Friday, December 14, 2012
Are We Getting Smarter?
I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.
I am the Lord, that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to idols.
See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth, I tell you of them.
Have you heard of the “Flynn Effect?” It’s named for James Flynn, a New Zealand researcher who first discovered the world-wide phenomenon of rising intelligence. His findings have been confirmed by many other scholars and his work is now accepted science.
In a recent column on this subject, Nicholas Kristof writes, “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.” He goes on to explain that a century ago the average American had an I.Q. that by today’s standards would be about 67. In other words, by today’s standards the average American of a century ago would be described as mentally disabled.
This means at least two things. It means that human intelligence is increasing. And it means that vast amounts of human potential are being wasted in places where the conditions of life are so difficult that human beings cannot grow as they should.
“The implication,” Kristof writes, “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.”
Human beings are smarter today because they are nurtured in a world filled with new ideas and knowledge. They are also smarter, measurably smarter, because of environmental factors. The removal of lead from gasoline may be responsible for an average gain of 6 points in I.Q. for American children.
What the research suggests is that kids are not getting smarter in spite of video games and television; they are getting smarter because of those activities.
This seems impossible (to me). It’s hard for me to believe that we are smarter than Emerson, or Thoreau, or Jane Austin. What about Lincoln? Biblical faith is always about remembering the past while moving into the future. We do not have to devalue the past in order to have hope for the future. Like the poetry of Isaiah’s proclamation, Flynn’s research points toward a hopeful future. If we can harness those gains in intelligence through better schooling around the world, we should be able to make enormous progress.
Flynn’s research reminds us that we often tend to believe that the present cannot possibly be as good as the past, when in fact it is better. I will hold onto that hope, and I will continue to trust in the unfolding of the Kingdom of God around us.