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Are Americans getting dumber?

Is America getting dumber?

Is the American populace getting dumber?  So say critics who see this as part of America's current decline.

Susan Jacoby, author of The Age of American Unreason, says in an article in the Washington Post, "Dumbness, to paraphrase the late senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, has been steadily defined downward for several decades, by a combination of heretofore irresistible forces. These include the triumph of video culture over print culture (and by video, I mean every form of digital media, as well as older electronic ones); a disjunction between Americans' rising level of formal education and their shaky grasp of basic geography, science and history; and the fusion of anti-rationalism with anti-intellectualism."

There has been a long tradition is anti-intellectualism in America, unlike most other Western countries. Richard Hofstadter, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1964 for his book, Anti-Intellectualism In American Life, describes how the vast underlying foundations of anti-elite, anti-reason and anti-science Americans has been infused into the political and social fabric.

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Journalist Charles Pierce, author of Idiot America, wrote, "the rise of Idiot America today represents--for profit mainly, but also and more cynically, for political advantage in the pursuit of power--the breakdown of a consensus that the pursuit of knowledge is a good. It also represents the ascendancy of the notion that the people whom we should trust the least are the people who best know what they are talking about. In the new media age, everybody is a historian, or a preacher, or a scientist, or a sage. And if everyone is an expert than nobody is, and the worst thing you can be in a society where everybody is an expert is, well, an actual expert."

 Morris Berman in his book, the Twilight of American Culture argues for the need to preserve what was best in American culture, including all works of art and science. Mark Bauerlein, in his book, The Dumbest Generation, reveals how a whole generation of youth (Gen Y) are being dumbed own by their aversion to reading anything of substance and their addiction to digital "crap" via social media.

Is there evidence to support these critics?

Here's some data:

  • The Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs commissioned a civic education poll among public school students. A surprising 77% didn't know that George Washington was the first President; couldn't name Thomas Jefferson as the author of the Declaration of Independence, and only 2.8% of the students actually passed the citizenship test. Along similar lines, the Goldwater Institute of Phoenix did the same survey and only 3.5% of students passed the civics test.
  • Fox News, the most watched news program in the U.S., has on numerous occasions recommended that school science classes be "fair and balanced," meaning by the teaching of biblically-inspired creationism alongside Darwin's' scientific theory of evolution.
  • According to the National Research Council report, only 28% of high school science teachers consistently follow the National Research Council guidelines on teaching evolution, and 13% of those teachers explicitly advocate creationism or "intelligent design."
  • On the eve of the Iraq War, 69% of American's thought Saddam Hussein was involved in the 9/11 attacks; four years later, even though proof had been provided that he was not, 34% still believe he was.
  • 18% of Americans still believe that the sun revolves around the earth, according to a Gallup poll.
  • According to another poll, the average American voter believes that U.S. foreign aid consumes 24% of the Federal budget, when it is only 1%.
  • The American Association of State Colleges and Universities report on education shows that the U.S. ranks second among all nations in the proportion of the population aged 35-64 with a college degree, but 19th in the percentage of those aged 25-34 with an associates or high school diploma, which means that for the first time, the educational attainment of young people will be lower than their parents'.
  • In a Newsweek poll, of U.S. citizens, 29% couldn't identify Joe Biden as the Vice President, and 44% couldn't describe the Bill of Rights.
  • In a 2009 survey of a number of European countries and the U.S. on international affairs, a significant majority of Europeans could identify the Taliban, and just over 50% of Americans could, despite the heavy presence of the U.S. in Afghanistan.
  • 74% of Republicans in the U.S. Senate and 53% in the House of Representatives deny the validity of climate changes since despite the findings of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and every other significant scientific organization in the world.
  • Researcher Kyung Hee Kim at the College of William & Mary analyzed 300,00 Torrance Creativity Test scores of children and adults in the US. Kim found creativity and IQ scores rose steadily until 1990, and were in decline thereafter, and the most serious decline occurring for the youngest children.
  • In 1966-67, approximately 1.4 million students who took the verbal portion of the S.A.T and a score of 700 or more was achieved by 33,000 students. In 1986-87 over 1.8 million students took the test and a score of 700 or higher was attained by fewer than 14,000.
  • A new global study of educational systems in major nations ranks U.S. 15 year olds 14th in the world in reading skills, 17th in science and 25th (below average) in math.
  • According the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress, 68% of public school children in the U.S. do not read proficiently by the time they finish third grade. And the U.S. News & World reported that barely 50% of students are ready for college level reading.
  • Of the 21 countries participating in the Third International Mathematics and Science Study, American high school seniors did better than only 2 countries--Cyprus and South Africa.
  • According to the National Endowment for the Arts report in 1982, 82% of college graduates read novels or poems for pleasure; two decades later only 67% did. And more than 40% of Americans under 44 did not read a single book--fiction or nonfiction--over the course of a year. The proportion of 17 year olds who read nothing (unless required by school ) has doubled between 1984-2004.
  • Renowned T.V. producer Jerry Bruckheimer, who has produced many successful T.V. shows, was once quoted as saying, "it is getting harder and harder to underestimate the intelligence of the American public. It now averages well below the previous 6th grade level."
  • Harvard University's Kiku Adatto found that between 1968 and 1988 the average sound bite on the news for a presidential candidates-featuring the candidate's own voice-dropped from 42.3 seconds to 9.8 seconds. By 2000, according to another Harvard study, the bite was down to 7.8 seconds.

One need only look at the social interactions of students in high schools to see the predominant views of the well educated or intellectual. Well-educated and intellectual students are commonly referred to in public schools and the media as "nerds," "dweebs," "dorks," and "geeks," and are relentlessly harassed and even assaulted by the more popular "jocks" for openly displaying any intellect.  These attitudes are not reflected in students in most European or Asian countries, whose educational levels have now equaled and and will surpass that of the U.S.

So whether the critics are accurate or overstating their case, and whether it reflects a historical tradition of anti-intellectualism in America, the results of educational assessments and pronouncements by political leaders, gives many a legitimate cause for concern, a concern that may seriously affect its economic and social future.

 

 

Ray Williams is the author of Breaking Bad Habits and The Leadership Edge.

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