February 1, 2006

Are kids getting dumber?

A British study shows a sharp decline in the number of children with a good grasp of everyday physics since the test was first given in 1976. The Times of London reports:

In the easiest question, children are asked to watch as water is poured up to the brim of a tall, thin container. From there the water is tipped into a small fat glass. The tall vessel is refilled. Do both beakers now hold the same amount of water? “It’s frightening how many children now get this simple question wrong,” says scientist Denise Ginsburg, Shayer’s wife and another of the research team.

Another question involves two blocks of a similar size — one of brass, the other of plasticine. Which would displace the most water when dropped into a beaker? children are asked. Two years ago fewer than a fifth came up with the right answer.

In 1976 a third of boys and a quarter of girls scored highly in the tests overall; by 2004, the figures had plummeted to just 6% of boys and 5% of girls. These children were on average two to three years behind those who were tested in the mid-1990s. ...

“By stressing the basics — reading and writing — and testing like crazy you reduce the level of cognitive stimulation. Children have the facts but they are not thinking very well,” says Adey. “And they are not getting hands-on physical experience of the way materials behave.”

I'd like to see some confirmation of this before accepting it on faith, but it's not implausible.

Think of Buster Keaton's silent film comedies, which are mostly about the uses and abuses of mechanical physics. Jim Emerson writes:

Keaton makes that leap of faith again and again in his films. He trusts the universe, no matter how many reasons it gives him not to. It may be an unfathomable and inhospitable place (no wonder Keaton was a favorite of the existentialists), but Buster intuitively grasps the underlying logic beneath all the confusion. Keaton's comedy is founded firmly on the principles of Newtonian physics, the invisible substructure that alone keeps the universe from simply flying apart in all directions...

From the raw material around him, Buster spontaneously creates simple makeshift contraptions that harness elemental principles of physics to keep him moving along through the maelstrom of modern life: a wheel, a lever, a crank, a ladder, a bucket, a siphon, a see-saw, a bridge, a boat, a balloon...

A film historian once pointed out that in Keaton's prime in the 1920s, most Americans had a more sophisticated understanding of pulleys, levers, and other machines than we do today. They constantly had to tinker with the mechanical world around them. His original audience's response to his character's incredible inventiveness was of the how-stupid-of-me-not-to-have-thought-of-that variety.

So, I wouldn't be astonished if this trend turns out to be true, but I'd like to see more evidence for it before I accept it.

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

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