American Society: more or less intelligent?

A question was posed only four days ago; “Is American society (as a group) becoming more or less intelligent?”

Think on that for a moment. Are we as people becoming more or less intelligent? Really, are we smarter than the previous generations, or are we backsliding into stupidity?

This question has been discussed at great length among my friend groups this past week. My first instinct was to think about what it means to be intelligent. Does is mean to be a knowledge gatherer, or does it mean to be a knowledge-user, or some hybrid of both. Is intelligence a by-product of education, or is intelligence gained by having learned through doing or some other form of action? Is intelligence of a society determined by how much knowledge we consume, or how well we translate that content into something critical?

As an example of intelligence, I think of college professors (my own and others I know). They have completed the appropriate amount of education required to teach at the college level, perceived to be experts in their field of study. They are considered extremely intelligent, imparting their knowledge onto others as a means of educating the populous.

Our teachers are a prime example of a group we would consider smart. They consume incredible amounts of information on specific subjects in order to teach others. Does that make them smart? Does that make them intelligent?

As our discussion continued throughout the week, we came to agreement on a few things:

  • We have the most options for learning as a generation; greater than any generation before us.
  • We have more time to learn than any generation prior (we marry later, have children later, work less, and make as much money)
  • We have access to the best information available. We aren’t restricted by a 20-year-old textbook for our information, but the latest and greatest.

So, we should be smarter, right? We should be solving the biggest mysteries of our time, curing cancer, developing alternative energy, etc. Instead, it feels (I say feels because it may not be the case) like we haven’t had any serious breakthroughs in some time.

So, are we losing steam intellectually? What do you think?

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4 responses to “American Society: more or less intelligent?”

  1. Jeremy Lowry says :

    Americans are slowly becoming more intelligent according to slight increases in data since IQ tests have first been implemented in this country. This is trend has yet to be explained since these tests generally test people’s capacity for solving problems. No specific knowledge set is required to perform well. Although IQ tests have flaws, in theory and in reality, we have no other measure of gauging something as vague as intelligence.

    I think there are many types of intelligence: logical, emotional/social, musical, spatial, etc. because from what I’ve seen in humans is a variety of preferences, strengths, creativities which are not accounted for by a problem solving test. It takes a certain social intelligence to work your way through a business and be successful in a market.. But that same person when trained from a young age may be given all the foundations and equations of modern physics and may not be able to comprehend and conceptualize the material with enough success to improve, expound upon, and theorize about it because of logical intelligence deficits…

    If we are to generalize intelligence for your discussion and purposes, I would say that intelligence is the ability to consume information and maximize the utility with which you use it. Or adapt. I don’t think we will become smarter at an increasing rate, but I agree we will continue to revolutionize the mediums with which we consume information and improve upon existing information at an increasing rate. I look forward to how we will consume 20 years from now.. I think the only obstacle to our progress would be an “Idiocracy” type scenario haha… Had fun thinking about it

    • Wes Hartline says :

      Based on your comment (which I don’t disagree with on many levels), do you believe we are maximizing our intellect as Americans? Sure, IQ’s may be going up, but are we able to utilize our knowledge base effectively? If not, and we are growing progressively smarter, then something is amiss.

      I would submit that we are filling our brains with so much garbage that we will never come close to maximizing our intellect. Most of what we take in isn’t worth taking in.

  2. Jonathan Harms says :

    First, of all, if this is the Jeremy Lowry I am thinking of (which I would bet money that it is because of your smart response), how did you get a hold of Wes’s blog? I will never be surprised at either of your connectivity Wes and Jeremy.

    To comment on your post Wes, Howard Gardner, of the famed multiple intelligence theory, said “It’s not how smart you are, it’s how you are smart.” While I agree with this, I also feel it is relevent to mention a study done at UCLA about the Internet rewiring the brain. Read the article at http://www.wired.com/magazine/2010/05/ff_nicholas_carr/all/1 . It essentially explains that we are capable of thinking about more topics, but are incapable of going deeper within those topics.

    Further (oh no, now I’m really going), the internet gives us a better ability for transactive memory ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Transactive_memory ). Gladwell puts it like this: “we don’t memorize each individual phone number, we memorize where to find the phone number.

    So anyway, my input is that I don’t know if we are more intelligent or not today. I like what you said Wes about “filling our brains with so much garbage that we will never come close to maximizing our intellect.” You’re right, there are so many distractions! But then again, one could argue that those distractions have always been around, we just embrace the ones that are easiest for us to find. Ask David, Bathsheba and Uriah (is that reaching a little far?).

    But, thanks for the chance for input. Getting to answer made me feel more intelligent.

  3. Jeremy says :

    I agree with your last point…

    I think that biologically, although the ceiling may be creeping upwards, we have tapped out our intelligence. We have been using computers to extend our cognitive reach for over half a century. But culturally, which I think is more of what you’re aiming at, no we’re absolutely not maximizing our intellect, as evidenced by Rick Perry still acheiving over 1,500 votes as late as the NH primary. We are not fully utilizing what is at our disposal, but I think this is for a couple reasons, one of which is not our fault. One is that I think American culture venerates hard work, but not the aquisition of knowledge like in Asian countries. The other, which isn’t the fault of Americans’ mindset, values, or attitude, is that we simply haven’t grazed the surface of what the Information Age is providing us. The potential is still unknown. There was a wonderful story on NPR yesterday about how Ipads are going to revolutionize the classroom. No more bags full of textbooks. You download your books for the year, at a fraction of the cost, and keep the Ipad for 4 years through high school. Pages aren’t held hostage anymore by static images and pictures but can now contain moving diagrams and interactive models. Self-grading quizzes can be taken at the end of chapters. Teachers’ lectures can be embedded into the device. The possibilities are endless. The computing power of processors are growing exponentially, so that an individual’s entire genome can be coded to devise a treatment for an illness or condition. Engineering is breaching the realm of nano-technology, possibly able to make microscopic machines that can manipuate individual molecules and atoms. CERN is on the brink of analyzing enough data to eventually detect the particles which cause matter to have gravity.

    This means very little to average Americans, but my point is I think that a reason we aren’t maximizing our intellects is that we are still learning HOW to utilize our knowledge base effectively. Information technology is evolving at such a rapid rate the general public is still learning how to use it. And we consume trash

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