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Is Mark Kingwell Getting Dumber?

University of Toronto philosophy professor Mark Kingwell was sitting in his office last week. It was the end of term, graduation time at post-secondary institutions across the country and he was thinking about how perople at this time of year are always asking him, “Are the kids getting dumber? Can they even write?”

The media-ubiquitous philosopher suddenly had an inspiration for a clever op-ed squib that he could dash off and post to the Globe and Mail’s opinion pages. Kingwell’s thinking went something like this: people are always dopily worrying about whether the kids are getting dumber. Rather than argue the question, how about cleverly challenging it instead? Instead of worrying about kids getting dumber, maybe we should be worrying about whether we’ve become too smart for our own good by our over-emphasis on smarts and intelligence.

After all, smartness, whether of the book larnin’ or tech twittering variety, not only ensures human survival, it also produces problems. Problems like “environmental degradation, weapons of mass destruction, hedge funds, sophisticated forms of torture and the justification thereof.” Perhaps the net good effects of intelligence are being outweighed by the bad. What if we’ve made a cultural evolutionary mistake by emphasising smart over dumb, and thus reducing our chances of survival?

Then, still in his inspired state, Kingwell recalled Jonathan Swift’s satiric pamphlet of 1729, “A Modest Proposal,” in which the ironic Dean Swift proposed that a lot of problems could be solved in Ireland by eating Irish children as an upscale food delicacy. Swift was protesting England’s oppression of Ireland, and the empire’s creation of conditions of overpopulation and poverty such that a savage “modest proposal” of eating children might be amusingly but chillingly plausible for a moment. Swift was also sending up the can-do climate of the times in which over-clever bureaucrats and consultants regularly came up with preposterous but perfectly logical schemes.

So, Kingwell amused himself by coming up with a “modest proposal” of his own. Instead of “selecting” for smartness, maybe we could solve our problems by selecting for dumbness, and thus produce a generation of young people who wouldn’t be smart enough to think up “smart” bombs, SUVs, tar sands oil, “American Idol,” and the like. Perhaps, he suggested, tongue in cheek, “we will breed our way out of this mess and back into a simpler age.” Then, when Kingwell’s academic successors are asked if the kids are getting dumber, they can enthusiastically reply, “Yes. It’s working.” We’re making them dumber.

Kingwell’s modest proposal, under the heading, “Too Smart for our Own Good” duly appeared in the op-ed pages and screens of our national newspaper (May 29, 2009). Perfectly harmless, mildly amusing filler for a readership wondering if, in The Who’s legendary phrase, “The Kids Are Alright.” Except for one tiny, little problem.

Before Kingwell can get to his humour-piece punchline, he has to dispose of the questions at the top of his piece: “Are the kids getting dumber? Can they even write?” You notice that Kingwell has put a little blurriness into the question by asking two questions. What’s more, they may not be equivalent.

One way to get rid of the question is to say it’s unanswerable, and probably irrelevant, like arguing about the designated hitter rule in baseball. “The answer says more about you than about the state of play,” says Kingwell. “Answer yes and you brand yourself a bookish curmudgeon, a fogey no matter what your age. Answer no and you align with new cognitive models, social networking websites, early gadget adoption and freewheeling music download. In other words, it’s cool versus uncool.” See? No real question there at all.

In fact, according to Kingwell, “the more you look, the more it becomes clear that the dispute is about apples and oranges. If smart means clear writing, linear thought and sustained self-organization, then yes, those skills are in short supply; if it means quick-witted talent for hyperlinking, multitasking and other compound gerunds of the screen age, then no, there is no evidence of cognitive deficit — on the contrary.” Since the argument is unresolvable, “this is the point where the dispute typically hares off into a hand wringing discussion of what universities are for and whether they’re any good at doing whatever that is. Socialization machine or crucible of citizenship? Job training centre or gateway to wisdom?” Since those hand wringing questions are also hopeless, “let’s ask a different question: What is intelligence for?”

With that, Kingwell is off the hook and also off to a bit of fun with modest proposals.

Alas, it’s all too-clever-by-half, even for a prof with time on his hands while waiting for this year’s grads to adjust their robes, flip the tassels on their mortarboard hats, and get in step for the first strains of “Pomp and Circumstance.” Since he noted in his brush off of the are-the-kids-getting-dumber question that “there are even duelling books on the subject,” he might have spent his time more usefully and less glibly by looking at them once more.

