America the Dumb and how to smarten it (and you)
By Marty Nemko
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40 percent of Americans believe in ghosts, 78% in angels. The nation’s bestselling publications are TV Guide, Parade, People, and the National Enquirer. The most watched TV shows this week were CSI and three episodes of Survivor. Throughout much of 1998 and 1999, the best-selling book in America was about how you too can talk to the dead—if you just tune into the right frequencies.
There’s reason to believe we’re getting even less intelligent.
Smart people have few kids. According to the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, the average number of children born to US women is 71% greater for high school dropouts than for college graduates. The average IQ of the dropouts is less than 96.
The effect of this is geometric. Over five generations, 100 high school dropouts will have produced 1,200 babies, 100 college graduates just 300.
What to do? Make birth control and realistic sex education readily available in high schools. For teenage girls who have a child before age 17, offer special counseling and encouragement (perhaps even a cash incentive?) to use Norplant. Norplant is a contraceptive that protects for up to five years but can be safely removed at any time.
Unlike in the past, the brightest women rarely go into teaching. Before the women’s movement, most women considered teaching to be the highest-level career to which they could reasonably aspire.
That’s all changed. Fully half of the incoming medical school and law school classes are women. Today’s K-12 teachers have the lowest average SAT scores of people in any professional occupation.
To teach in California, one must hold a bachelor’s degree and pass the California Basic Educational Skills Test (CBEST). That test requires no more than eighth grade reading, writing, and math. One-third of bachelor’s degree holders who aspire to a career in teaching fail the CBEST.
I walked into a high school classroom recently. The first thing I heard the teacher say was, “Fleming discovered penicillin by serpendipity. I want you to remember that word: serpendipity. Repeat after me: ser-pen-di-pity.”
What to do? Top quality college graduates seek impact, money, and status. Currently, K-12 teaching offers none of the above.
Impact. Teachers’ impact on students has been dramatically reduced because, today, to address concerns about tracking, most public schools group classes at random. So each class contains gifted and retarded, native English speakers and new immigrants. This range presents a Herculean challenge to even the smartest, most dedicated teacher, so we must establish achievement-grouped classes. But unlike the rigid tracked classes of decades past, special efforts should be made to periodically review each student’s (especially children of color) placement to ensure that each child is appropriately placed. To reduce elitism, non-academic subjects should probably not be grouped by achievement.
Money. Teachers make less money than top college graduates could otherwise earn. If the school year were lengthened from the current 179 days to the average for American workers (220 workdays), the public would likely be willing to pay teachers significantly more. And of course, a longer school year will increase student learning.
Status. Currently, teachers earn the same and hold the same title whether they are excellent or marginal. This discourages top people from entering and staying in teaching. A career ladder should be instituted: teacher, senior teacher, and master teacher. Master teachers would have primary responsibility for training new teachers. Currently, most teacher training is conducted by professors, who often have never taught K-12, let alone been outstanding at it.
Ironically, school reform is making matters worse. School reform’s mantra is “All students can learn to high standards.” Alas, as just mentioned, that too often translates to slow learners and gifted students increasingly being placed in the same class, a high-level class. As a result, millions of high schoolers who read below grade level are being forced to struggle with the intricacies of Shakespeare, students who barely know arithmetic are forced to grapple with quadratic equations.
The teacher of a mixed-achievement class is forced into a Hobson’s Choice:
- Teach to the bottom which lowers standards, ignores bright students (who have the greatest potential for improving society), and reduces everyone to the lowest common denominator.
- Teach to the top kids, which frustrates all but the brightest.
- Teach to the middle and you bore the bright and frustrate the slow.
- Use so-called “cooperative learning,” which in practice too often means that the bright end up tutoring or doing the work for the slow, depriving both bright and slow of appropriate-level instruction.
Not surprisingly, a University of Michigan metaevaluation of 76 separate studies (!) of classroom grouping concluded that students, on average, learn more in classes that are grouped by achievement. Yet activist groups have successfully pressured the public schools to greatly increase the amount of mixed-achievement classes. As a result, our schools are dumbing down America’s next generation.
