Have you ever heard someone make the argument, “technology is making students dumber.” It’s a statement you may hear a lot these days, among family, friends, co-workers, on the Internet, from that guy who holds up that sign on the subway. Most point to how no one can remember telephone numbers or how to navigate without a GPS, but the argument is too simplistic. The truth of these sorts of things tends to be way weirder and more convoluted than the plot to Pirates of the Caribbean III: Johnny Depp Yells at Himself.
Some scientists actually believe that human intelligence may be decreasing, and we’re not just talking about Generation Z. Stanford University researcher, Gerald Crabtree, conducted a study that shows that our ancestors probably had higher IQ’s than we do, with human intelligence peaking during our hunter/gather stage. In fact, according to the Stanford research the average person’s IQ today is lower than that of the average Victorian-era person’s IQ by 14 points. So how come common belief tends to be the opposite?
The only answer we can find is, because technology. We point to our computers, our space program, and all the rest as examples of why we are in fact smarter than Mr. Darcey or Jane Eyre, but that may also be part of the problem. For instance, when writing was invented many people, including Socrates, decried it’s use, believing that having a system of writing would make humans dumber. To a world where memorization and recall were probably ten times sharper than they are today, they feared what would happen if you could write something down and forget it. Well, they were right. People started to forget more because they could. Yet, if these ancients with their near-photographic memory were so intelligent, how come they never went to the moon?
That last statement is not some sarcastic joke, because the real answer is, they could not. The kinds of calculations it takes to construct a rocket and a lander device capable of landing on the moon requires that you write something down, if only for simplicity sake. Imagine going through all the math every time you needed to explain your progress to the other scientists. So what we seem to have is a new innovation, writing, that made individual people dumber, but it made society as a whole smarter. The same is true of the Internet, a world wide interconnected web where people share information, jokes, bad NYRD articles and more. Individuals retain less information but growing more intelligent as a species. It seems paradoxical, but that is only because of the way we tend to rigidly think of intelligence.
Testing the Test
Much like Schrodinger’s Cat, the very act of trying to quantify things, like “intelligence,” skews the results one receives. We tend to judge intelligence with the prejudicial parameters we know and already understand, such as the Intelligence Quotient (IQ.) We have been using that as a scale to rank “smarty-ness” for generations. In fact, we even used it three paragraphs ago to do just that. We use IQ as if it was something that could be pointed to and held up as a defining scale of intelligence, as if human intellect were a thermometer.
The truth is that intelligence is way more complicated than that, and we know it. Think about the people in your life. Who is insanely good at trivia but cannot quite figure out how to tie his shoe? Who seems dumber than modern George Lucas dialogue but can still talk his way out of any situation he wants? Who can fix your computer in under ten seconds but gets lost every time she drives to the supermarket? That’s because these are all forms of different intelligence. Yet, only one type is actually ranked according to any IQ test, and like the contestants on Jeopardy, that is the only type we always seem to when gauging how dumb or smart people are. All answers must be phrased in the form of an Intelligent Quotient.
If you take Socrates, who was an incredibly brilliant man, and plop him down in modern day New York he is more likely to end up begging for money in the subway than rise to the top of the intellectual crust of society. Yes, there would be a language barrier, probably some future-shock, and a steep learning curve of “how is this chariot propelled without horses?” but we are talking beyond all of that. Our society has evolved to award success based an intelligence that no longer fits with Socrates’ classical definition. Remember, he was illiterate, and the ability to write and read has become so ingrained in our current definition of intelligence it is considered a precursor to being “smart.” Without the ability to read or write our favorite Grecian time traveler would be considered less employable than most second graders. Thus, there is more to “intelligence” than just learning facts.
The Intelligence of Fluid
A lot of what we are talking about is Crystallized Intelligence versus Fluid Intelligence. Simply put, crystallized intelligence is static memory. It’s where we store information, and it has also been what we, historically, have used to judge the level of people intelligence. Thanks to technology this part of our mind has been decreasing ever since the invention of the abacus. Fluid intelligence, however, is our ability to process and comprehend information. In terms of computers, it is our processing speed, and the rate at which we learn and adapt to new information and apply it. It is also the part of our intelligence that has been on the rise ever since the days of our hemlock-eating philosopher.
