Higher IQs Hasn’t Made Us Smarter

Photo credit: Bartmoni (CC-By-SA 3.0)
Photo credit: Bartmoni (CC-By-SA 3.0)

I read an interesting BBC article over the weekend that I think has some implications for the direction of education reform and the workforce development model.

Generationally we have seen a jump in our collective IQs, but that doesn’t necessarily make us smarter. The article is a profile of James Flynn, a professor at the University of Otago in New Zealand. He is a well known figure in intelligence research and has recently written a book entitled Does Your Family Make You Smarter?

He points out with Millennials in particular:

“They have all these modern skills and yet they come out of university no different than the medieval peasant who is anchored in his own little world,” he tells me mid-way through our conversation. “Well, actually they are anchored in a much bigger world – the world of the present – but with no historical dimension.” The result, he thinks, is that we have overly simplistic views of current issues, leaving us open to manipulation by politicians and the media.

The article then addresses the gains made with our IQs, some of this is hereditary, but much of the gains are likely due to better health and education.

But it’s not just education; some researchers have arguedthat our whole world is now engineered to make us think in this way, thanks to an increasing reliance on technology. Where our great-grandparents may have grappled with typewriters, our parents struggled to program their video recorder, while children today learn to use a touchscreen from an early age. Even reading the schematic London Underground map may have been tough for someone in the 1900s who was used to seeing the world more literally, Flynn says. This progression has forced us to think in hierarchies and symbols, to learn how to follow rules and draw analogies – and it is now so widespread that we forget the cognitive leaps it requires.

As a consequence, we all became a bit better at thinking abstractly, leading to an increase of at least 30 points over the last century. The rise in IQ may not mean we have ramped up our raw brainpower – we are fine-tuning our ancient mental machinery for the modern world, rather than upgrading it completely – but he argues that the improvements are “sociologically significant”, reflecting real changes in thinking.

Back to Millennials, here is the kicker…

Despite the gains in IQ, he worries that we aren’t engaging our minds effectively on the issues that matter. “I’m not being gloomy but actually the major intellectual thing that disturbs me is that young people like you are reading less history and less serious novels than you used to,” he says, arguing that we should have a background in the crises that have shaped world history before we form opinions on current politics. He chastises me for my lack of knowledge of Europe’s Thirty Years’ War, for instance, which he believes has many parallels with today’s conflicts in the Middle East. (His criticism is perfectly fair, and he is persuasive enough to convince me to fill the gaps in my knowledge.)

George Orwell, he says, painted a dystopia where the government rewrites history to control and manipulate the population. “But all you need are ‘ahistorical’ people who then live in the bubble of the present, and by fashioning that bubble the government and the media can do anything they want with them,” Flynn adds.

In other words, our IQs may have risen, but this hasn’t made us any wiser. “Reading literature and reading history is the only thing that’s going to capitalise on the IQ gains of the 20th Century and make them politically relevant.” You may or may not agree, but Flynn is not the only person with this concern: as William Poundstone shows in his latest book Head In The Clouds, everyday ignorance is influencing the way we make decisions in many areas of our lives.

Now the question to ask is this. Is the current approach to education helping to make improvements or does cause further harm? I would suggest it causes further harm. Kids under Common Core read less classical literature, that is a documented fact. Also because of the current emphasis on STEM due to a shift in education to a workforce development model schools and students focus much less on civics education.

It isn’t just education reformers to blame, increased screen time, shortened attention spans, and a deluge of information available all have played a part. The direction of education should work to combat this instead of reinforcing it.

Be sure to read the whole article.

One thought on “Higher IQs Hasn’t Made Us Smarter

  1. …they are anchored in a much bigger world – the world of the present – but with no historical dimension.” The result, he thinks, is that we have overly simplistic views of current issues, leaving us open to manipulation by politicians and the media….

    …This progression has forced us to think in hierarchies and symbols, to learn how to follow rules and draw analogies – and it is now so widespread that we forget the cognitive leaps it requires.

    There we have it: No historical contexts…not learning how to follow rules and draw analogies…forgetting the cognitive leaps those skills require.

    It’s called self-absorption, or narcissism. We have allowed this environment to be created for our children. It’s time for parents and all adults to look in a mirror and see who caused this phenomenon. Then it’s time for us to change in our homes, then in our schools, then in universities in order to show young people what positive change looks like. Schools can not and should not do the job alone.

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