What to do? Implement flexible achievement-grouped classes, as described above.
Colleges are dumbing down. In 1970, only 40 percent of high school graduates were admitted to college. Today it’s 70 percent. Routinely, colleges accept students with SAT scores of 800 (verbal and math combined!) and C+ grades from low-rigor high schools. By digging deeper into the barrel of students, colleges have created the same problem for college professors as described above for high school teachers: the nearly impossible task of teaching advanced and remedial students in the same class. Imagine, for example, that you wanted to take your first class in Spanish or computer programming. Wouldn’t you learn more in a class with fellow beginners rather than one with 1/3 beginners, 1/3 intermediates, and 1/3 hotshots? Now imagine you were nearly fluent in Spanish or were a near-professional computer programmer. Wouldn’t you learn less if the class was liberally laced with beginners? Mixed-achievement classes dumbs down everyone.
Admitting more students to college has other negative effects. The dropout rate among students admitted to four-year colleges with sub-900 SAT scores is enormous: fewer than 20 percent will earn their bachelor’s degree, even if given six years. Ironically, sending non-academically oriented students on to higher education dumbs them. Their high school and post-high school training is ill-suited to their learning style, so they come away with remarkably little. Instead, high school and post-high school training programs should be developed that are tailored to their non-academic learning styles.
Even that 20 percent of low achievers who manage to graduate from college rarely reap career rewards for their efforts. In part because of the offshoring of American jobs, the US has a gross oversupply of college graduates. Typically, dozens of candidates apply for even a mediocre white-collar job. The bottom-of-the-barrel college graduates, who usually took more years to earn their degrees, often end up forced to take jobs that don’t require college at all.
What to do? Only admit students to four-year colleges who have a reasonable chance of success there. At minimum, let prospective students know the percentage of students with similar high school grades and test scores who graduate from that college within four, five, and six years.
We need a high-quality alternative for the non-academically oriented: for example, career academies in which reading, writing, math, and thinking skills are taught in the concrete context of a career cluster such as health care. This alternative must be of much higher quality than the dumping-ground vocational schools of decades past.
Grade inflation. If you’re already getting great grades, there’s little reason to work harder. Alas, despite the dumbing of America, and despite US students scoring at the bottom among industrialized nations on standardized achievement tests, US high school and college grades continue to rise. In a College Board survey in 1991, 28 percent of 2001 college-bound seniors reported A grades. Ten years later, the figure jumped to 41 percent. In 1991, the average grade-point average was 3.1. In 2001, it rose to 3.28. Could it be that the 2001 crop of college-bound students are smarter? Not according to their SAT scores. In the past 25 years, the average SAT score has remained right around 1000. Yet students report ever more A's.
Grade inflation is equally rampant in colleges. In 1967, the average college GPA was 2.7. Now it’s 3.1 and continuing to rise at roughly 0.15 per decade.
What to do? Grades, especially in widely taken courses, should be tied to benchmarks, so it’s clear what, for example, a B in chemistry attests to.
Also, high schools should calibrate its average grade point average against its average SAT score. For example, I recently reviewed a high school at which the average college-bound student’s GPA is a lofty 3.6 but the average SAT score is a puny 750. In such cases, teachers should raise their grading standards.
Affirmative action is dumbing America. All people of good will support affirmative action as it was originally conceived: that employers and colleges should reach out to find the best candidates among all races. Unfortunately, in practice, affirmative action too often turns out to be reverse discrimination. For example, a study of 47 colleges and universities across America conducted by the Center for Equal Opportunity found, “The average difference in academic credentials among those admitted, whether measured by test scores or by grades and high-school class rank, between blacks and whites, and to a lesser extent between Hispanics and whites, is very large.” For example, the average SAT score of Blacks is 200+ points lower than that of the average White, 250 points lower than that of the average Asian. And those test scores overpredict(!) for Blacks; that is, African-Americans’ college GPAs are lower than their test scores would have predicted.
