With every new revelation of how dumb and incompetent our nation has become, there has been an increasingly desperate push to blame it all on the pandemic, whether learning loss or long Covid brain fog or the general stress of the Covid era.
Well, here is one indicator we cannot blame on the pandemic because it has been flashing red since 2006. In a startling reversal of what is known as “the Flynn effect” — the name for the phenomenon in which average IQs had been rising at the rate of 3-5 points per decade since 1932 — a recent study charting the results of nearly 400,000 IQ test samples shows that Americans’ IQs have actually been dropping since 2006, with an effect especially pronounced among those aged 18 to 22.
The core skills of verbal reasoning (general knowledge, logic, vocabulary), matrix reasoning (nonverbal reasoning such as visual problem solving), and letter and number series (computation and mathematical reasoning) all declined.
The authors suggest the quality of our education is the most likely culprit: “[I]t could be the case that our results indicate a change of quality or content of education and test-taking skills within this large United States sample.”
It is apparent from many objective markers that the caliber of education has decreased, especially after the 2020 George Floyd riots brought wildly hyperbolic claims of “systemic racism” and diversity politicking to the highest value in the educational pantheon.
School systems have begun to eliminate honors classes, and advanced placement courses are also being cut. Gifted education has also been under attack, whether in the form of directly eliminating gifted programs, replacing merit-based admissions to selective schools with lottery systems, instituting zip code quotas, or infusing considerations of so-called racial “equity” into the admissions process.
Mathematics curricula focused on finding correct answers to problems have been branded as furthering white supremacy. Watered-down alternatives supported by questionable research have been adopted instead.
History has likewise been under attack — and not in the way imagined by those who claim conservatives are trying to whitewash history. Scores in the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) have shown eighth graders’ knowledge of basic history declining since 2014, well before critical race theory was on the national radar, with a further precipitous decline between 2018 and 2022. As of 2014, 29 percent of students who were tested did not meet the lowest “basic” benchmark. By 2022, that percentage had risen to a still more astonishing 40 percent.
Grades have been rising, while SAT scores have been falling. Average performance is supposed to earn C’s, not A’s. Even as recently as 1990, it was still in reasonable C+/B- territory. But the percentage of high schoolers with an A average went up from an already absurd 38.9 percent in 1998 to a still more absurd 47 percent in 2016. And this is not because kids today are wowing teachers with their stellar performance. Average SAT scores, which reveal the ignorance and incompetence that inflated grades conceal, fell from 1026 to 1002 on a 1600-point scale over the same period.
In a similar disjunction between grades and test results, more and more schools, especially in poor minority neighborhoods, show a marked discrepancy between passing student grades and state proficiency test failures in the same subjects.
For example, in New York City, even before the pandemic began, in the largely black and Hispanic Mott Haven neighborhood of the Bronx, 94 percent of students in grades six through eight passed their math classes, but only 2 percent of those students passed state math exams testing their grade-level proficiency. In largely Hispanic Washington Heights, 100 percent of kids passed English language arts, but only 7 percent of those kids passed the corresponding state test. In still other schools in California, failing grades have simply been eliminated and replaced by C’s.
The educational bureaucracy’s “solution” to such glaring problems has been to lower the standards. Thus, what counts as “basic proficiency” in core subjects like math and English has been gutted. Entire towns, like Schenectady, New York, have been unable to get even a single eighth grader to meet the proficiency mark under the old standard.
In what is often crowned the nation’s top high school, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Virginia, after considerations of race were infused into the formerly race-blind admissions process, teachers predictably saw the “lowest scores we’ve ever seen” (averages in the low 70s) on trigonometry exams, even though they had lowered standards and made the tests “substantially easier” to accommodate dumber students.
Many schools have also stopped assigning class rank to students (and have stopped recognizing extraordinary achievement by crowning valedictorians) — with class rank being another measure that would reveal the true pecking order of students that inflated grades conceal.
Standardized testing requirements for entry into universities have been eliminated, with over 80 percent of four-year colleges not requiring such testing this year. The “pandemic” excuse universities have offered for the move rings hollow, as prominent universities such as Columbia have led the charge to make the change permanent.
The true motivation, we can guess, is the widespread expectation that the Supreme Court will soon bring an end to affirmative action. The expected change has prompted race-obsessed universities to admit less-qualified individuals by eliminating objective metrics such as testing, thereby making the whole admissions process so discretionary and opaque that it will be impossible to peer behind the curtain.
With dumber students coming to college, rampant grade inflation has taken over universities as well. Only 15 percent of college grades were A’s in the early 1960s, while today that percentage is 45 percent. Even at purportedly elite universities, such as Harvard, the median grade is an A-, and the most common grade is an A.
