Are Americans really getting dumber?

November 04, 2008|By Joel Stein

While others worry that Americans are getting dumber, I'm excited about a future in which I am one of the smartest people in the country. These columns will win Nobel Prizes in economics, literature and fields not yet invented. I will be asked to run an Ivy League university solely based on my insights: Avoid land wars in the Middle East; buy stocks when the Dow drops 40 percent; do not floss with licorice.

Some worry that contemporary Americans are too stupid to vote because they can't find the countries that we're at war with on maps, even if those maps are just of Iraq and Afghanistan. Despite such arguments - laid out in books such as Susan Jacoby's The Age of American Unreason and movies such as Idiocracy and Wall-E - I don't think we're intellectually lazier than our ancestors. In fact, I suspect that writers who rant about blossoming stupidity in the U.S. are actually insecure about their own intelligence. So when I heard about Adam Winer's new book, How Dumb Are You?: The Great American Stupidity Quiz, I asked him to devise a test for me to challenge one of them to a smart-off.

Mr. Winer administered a 50-question quiz to Ms. Jacoby and then me. I finished in 15 minutes, pretty sure I crushed it. The only thing I blanked on was the team name of the bad guys in World War I. Apparently Germany and Italy hadn't yet hired the marketing genius who came up with the friendly sounding "Axis."

Ms. Jacoby got two wrong. She didn't know how many degrees were in a triangle, or which month has the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

I was pretty excited about my presumed victory until Mr. Winer called to say I lost big. "Don't you cover politics? Don't you cover current events?" he asked. "You didn't know what language they speak in Iraq. You thought water boils at 120 degrees. That means you think sweat should be boiling off your head on a hot day." It did not make me feel better that 71 percent of people also don't know when water boils. I really wish Jimmy Carter had pushed harder on that metric thing.

According to Mr. Winer, I got 11 wrong. Though I dispute most of those. If asked to name a Charlie Chaplin comedy, I think The Little Dictator is close enough to The Great Dictator and a good deal funnier. And while the third line of "The Star-Spangled Banner" isn't quite "Who brought stripes and bright stars through the perilous night," at least my version, unlike the real one, makes sense and has a verb in it.

I called to congratulate Ms. Jacoby, but she was a sore winner and dismissed the quiz as stupid. Apparently, once you start dismissing things as stupid, it's hard to stop.

"This test is a product of the digital culture," she said. "I feel even more strongly now than when I wrote this book that the digital culture confuses information with knowledge." She thought asking pi to the second digit past the decimal point was irrelevant, even though she got that question right. What is pi, I asked? "I forget. It starts with 3. But the important thing is that pi is the relationship of the diameter versus the radius of the circle." Because that number is actually 2, not pi, I asked if she meant the area of a circle, which she agreed to. My editor says we're both wrong.

I do think fact-based tests such as Mr. Winer's can be revealing. Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin's failure to define the Bush doctrine exposed her lack of interest in foreign policy, just as my inability to date the dinosaurs shows I got all of my information about paleontology from Hanna-Barbera. And yes, it might help if we all had maps and timelines as screen savers. Partly because those pictures of tropical islands make me so sad.

But I still don't buy that Americans are getting dumber. As we know from Harry Potter, young people are reading more: Since 2002, juvenile book sales have grown 4.6 percent. And even video games and Facebook trump watching TV as far as brain activity. They're certainly more stimulating than whatever our grandfather's grandfather spent his boyhood doing - farming and getting beaten. So what if people no longer know state capitals and water boilin'? The age of a finite set of information to master is long over. Instead, we know how to problem-solve and filter information better than our grandparents ever did. And that makes us better voters.

Joel Stein is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times. His e-mail is jstein@

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