Losing that IQ feeling? | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, July 21, 2018 / LAST MODIFIED: 11:38 AM, July 21, 2018

Losing that IQ feeling?

Homo sapiens could not have faced the erosion of their cutting-edge claims at a worse time. According to the University of Michigan's June 12, 2018 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, intelligence quotient (IQ) began a downward movement from 1975 that may now, in the mind-diverting and intelligence suppressing Internet age, reach critical proportions with subtle but devastating long-term consequences. Though the findings were based upon US student samples, similar studies across the Atlantic, also published in the same journal (for example, Bob Yirka's, in the Medical Express; or “Dumbing down,” in The Sun, June 12), only confirm the plight, raising serious questions if this “western” malaise is spreading across the rest of the world.

Anecdotal evidence strongly suggests it is embedded in “eastern” societies. If, in fact, the higher growth-rates in these parts of the world than in the “west” have not also been propped up by building a durable educational infrastructure, then hell may break loose earlier in these “eastern” societies than in the “west”.

At stake is not anything genetic or cultural, political, or economic, per se, but a host of “environmental factors” in which any of these factors supply merely insignificant components. Those driving forces, according to the Proceedings, include “changes in the educational system and media environment, nutrition, reading less and being online more.”

Against those factors, the post-World War II “baby boomers” (BB) generation may have edged out others twice over (according to The Wall Street Journal calculations, the first BB phase was from 1946 to 1954, the second 1955 to 1965): IQ scores increased by at 3 percent for each decade between 1962 (just when the Beatles started crawling up the musical charts, Alan B Shepherd practiced walking in space, flower-power was about to invade San Francisco as a starter, the first room-sized computer had just begun accelerating computation, and atomic power, that had turned hydrogen a decade earlier, was now poised to turn nuclear), and 1975 (by which time the United States had faced its first trade deficit in the 20th Century, the Bretton Woods gold standard-based monetary and developmental institutions had broken down, the Soviet Union's nuclear cache surpassed the US counterpart, cheap petroleum evaporated, and the many post-World War II conflicts were stalemating or won locally, often with genocidal associations, and so forth).

This was the first generation to fully benefit from education descending from the ivory tower, going public in a big way, and tapping the grass-roots for the first time. Industrialisation simultaneously disseminated so rapidly that it began to absorb all the youths suddenly liberated from agricultural domestic chores: the Green Revolution did this in “eastern” societies, but even in the United States, just before World War II, the one-third of the population who lived and worked on the farms, shifted to metropolitans, such that the proportion declined to single-digit numbers from the 1960s. The Age of Camelot was an age of relative abundance, when governmental intervention was minimal, while teenagers kept long hair, donned psychedelic shirts, and seriously wanted to “give peace a chance”. Wars would change that culture completely, but as governmental intervention resulted in debts and cut-backs, the innovative steam-roller of street citizens, as opposed to tech savvy others, slowly grinded to a halt.

Generations Y and Z were born (1977-94 and after 1995, respectively), not with sirens wailing into their ear-drums as the Baby Boomers did in the 1940s and 1950s, but with a literal silver spoon in their mouth: from televisions and movies to chatterboxes and twittering, the pressure to do well diminished since there were enough gadgets around to last a lifetime. Education simultaneously priced itself out of the social median, so that only the upper echelon citizens could afford to get enrolled (even though their minds were entirely elsewhere: why would a wealthy family's son/daughter descend to a managerial job, and sweat at that, when there was the whole wide world to step into, experience, and configure?).

Behind that awfully generalised “western” picture lies two twists at the least: the “eastern” fate, with particular reference to Bangladesh; and, of course, a Fukuyama-esque “end of education” threat.

Only those involved in the education business when Bangladesh acquired independence may know of the sea-changes to have taken place. Consider the journey from the virtually virgin intellectual space of the early 1970s when just finding the relevant contemporary readings took an unimaginable toll, but left tangible results in the knowledge implanted. In today's cluttered playground, all the world's information is only a click away, yet sadly beg for customers. Bangladesh was so much more equal then that what we knew mattered more than who we knew, for a job, marriage, and upward mobility. Just when we should be taking off intellectually today, we have slipped into the pathway most frequently travelled globally: plagiarism, copy-paste, and a classroom exchange system in which teacher-evaluation and student evaluation have found such a reciprocal relationship that a Pareto outcome (neither side worse off) becomes even more a distant dream daily, eats away the very IQ score parents spend so much of their money on, and chips into a widening income-gap that might spiral into a climate-change-type of a ghost.

If the Internet is part and parcel of this IQ erosion, whether directly or by default, as seems to be increasingly true, then it does offer a solution for the hardy teachers and students to bring out their niche, if that capacity still remains, in a “brave new world”: computer examination questions can be programmed analytically to eliminate the annual ritual of “leaks” and “cheats” dominating the news media (and the classrooms), once and for all times. Creating similarly structural term-paper assignments thereafter might lead to nothing less than the burning the necessary midnight oil to write for learning (rather than memorising) and thinking (rather than copy-pasting). Only then can we hope to see any IQ upgrades. Until then, education remains a dying industry, no matter what the most erudite university scholars may say; and with it will go any social IQ enhancement. It will be “Bye, bye, deshi pie”, before we know it.

Imtiaz A Hussain is the head of Global Studies & Governance Program at Independent University, Bangladesh (IUB).

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