To further accommodate increasingly brittle students, a growing number of universities have moved away from assigning grades for student work. Such creeping grade inflation and grade elimination have driven a steady, across-the-board rise in college graduation rates. On the surface, things look great: a significantly greater percentage of students are graduating from college than did a few decades back. Under the surface, however, universities are simply handing over more diplomas to uneducated morons, who can then proceed to worm their way into the workforce and go around thinking they represent a higher species of being than their non-college-educated peers.
University curricula have likewise been under attack. Works of great literature that challenge stale ideas and open complacent minds, serving as Kafka’s “ice ax for the frozen sea inside us,” have been de-canonized and replaced by third-rate productions of the identity grievance industry. Requirements to learn classical languages — Greek and Latin — have been dropped from prestigious university classics departments supposedly devoted to the study of the classical literature of Greece and Rome.
Grad schools have felt the same tremors. Facing pressure from the powerful diversity lobby, leveling the usual charges of “systemic racism,” more and more medical schools have begun eliminating the MCAT exam that used to be a universal requirement for admission. Similarly, the American Bar Association’s Council of the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar, concerned about inadequate diversity in the profession, recently voted overwhelmingly in favor of a proposal to eliminate the LSAT exam aspiring attorneys must take as a gateway to law school admission.
As educational standards at schools, universities, and professional schools crater, it only makes sense that those lower standards would be pushed further down the line and find their way into the professional world. Measures such as lowering bar exam cutoffs for admission to the practice of law or turning the U.S. Medical Licensing Exam, which was long relied on by residencies to pick their trainees, from a graded test into a pass-fail test must be implemented because too many aspirants to these prestigious professions, especially from minority backgrounds, will otherwise be unable to compete.
If anyone imagines that it will be possible to keep these steadily creeping markers of dumbness, ignorance, and incompetence to educational institutions and out of the workplace, they are dreaming.
In his brilliant and prescient 1997 book, The Revolt of the Elites, the left-populist Christopher Lasch argued that our elevation of “diversity” to the paramount value in our society was a prescription for the dumbing down of our civilization.
“A respect for cultural diversity,” he wrote, “forbids us to impose the standards of privileged groups on the victims of oppression. This is … clearly a recipe for universal incompetence.”
What we should expect in the coming years is a widespread crisis of competence afflicting every nook and cranny of American life. Expect to encounter doctors who do not know fundamental human biology, lawyers who lack the capacity to reason, and bankers, engineers, and rocket scientists who cannot do basic math and rely increasingly on “smart” AI to do their work for them.
And that means more crashes of every sort, whether financial crashes, ecological crashes, plane crashes, or crashes among poorly engineered self-driving cars, which lead to injuries that medical malpractice then turns into crashes of our delicate biological systems.
The great 19th-century Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt, followed in this respect by Friedrich Nietzsche, diagnosed the “agon,” the competitive struggle for excellence in every walk of life, as the highest value in classical Greece. Athletic competition of the sort that gave rise to the Olympic Games that we still cherish today served as the model, but academic and aesthetic pursuits, such as poetry, followed suit. Such universal competition created a fiery crucible within which every species of excellence could be refined and cultivated.
Education was no exception to this rule. Subjects such as gymnastics, music, and poetry were taught through healthy competition. The ordinarily negative feeling of envy was channeled to drive individual achievement and the greater collective good until envy gave way to reverence and the pursuit of excellence for its own sake. As Nietzsche summarized it, “Every talent must develop by fighting.”
This vision of education in ancient Greek society may appear quite foreign to us now, and indeed, it may have been better suited to a small, close-knit, and homogeneous society where only free males were educated, leaving much of the population behind. Our large, diverse nation, in which we make the noble effort to educate everyone, no matter their sex, economic or social class, or ethnic or racial origin, could never abide such a starkly agonistic system. Yet the example remains instructive precisely because we have strayed very far in the opposite direction.
We are frightened of competition, of pitting students against one another and seeing who will emerge victorious. We are more comfortable awarding participation trophies than trophies acknowledging extraordinary achievement, which we reflexively brand “racist.” Rankings, grades, test scores, and every other objective measure that threatens to sort the wheat from the chaff discomfit us because they expose the persistence of black underachievement, which will never disappear until we cease once and for all to treat black people as lesser beings in need of a pale-skinned helping hand.
Excellence and success cannot be bought through giveaways and reality-denying decrees. We can eliminate failing grades, but we cannot eliminate failure. When our economies, our bodies, and our engines begin to sputter, our mounting bill will come due.
The invoice will bear the following description: rather than forcing individual and collective excellence to emerge as the natural outgrowths of a culture that incentivizes and exhorts us to overcome every species of adversity and rise to greatness, we tried to skip to the punchline. We hoped to use the blunt instrument of so-called diversity, equity, and inclusion to engineer a racially proportionate outcome we did not earn and do not deserve. As a result, we got exactly what we did deserve — failure and incompetence at every level.