Are Children Dumber Today Than a Century Ago?

By:  Selwyn Duke
Are Children Dumber Today Than a Century Ago?

With the realization that most of today's college graduates couldn't pass a 1912 Kentucky eighth-grade graduation exam, many people are asking if today's youth are less intelligent that those of a century ago.

Seeing high-school student Rachel Jeantel — who can’t read cursive or speak proper English but boasts a B average — testify at the recent George Zimmerman trial certainly could make one wonder what passes for education in 2013 America. And now this question has been brought into even sharper focus by the publication of a 1912 Bullitt County, Kentucky, test required for eighth-grade graduation — a test that most of today’s college graduates couldn’t pass.

The exam, published at Lew Rockwell, asks questions such as “Adjectives have how many Degrees of Comparison?” “Through what waters would a vessel pass in going from England through the Suez Canal to Manila?” “Define Cerebrum; Cerebellum” and “Name three rights given Congress by the Constitution and two rights denied Congress.” And such apparent academic rigor has prompted many to ask, as a Daily Mail headline on the topic puts it, “Were children smarter a century ago? Test for eighth graders in Kentucky dated 1912 ignites debate over kids' intelligence today.”

Let’s be clear, however, that what’s really at issue here isn’t intelligence but knowledge. As far as intelligence goes, note that studies relating to generational I.Q. changes conflict. Political scientist James Flynn has recently received a lot of ink for research indicating that the average I.Q. increased 30 points between 1900 and 2012; in contrast, other studies show that I.Q. peaked in 1950 and is now steadily falling. And, of course, there’s no question that environment during infancy and toddlerhood — and perhaps even during intrauterine development — can affect the developing brain. (Why, there’s research indicating that environment influences even gene expression.) Then we have to ask how I.Q. is being measured. Have the people really been raised up or dumbed down? Or have the tests been?

Whatever the case, I suspect that social analyses have been dumbed down. Consider the aforementioned Daily Mail piece. It does make the good point that the Kentucky test may not reflect the intellectual foundation of average 1912 14-year-olds, as many poor and less intelligent children a century ago would have already left school to start working prior to eighth grade. Yet it also contains the following:

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