Once admitted, students who gained entry to college only because of affirmative action, on average, have lower grades, drop out more, and often are pushed through by professors eager to graduate more minorities or who are pressured to do so. A dramatic example is that of Dr. Patrick Chavis, a Black student who, in the landmark Bakke vs. University of California case, was admitted to UC Davis Medical School while Allan Bakke, a white who had much higher grades and test scores, was rejected. While Chavis was in medical school, nine(!) of his professors urged his dismissal, but Chavis claimed racial discrimination and was allowed to graduate. Upon graduation, a New York Times Sunday Magazine cover story proclaimed Chavis the poster boy for affirmative action. In the ensuing years, however, Chavis was found guilty of many instances of malpractice, including two deaths following a liposuction, and his license was revoked.
Reverse discrimination is not limited to universities. Almost all medium and large companies, non-profits, and government agencies have diversity “goals” (explicit quotas are illegal). Meeting those goals often requires hiring and promoting less competent people. This is nearly impossible to verify quantitatively, but privately, many insiders report reverse discrimination even in the highest echelons.
When factors other than ability to perform the job are considered, we dumb down America. I will leave to others to debate whether this decrement in our high-level employees’ competence and intelligence is outweighed by the benefits derived from having racially diverse managers, bridge builders, doctors, professors, etc.
What to do? We should restore affirmative action as it was originally intended: not reverse discrimination, but full outreach to underrepresented minorities to ensure that the best person for the job is hired.
The strength of fundamentalist churches. These churches remain a powerful influence on millions of Americans' thought processes, especially in the South and Midwest. Such churches typically inculcate a simplistic approach to decision-making. That contributes to the dumbing of America.
Illegal immigration hurts. In the 19th and much of the 20th century, immigration to the US was well controlled. People who were granted citizenship had the persistence to wait, the money (and thereby, on average, the intelligence) to pay for the transoceanic trip, and passed a US government screening that assessed the likelihood of the person contributing to American society.
Today, however, the US has essentially declared its border with Mexico open—it will soon grant drivers licenses to any illegal with enough intelligence to walk or be driven across the border. That announces to Mexico’s 101 million citizens that the US is aware of illegals and accepts them. As a result, ever more millions of unscreened Mexicans will be sneaking into America. Today, six to eight million (estimates vary) of California’s 35 million residents are illegals—and the rate is increasing--fast.
What to do? It is a myth that illegals mainly do the work that legal residents won’t. Many citizen advocacy groups, notably in the African-American community, complain bitterly that illegals are taking jobs that legal residents would want.
So the US government should institute humane yet effective approaches to reducing the number of illegal aliens in the US. For example, employers should be severely fined for employing illegals. If an employer cannot find a legal person, it just raise the salary and working conditions until a legal person will accept the position.
The media has had to dumb itself down. The dumbed-down America combined with the growing percentage of TV watchers who speak little English have forced the media to simplify everything. For example, CNN’s Headline News has dramatically reduced the length and sophistication of news pieces. Increasing percentages of airtime are devoted to entertainment “news”—such as interviews with rock stars about their latest CD.
What to do? The ratings- and circulation-obsessed media will only upgrade their offerings when the viewership and readership reject dumb shows and periodicals. This will, I hope, occur if the previous recommendations are implemented.
Politicians and advocates can get away with dumbed-down rhetoric. “Move forward, not backward” “Three strikes and you’re out!” “Diversity is our greatest strength!” “Save the environment!” “Abortion is murder!” “Meat is murder!” So simplistic. For example, if no one ate meat, millions of cows would never live at all.
America only gets dumber when issues are presented to us in black and white rather than with an even-handed presentation of multiple perspectives. Ironically, too often our public schools, which claim that one of its main goals is to teach critical thinking, too often, in eagerness to sensitize students on such issues as the evils of capitalism have oversimplified matters. That increases passion around an issue but reduces critical thinking. As Thomas Sowell, in his Dec. 17, 2003 column, wrote, “Propaganda has replaced education as the goal of too many ‘educators.’”
What to do? As with the media, politicians and activists will only smarten up their messages when the public won’t buy dumbed-down ones.
