In Annie Hall, Woody Allen’s character time-travels back to his old public-school classroom.
“I always felt my schoolmates were idiots,” he declares.
On cue, a staring, slack-jawed kid drawls, “Seven and three is nine.” Cut to Young Schoolboy Woody, slapping his forehead in disgust.
Watching that scene for the first time on my thirteenth birthday was a life-changing moment.
Someone else felt the same way I did! And he wasn’t “in trouble,” he was a famous movie guy!
I finally felt free to fearlessly articulate something I’d intuited since my first day of kindergarten, a three-word “key to all mythologies” which ironically turned out to be the most important lesson I ever learned in school:
People are stupid.
If I ever spring for a coat of arms, that’ll be the motto emblazoned across the bottom in Latin—populus stultus—beneath three dunce caps and a pair of turkeys rousant.
“If we’re still capable of wondering if we’re all getting dumber, how dumb can we really be?”
I’d pictured school as a calm, quiet place where obedient children sat bolt upright at cute little desks and cheerful teachers doled out fascinating facts.
Instead, I was stuck sitting cross-legged in a cinderblock room with purple industrial carpeting. The boys played “sword fights” with yardsticks and the whispering girls didn’t listen—not that the droopy teachers were saying anything worth hearing. When one teacher stumbled repeatedly while trying to get us to memorize the lyrics to “Easter Parade,” I took it upon myself to explain to her and the class what the word “rotogravure” meant.
Yeah, I was that kid.
I thought I had it bad back then, but am I the only one convinced that these days, the half-baked are cooked all the way through? That is, that the dumb are getting even dumber?
Apparently not. Earlier this year, The New York Times held a sort of symposium on the subject, asking, “Are People Getting Dumber?” Distinguished participants included James R. Flynn, he of the famous Flynn Effect, the startling discovery that worldwide IQ scores are apparently inching upward.
“On an IQ test, the average person today would be 30 points above his or her grandparents,” Flynn declares. Hell, he could’ve saved a lot of number-crunching and just spent an afternoon with my grandma, who couldn’t figure out why that stupid little man in the hockey game didn’t just move away from the net.
Flynn assures us that despite what our senses tell us, the populace isn’t increasingly senseless.
“But are we smarter?” he asks rhetorically. “That’s a more complicated idea.”
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