Technology not only frees up our brain from having to remember a lot of information at once, but challenges our internal processors to move faster with each new year and each new breakthrough. More than ever before we are now multi-taskers and deep thinkers. For instance, take this very article. Our facts and statistics -such as they are- are coming from the Internet. We here at The NYRD did not have to waste years getting a degree in psychology, education, and sociology. Instead, we spent 60-ish minutes reading and bookmarking articles on the web, watching a few TED talks, and taking those results to form a theory based upon our study. Maybe we are less intelligent -for a lot of reasons- mostly because we cannot quote our statistics off the top of the head, but we no longer need to. Human beings literally have the Internet everywhere they go. Thus, in today’s society the “what,” “when,” and “where,” is becoming less important than the “why,” and “how.”
It is natural that people feel concerned. This new age of computers and processors is still relatively new. We are now only seeing the first generation born that we can consider true “technology natives.” It is also natural that their view of the world and the way they learn will be completely different from those that came before, but it is not necessarily worse or even “less intelligent.” In fact, it is more likely that what people see as the “dumbing down” of today’s students is actually a failure to appreciate those students based upon the intelligence they have, instead of the type of intelligence we think they should have.
A Brave New Something… Something
Did you know that 65% of Generation Z will occupy jobs that don’t even exist yet. That means we are trying to force a new generation of round pegs into square holes that will not even exist by the time they are ready to graduate sixth grade.
It also important that we recognize the failure of our educational model in dealing with this new breed of humans. The current educational system does not always do enough to teach to these new students in ways they understand, and it fails to evaluate them based upon their actual intellectual strengths. For instance, 43% of students today find it easier to learn skills and lessons from the Internet, and unlike any generation before, Generation Z are graphic learners. That means they learn not just visually but through interactive movement, color, and design, because that is the world they were brought up in. Lastly, current students are much better multi-taskers than their parents’ generation.
Now take all this and remember that most students today are used to customization in all their experiences, (phones, computers, etc,) but not in their education. No, the education system remains rigid and stagnant, having changed very little since the days of Henry Ford. It is still based upon memorization and even some of our more innovative schools still base their principals of learning on crystallized intelligence. Yet, the things that this youngest generation of students are good at, such as games, searching the Internet, or even hacking rule-based systems, are not recognized as accomplishments by teachers and educators. In fact, many of those things are seen as a waste of time, useless, and even downright cheating. That kind of attitude fails to recognize the value that can be found in such exercises, and devalues the strengths of Generation Z. If their skill sets are deemed unimportant in our rigid model of what is and is not intelligent, than it will turn a lot of students off of education and learning in general.
Maybe we need to adjust our way of thinking and judgements about what is “smart” and “dumb.” Much the same way writing and reading have become part of our modern requirement for what we consider “intelligent,” in a 100 or even 50 years technological adaptability may be seen the same way. Please be clear, we at The NYRD are not advocating some kind of extreme form of reformation that makes schools into video game clubs, but by failing to adapt to the interests and skill sets of Generation Z, many of our schools are only exacerbating the already growing gap between what is taught and what is learned. The fluid intelligence of our youngest generation could be one of the keys to making them the best generation of global citizens in human history.
As any politician can tell you, facts and statistics can be manipulated, but fluid intelligence allows us to process, question, and evaluate what we are learning. It’s why children ask, “why is the sky blue?” instead of just accepting that it is. So, yes maybe we are losing the ability to memorize long equations, volumes of epic poetry, or even telephone numbers, but we are gaining something more. Like a computer outsourcing its memory to the “cloud,” we are using our technology to free up memory in our brains to increase our ability to question the worldays around us.
Fluid intelligence is the intelligence that will take mankind further than ever before, and it is increasing with every new generation, not just despite technology, but because of it.