the Aeneid in Latin, it didn’t seem as great as you seem to make out. But perhaps that’s just me.

    But more importantly is the more abstract response. Everything you’ve said seems to be summed up in your last line, “you can believe me or not”. You have averred, for instance, that people nowadays have lost most of their ability to experience ennobling beauty. Well, maybe they have, maybe they haven’t. But no-one can be expected to accept such a subjective impression on its own merits. How might any of this be measured in a remotely reliable way? If I assert that people nowadays are more able to experience ennobling beauty, how might a third party decide which of us is right? If you say that the things modern people know cannot compensate for what they no longer know, and some ‘Guardian twit’ says that most of what people used to prize as learning was really pretty crap, whereas those things which are now widely understood are much more valuable – how might a third party decide which of us is right?

  8. Gabriel Says:

    1) This “tiny minority” is nothing like as tiny as you seem to imagine. 25% of people once attended Grammar School.
    2) There was once a thriving working class education movement in this country. Latin was attempted, but the emphasis was, for obvious reasons, more on working one’s way through translations and the great works of English literature. Though according to my argument, this sort of education is less valuable than a Greats course, it is still immensely valuable (it is, by the way, roughly what I have.) For an interesting related read I would recommend this:
    http://www.amazon.com/Shakespeare-People-Working-Readers-1800-1900/dp/0521861772
    To re-iterate an earlier point, I’m not saying that, educationally speaking, matters have declined steadily from 1500. Obviously, however, the high middle ages were not characterised by Keynesian economics.
    3) Scientific education (as long as it is not purely technical) is certainly valuable and perhaps I was wrong submit to the pressures of time and space in my last comment and leave it out. However, scientific education has, famously, declined and continues to decline in this country and, no, I do not consider there to be a great deal of value in answering questions like “Sanjay smoked a cigarette, why is this bad? How could he better occupy himself to prevent global warming?”
    Again, I don’t suggest that it is impossible to throw out a traditional western education with something as good or better, I merely point out that in the world we live in it manifestly hasn’t been. The same goes for “a more diffuse and less detailed awareness of a wider range of literary traditions from across the world” Great! Show me where even that is done. (Though in this case, the reasons for the inferiority of this sort of education, if one accepts my premises [or even if not], should be obvious)
    4) Credit bubble welfareonomics requires the affluent middle classes to pursue debt based consumption more than anyone else.
    5) Latin as a training in grammar is superior to anything I have come across because, simply, there is a lot more grammar to learn whilst studying it. Of course many other (even all) languages are much more fluid and intuitive to speak and write, that’s rather the point. Latin is good for precisely the same reasons it would be impossible to use it for our ordinary language of conversation, commerce and the like.. This is something of a diversion however: Spanish can fulfil a great deal of the work done by Latin, but in our education system it doesn’t because hardly any grammar is taught.
    6) I consider it of benefit to those sections of the masses that have any contact with culture at all (and, as I say, until quite recently that was a large proportion) to live in a society with a more educated elite, even if that elite is very small indeed.
    7) As for an objective test, I’m afraid I must disappoint you. My best shot would be placing the umpire on Cornmarket at 12:00 a.m. and observing whether he can suppress the desire to slay himself in a fit of despair.

  9. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    “My best shot would be placing the umpire on Cornmarket at 12:00 a.m. and observing whether he can suppress the desire to slay himself in a fit of despair.”

    I am disappointed. It’s good to know what you do and don’t ‘consider there to be value in’ though.


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