The “duelling books” Kingwell is referring to but doesn’t name are Mark Bauerlein’s The Dumbest Generation (2008), Susan Jacoby’s The Age of American Unreason (2008), Andrew Keen’s The Cult of the Amateur: How blogs, MySpace, YouTube, and the rest of today’s user-generated media are destroying our economy, our culture, and our values (2007) versus business and education consultant Don Tapscott’s Grown Up Digital (2008), an update of his 1999 book, Growing Up Digital. (By the by, Tapscott’s titles, wittingly or not, play on Paul Goodman’s Growing Up Absurd, 1960, an education book about how the conditions of American society then were making it particularly difficult for young people to know anything or to do meaningful work.)

If you read, say, Bauerlein’s account of the present generation, you learn that reading, especially book reading, is in decline, and that there are substantial knowledge deficits when it comes to knowing about history, geography, civics, and just about everything else except the trivia of youth culture and celebrity gossip. Despite the title of the book, Bauerlein doesn’t deal with whether young people are becoming “dumber.” Rather, he shows that they’re not becoming measurably more knowledgeable, despite the available high-tech accoutrements. In fact, the use of the word “dumb” is misleading, both in the title of Bauerlein’s book and in Kingwell’s question. The word that should be used is “ignorant.” Kids (and lots of adults) are ignorant of history, geography, civics, etc., and one of the tools by which they might remedy that ignorance, book reading, is in declining usage.

The question is not do we over- or under-value intelligence but, What should we know? Which leads to the question, What should we know in order to do what? Which leads to the further question, What are universities for? Though Kingwell wants to throw up his hands rather than wring them, I think the question remains, and that it’s not hopeless.

Rather than ragging poor Professor Kingwell, who is after all just trying to get out of the office and onto summer holidays, let me answer the questions. If we want a democratic society in which people are capable of critical thought, are cultured, and are citizens, then we want to dispel young people’s ignorance about history, geography, civics, science, art, literature and book-reading and, yes, we also want them to learn some things that will help them get jobs. These are not unanswerable questions, though there’s no denying that they’re debatable.

But they’re on the net, reply the techno proponents, such as Tapscott, when faced with claims of ignorance. Yes, young people (and older ones, too) are on the net, but the evidence suggests that most of their net time is twittered away on social networking sites, music downloading, YouTubing, porn(ing), and buying and selling, frequently all at once (the famous “multitasking”). The facts, as best we can know them, are in Bauerlein’s, Jacoby’s and Keen’s books. The picture is not all black and white, and some of the claims about knowledge deficits, unreason, and the destruction of society are overblown, and overhyped. But while there may be “duelling books,” we might also remember that not all duels end in a draw. Some of the books are better than others.

As for “smarts,” and “intelligence,” pace Kingwell, it shouldn’t mean merely “clear writing, linear thought and sustained self-organization” (whatever the latter murky phrase means), nor should it mean “quick-witted talent for hyperlinking” and “multitasking.” The problem is not “intelligence”; there’s a sufficient amount of whatever it really is to go around, simply by virtue of the kind of evolutionary animal we are. The question is development of intelligence, and to discuss that you can’t divorce the content of a developed intelligence from its techniques. The content of a developed intelligence brings us back to the questions of, What do we need to know, for what purposes, and thus, how should we organize our educations?

Professor Kingwell needs some summer beach time. As for the kids, while The Who thought they were alright, their successors, The Offspring, argue in their counter-tune that “The Kids Aren’t Alright,” and they lament, “Chances blown, nothing’s free.” As for the rest of us, whether fearful of being tagged fogeys or not, we had better figure out what to do to dispel ignorance, or else Kingwell’s modest proposal will become more than a tongue-in-cheek quip at graduation time.


Berlin, May 31, 2009

Stan Persky

Stan Persky

Stan Persky taught philosophy at Capilano University in N. Vancouver, B.C. He received the 2010 B.C. Lieutenant-Governor's Award for Literary Excellence. His most recent books are Reading the 21st Century: Books of the Decade, 2000-2009 (McGill-Queen's, 2011), Post-Communist Stories: About Cities, Politics, Desires (Cormorant, 2014), and Letter from Berlin: Essays 2015-2016 (Dooney's, 2017).

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