Unsurprisingly, average SAT scores dipped for 2019’s high school graduates, according to results in September. Many observers were quick to note, however, that nationwide, more students are taking the college admission exam because of publicly funded testing during the school day, which may explain the decline.
Not so fast, unfortunately. A growing body of research shows that IQs and intellectual abilities have steadily been decreasing among people born after 1975. Ten years after the publishing of “The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future,” a best-seller by then-Emory professor Mark Bauerlein, evidence suggests we are only getting stupider. Bauerlein discussed with me where America stands on the one-decade anniversary of his book.
Things Are Definitely Worse
Bauerlein’s book begins with a review of American students’ embarrassing knowledge deficits, skewering academia’s over-emphasis on what it calls “critical thinking,” its misguided promotion of screen time in school, and its short-sighted undermining of the role of older, experienced mentors.
Citing a number of objective studies — the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the National Survey of Student Engagement, the Kaiser Family Foundation Program for the Study of Entertainment Media and Health, the American Time Use Survey, Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the Survey of Public Participation in the Arts from the National Endowment for the Arts — Bauerlein highlights the disparagingly dismal knowledge of our American students. The poor results span many disciplines: history, civics, math, science, technology, and fine arts.
Since then, notes Bauerlein, “things are worse in several areas and flat in others.” He adds:
The SAT, for instance, added a writing component in 2006, and scores dropped every year afterwards except two years when they were flat. … If you check college readiness scores on the ACT, also, you find a significant drop in the last eight or nine years. Things are so dismal and disappointing that people don’t even talk about it very much any more.
As for technological oversaturation, students’ greater access to smartphones and similar devices in the last decade proves this an even greater problem. So do the many popular titles urging people to limit their and their children’s screen time.
Our education system also continues to abdicate its own authorities — the experience of elders, pedagogical tradition, and a canon of inherited Western knowledge — in favor of yet further adolescent autonomy, self-determination, and “social-emotional learning.” The results, evinced by the ever-growing list of ridiculous, dangerous, and ironically closed-minded student protests on campuses, indicate things are worse in this regard, as well. Bauerlein observes:
I tend to accept much of the thesis of Haidt/Lukianoff’s book ‘The Coddling of the American Mind.’ One reason students struggle with mental illness is because their teachers, administrators, and the youth culture they occupy teaches them to be vulnerable and oversensitive and easily offended. At Emory University, the library has a room stocked with puppies during finals weeks so that students can drop by and de-stress. Not a good preparation for life after graduation.
The ‘Dumbest Generation’ Threatens Public Life
The above are deeply dangerous for American civic life, and not just because of how such trends vitiate the founding principles of our nation. The original vision of American public education lies in ruins, as a minority of wealthy, elite families ensure their children succeed academically, while the rest suffer in failed educational petri dishes.
“You have a top 20-or-so percent of the population ensuring a very strong education for their kids,” Bauerlein explains. “They send them to private schools and top suburban public schools such as those along the main line in Philly and in Montgomery County, Maryland, where they read good books, do lots of homework, and focus on STEM. For the rest, we have middling-to-poor education. … We also have bad ideas circulating, such as too much contemporary literature in the classroom, weak discipline, child-centered pedagogies, and delinquent parents.”
Yet for our republic to operate on the principles on which it was founded, citizens must be educated enough to responsibly fulfill their daily civic duties, not the least of which is to be an informed electorate. Our self-governing system simply cannot be sustained when two-thirds of Americans can’t accurately name our three branches of government.
Hope Remains, If We Take Action
At the close of his book, Bauerlein argues, “‘The Dumbest Generation’ will cease being dumb only when it regards adolescence as an inferior realm of petty strivings and adulthood as a realm of civic, historical, and cultural awareness that puts them in touch with the perennial ideas and struggles.”
Although the above trends are worrisome, one may also perceive signs of hope. There is a growing national interest in classical learning schools and the Classic Learning Test, which my friend Jeremy Tate co-founded. Says Bauerlein:
You see and hear ‘tradition-talk’ happening more and more, and there is a growing awareness among education administrators of the importance of the curriculum — the actual books you assign, the history you impart. … Yes, there are loud voices in the education world still mouthing blather about ‘cultural relevance’ and contemporary issues, but they appear to me to be on the defensive. They know that reading a contemporary novel about a transitioning teen is not going to stand up to reading a novel by Jane Austen or Franklin’s or Booker T. Washington’s autobiography.
If a classical education is prohibitively expensive (or time-consuming, if attempted as homeschooling), parents have other options. Exposing children to important cultural and artistic influences, such as classical music or even classic R&B, is high on the list. Reading to one’s children (surprise, surprise) and limiting screen time are other options. Indeed, argues Bauerlein, reading to our children simply cannot be over-emphasized:
Parents must read, read, read to their children every night from six months onward. They need to open that book and go through the pages slowly and repeatedly for an hour. No screen, no audio, but mom or dad and the book. It should be a nightly ritual, the end of a long day for their children, the slowdown, the calm, the words and the pictures. … This is a gift of a lifetime. And keep it up even after the child learns to read. The emotional bonding is important, and so is the intellectual development.
So yes, a decade after “The Dumbest Generation,” there is much reason for hand-wringing regarding the future of our children and our nation. Yet if we are willing to take responsibility, both for our own education and that of our children, it is still possible to turn the tide. But the window for effective nationwide educational reform, as the data proves, is closing.