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April 29, 2009

The war on stupid

Here’s a bit of shockingly good-ish news: Despite a mountain of evidence to the contrary, we are getting smarter. According to a book called “Intelligence and How to Get It,” by University of Michigan psychology professor Richard E. Nisbett, the average I.Q. in 1917 would equate to only 73 on today’s I.Q. test. Half of all people in 1917 would be considered mentally retarded by today’s standards.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: With the advent of video games, blogs, No Child Left Behind and the Adam Sandler oeuvre, the percentage of mentally retarded people today must be up to, like, 106. Not so, says Nisbett. In fact, I.Q. scores worldwide have risen three points per decade. At the rate we are going, the average person will be reading Proust and successfully solving the Friday KenKen in just a few short millennia.

Even more important, Nisbett claims that — are you sitting down? — intelligence can be taught. His research carefully examines the view that intelligence is primarily genetic and then whacks that view with a stupid stick. Many scholars have long believed that attempts to stamp out stupidity are futile. Their viewpoint is, of course, bigoted. It supposes that whole groups of people — pro-wrestling fans, say, or Twitterers — are inherently incapable of increasing their intelligence and are therefore doomed to lives of blissful ignorance and long, lazy afternoons watching “Manswers” on Spike TV.

Professor Nisbett disproves this view by presenting evidence from neuroscience, genetics, education and parenting research that proves intelligence is principally determined by societal influences. Is the word “duh” forming on your lips? How many “Family Guy” parodies of Lerner and Loewe remakes of “Pygmalion” do we have to watch to finally understand that equality is not going to happen on its own?

Demonstrating that thoughtful interventions can build I.Q., Nisbett even provides specific (and inexpensive) advice on how to make future generations less thick. Strategies include implementing rigorous early childhood intervention, teaching delayed gratification and rewarding effort instead of achievement. Another rather radical concept is teaching middle-schoolers the very fact that their I.Q.s can improve, which inevitably makes them work to improve. And if all else fails, he advises Americans to hook up with Asians because they’re, like, total brainiacs. Oh, sorry, wrong book. That one came from “Dummies for Dummies.”

This new research could have broad implications for Kentuckians, whose intelligence many Kentuckians believe to be beyond repair. This year, Gov. Steve Beshear cravenly handed over the Kentucky Education Reform Act to state Senate Republicans for what will inevitably be a bloodthirsty bludgeoning of education progress on the almighty altar of tax savings. This tragedy comes even as lawmakers recognize that Kentucky has risen in educational attainment from the bottom, or “Larry The Cable Guy,” rank of states in 1992 solidly into the 30s, or “Dwight K. Schrute” ranking today.

In many categories at many grade levels, Kentucky now ranks at or slightly above the national average, thanks to KERA. Only one other bottom-tier state in ’92, North Carolina, has made such impressive gains. Perhaps Nisbett’s intervention strategies could be brought to bear in improving our legislators’ I.Q.s, although at three points per decade it’s going to be a long slog.

One factor keeping Kentucky from breaking into the top group of states in educational attainment is the achievement gap between our rich and poor students. When Nisbett describes society’s role in intellectual development, it sounds like he’s writing about Kentucky’s challenges in closing the achievement gap: The gap doesn’t exist because poor students can’t learn; the gap exists because society slaps them down before they can get up. Again and again and again. But it’s not too late. Maybe Beshear and Senators David Williams and Dan Kelly are mindful of their legacies and won’t want to be known as the men who chose money and power over educational attainment for hundreds of thousands of Kentucky schoolchildren.

But as we roll out the red carpet to welcome Paris Hilton and Kid Rock to the Kentucky Derby, isn’t it heartwarming to gaze upon their visages and bask in the warm glow of some scientific reassurance that intelligence can be improved? And how cool is it that we’re all picking up three I.Q. points per decade? So as you get ready to blow out a few brain cells celebrating Derby, might as well go hog wild: You’re probably smarter than you thought.