Making You and Your Family Smarter
It will take a long time for society to get smarter, but you can improve fairly quickly.
Here are a few of the myriad things you and your family can do to boost ability to think and communicate:
Hang out with smart people. It rubs off. Try to get to work with smart co-workers and bosses; make smart friends. Get your child into a school or class with smart students. Encourage friendships with smart kids.
Subscribe to a respected liberal and a respected conservative publication, for example, on the liberal side, the Utne Reader, Mother Jones, or The Nation, and on the conservative side, Commentary, the American Spectator, or the Weekly Standard. On most issues, there is at least one perspective worth considering from both the Left and from the Right.
Watch commercials with a critical eye. What techniques is the advertiser using to manipulate you into buying the product? What is the advertiser not saying that might justifiably dissuade you from buying?
Read newspapers and watch TV news shows with a critical eye. In generations past, journalists believed their highest responsibility was--except in editorials--to attempt to be unbiased, or, at least, fair and balanced. Today, most journalists, even in respected publications, consciously or unconsciously inject their biases into news stories: by their choice of what topics to cover, what pictures to show, what language to use (for example, “illegal alien” versus “undocumented immigrant.”), how strongly to make a counterargument, for example, placing a counterargument in weak terms near the end of an article, or, on a talk show, getting a strong person for one side of the argument and a weak person for the other. For example, on the CNN show Crossfire, liberal co-host Paul Begala is a much stronger debater than conservative co-host Robert Novak, so no matter what the issue, the liberal position will almost always seem better.
Build your emotional intelligence. We all know people who can think well but are emotionally tone-deaf and thus often fail in their dealings with people. You can increase your emotional intelligence by, before speaking, putting yourself in the other person’s shoes, for example, “What would persuade him? What would offend him? Is it worth offending him?” Also, carefully watch how emotionally intelligent people interact with others.
Check out the other side. When you or someone you love thinks the other side of an issue is crazy (For example, “How could the Bush administration support drilling in the Alaska?!”) ask yourself, “Have I fully understood the rationale behind that position?” If not, and you feel it’s worth your time, read an article that makes the case for that position. That will nuance, change, or strengthen your belief in your position.
The Family Debate
This works well as a family dinnertime or after-dinner ritual but can be done with any pairs or trios of people. Here’s the family version:
1. The family decides what proposition to discuss the next night, for example, “George Bush should be impeached.” Two people volunteer to be the debaters. The other family members will be the judges.
2. During the next 24 hours, both debaters spend a bit of time listing arguments both for and against the proposition, perhaps getting help from the Internet, newspaper, etc.
3. The debate begins with Debater #1, in two minutes, as persuasively as possible, arguing why Bush should be impeached.
4. Debater #2 gets two minutes to rebut Debater #1’s arguments.
5. Debater #2 gets two more minutes to present affirmative arguments for why Bush should not be impeached.
6. Debater #1 gets to rebut Debater #2’s arguments.
7. After the debate, each judge decides who he thinks won and why.
8. In the next night’s debate, Debaters #1 and #2 take the opposite positions.
9. After that debate, the family chooses another proposition to debate, and two of the previous judges become the debaters.
Variation. After each debater’s affirmative argument, the opponent may ask two minutes of questions, challenging the opponent’s contentions.
Sample debate propositions:
The government should impose a penalty on American companies that offshore jobs.
Illegal aliens should be able to obtain a US driver’s license.
It’s wrong to eat meat.
Abortion should be outlawed except in cases of rape, incest or threat to the mother’s life.
Gene therapy to increase a person’s intelligence would be a good thing.
The following propositions are adapted versions of recent National Forensic League topics for high school debaters:
The federal government should substantially increase public health services for mental health care
The federal government should establish a foreign policy significantly limiting the use of weapons of mass destruction
The federal government should significantly increase protection of privacy of medical records.Of course, making a nation smarter is an enormous long-range task, but few goals are more important. If we can accept that it’s worth spending the money and time on the US space program, it’s certainly worth the money and time to make America smarter.
© Marty Nemko 2004-2014. Usage Rights