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.”
Yeah, he would say that, the smarty-pants. And Steven Pinker concurs. The famous Harvard prof insists that anyone who thinks we’re stranded on Normal Island in the middle of the Imbecile Ocean “needs a sanity check.” After all, isn’t it self-evident that humankind—fellows such as Pinker recoil from saying “man”—is more enlightened than ever before?
I thought the conviction that one’s generation is the most advanced and ingenious in history was a hoary, even dangerous one. (Dr. Pangloss, please pick up the white courtesy phone.)
When you’re a Pinker, everything looks like a Flynn. What about the rest of us? Contributor Linda S. Gottfredson (who sounds shockingly intelligent for a sociologist) departed from the “best of all possible worlds” script. True, she notes, a handful of brainiacs—such as those invited to NYT symposia—have cured previously fatal maladies. But, she asks, what good is that if the vast majority can’t figure out how to take this medication properly, avoid contracting preventable conditions in the first place—or, I would add, are too stupid to live anyhow?
Take these people: A few weeks back, a screenshot of a depressing Twitter thread about Titanic 3D went viral and was greeted as a portent of an approaching (and well-deserved) apocalypse.
Is it bad that I didn’t know the titanic was real? Always thought it was just a film.
Guys, the Titanic was real! #mindblown
How am I just finding this out?!
Yes, that Twitter thread was real, too. Some decent souls refused to believe it. I never doubted. Then again, I went to high school with a girl who got it into her tiny head that Abraham Lincoln was black. (Long story. The short version? She was Italian.)
As if in direct response to that tragic unthinking of the Titanic, The Lancet unveiled one of those studies that proves nothing more than “most studies are dumb.” To wit: Young people’s brains aren’t fully developed until they are 24.
Call me a moron, but were those Brighton mods and rockers rioting over who’d made the soundest investments in their retirement portfolios? Hadn’t those Lancet researchers, you know, gone to college and already observed and even participated in their own “findings” firsthand?
Remember when we had to change “retarded” to “special”? That new S-word is a euphemism for the old S-word, namely, “stupid,” which is now considered a more scandalous utterance than the formerly forbidden four-letter original starting with “D.” Which we still hear all around us these days. Because morons are everywhere. And they love to swear.
So people are getting dumber in directly inverse proportion to our capacity to tell them so?
Perhaps humans have bemoaned each other’s metastasizing idiocy for centuries and I’m too stupid to realize it.
Maybe stupidity is like craziness: If we’re still capable of wondering if we’re all getting dumber, how dumb can we really be?
Great. Now my head hurts.
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