Before I get to the dreary budget debates in Washington, here’s a bright spot of good news: We’re getting smarter.
My readers are all above average. But if I ever had average readers, they would still be brilliant compared with Americans of a century ago.
The average American in the year 1900 had an IQ that by today’s standards would measure about 67. Since the traditional definition of mental retardation was an IQ of less than 70, that leads to the remarkable conclusion that a majority of Americans a century ago would count today as intellectually disabled.
The trend of rising intelligence is known as the “Flynn Effect,” named for James R. Flynn, the New Zealand scholar who pioneered this area of research. Countless other scholars worldwide have replicated his findings, and it is now accepted science — although there is still disagreement about its causes and significance.
The average American IQ has been rising steadily by 3 points a decade. Spaniards gained 19 points over 28 years, and the Dutch 20 points over 30 years. Kenyan children gained nearly 1 point a year.
Those figures come from a new book by Flynn from Cambridge University Press called “Are We Getting Smarter?” It’s an uplifting tale, a reminder that human capacity is on the upswing. The implication is that there are potential Einsteins now working as subsistence farmers in Congo or dropping out of high school in Mississippi who, with help, could become actual Einsteins.
The Flynn Effect should upend some of the smugness among those who have historically done well in global IQ standings. For example, while there is still a race gap, black Americans are catching up — and now do significantly better than white Americans of the “greatest generation” did in the 1940s.
Another problem for racists: The country that tops the IQ charts isn’t America or in Europe. It’s Singapore, at 108. (The reason may have to do with Singapore’s Confucian respect for learning and its outstanding school system.)
None of this means that people today are born smarter. While IQ measures something to do with mental acuity, it’s a rubbery and imperfect metric. It’s heavily shaped by environment — potential is diminished when children suffer from parasites or lead in air pollution. As a result, the removal of lead from gasoline may have added 6 points to the IQ of American children, according to Dr. Philip Landrigan, a pediatrician and epidemiologist at Mount Sinai School of Medicine.
Flynn argues that IQ is rising because in industrialized societies we give our brains a constant mental workout that builds up what we might call our brain sinews.
“The brains of the best and most experienced London taxi drivers,” Flynn writes, citing a 2000 study, have “enlarged hippocampi, which is the brain area used for navigating three-dimensional space.” In a similar way, he argues, modern life gives our brains greater exercise than when we were mostly living on isolated farms.
It’s not that our ancestors were dummies, and I confess to doubts about the Flynn Effect when I contemplate the slide from Shakespeare to “Fifty Shades of Grey.” Likewise, politics does not seem to benefit: One academic study found a deterioration in the caliber of discussions of economics in presidential debates from 1960 to 2008.
But Flynn argues that modern TV shows and other entertainment can be cognitively demanding, and video games like those of the Grand Theft Auto series probably require more thought than solitaire. (No, don’t call the police. My teenage kids are not holding me hostage and forcing me to write this paragraph.)
Back to the debates in Washington. To me, the lesson from this research is the vast amount of human potential globally that is available if we can nurture and stimulate kids who now get neglected.
One challenge is to preserve foreign aid. Some 61 million children around the world still don’t attend even primary school, and President Barack Obama in his 2008 campaign was right to propose a global education fund, in part as an alternative to extremist religious schools. I’m hoping the idea doesn’t get dropped forever.
The even greater challenge is nation-building at home at a time when funding for schools is being slashed, about 7,000 high school students drop out every day, and there are long waits to get into early-childhood-enrichment programs like Head Start. Literacy programs can help break cycles of poverty and unleash America’s potential — and a single F-35 fighter could pay for more than four years of the Reading Is Fundamental program in the entire United States.
As we make hard budget choices, let’s remember that the essential fact of the world is that talent is universal and opportunity is not. I hope we’re finally smart enough to try to remedy that.
Nicholas D. Kristof is a columnist for The New York Times.
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