Every once and a while someone will confidently tell me (perhaps they’ve told you as well), that kids today are smarter than we ever were. Usually as evidence they recount that time they had a problem with their computer or smart phone. They handed it to their five year old, who immediately stripped it down to the chassis, rewired it, upgraded the memory, then handed it back, working better than it ever did, before heading off to watch Dora the Explorer. Or, they brag about their third grader taking Pre-Cal in the Gifted and Talented program. “And I barely passed geometry in college. Ain’t it something?”
It is something, especially when someone else just as confidently tells me how dumb kids are today. One explains “Kids don’t know anything about history. My kid thinks the Dark Ages was the time before light bulbs.” They can’t spell without a spellchecker. Their attention span is so short they can’t read anything longer than the 140 characters allowed on a Twitter post, let alone a novel, or even their textbook.
It’s possible that some version of this debate has been around since Adam looked at Cain and Abel and thought, “Bet they couldn’t have named all those animals. Took me forever to come up with Aardvark. Now that took intelligence.” My dad was convinced that anyone who couldn’t strip down an engine and rebuild it overnight was mentally deficient. Which brings us back to the crux of today’s debate, since the engines he worked on didn’t have computer chips embedded in them. Has television, the Internet, and video games, made this generation smarter or dumber?
Opinions go both ways. Convinced perhaps that Sponge Bob had become the icon of this age, Mark Beuerlein wrote The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future. The “our” in his title being “old” Americans. Of course, depending on which side you take in the debate, “we” are either not engaged with the “digital” in digital age because we are too smart to be sucked in or too dumb to understand it.
In response to Beuerlein’s pessimism, Steven Johnson wrote Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter. Since the “us” of his title refers to those people immersed in popular culture, the “smarter” is more likely to apply to teens than adults. And reading Johnson’s book further widens the divide; he emphasizes the ways modern computer and electronic games affect cognitive functions, games that are almost exclusively played by teens. Paradoxically, teenage boys. If you’ve got one, if he has a Wii or Xbox, if he plays it until three A.M. instead of doing his homework, you may have a hard time being convinced by Johnson.
The debate is further acerbated by “Are You Smarter than a Fifth Grader,” on Fox. This show pits an adult, usually a law student, college professor, accountant, or other highly educated adult against a bevy of overly confident fifth graders. The adult is tested on the things they should have learned in fifth grade. The show might more accurately be titled, “Do you remember anything you learned in fifth grade and haven’t used, not even once, since then?” Most of us would readily admit that we don’t remember much from 12th grade. And let’s face it, if you went through college in the seventies, most of that is a blur as well. Fifth grade? I usually can’t remember where I put my glasses.
Fortunately, there are several books out there that assure us that even though we may not be as smart as a fifth grader, we are still smarter than we think we are. Barbara Strauch’s The Secret Life of the Grown-up Brain: the Surprising Talents of the Middle-Age Mind, and The Mature Mind: The Positive Power of the Aging Brain by Gene D. Cohen, to name two. And just in case you can’t convince yourself you’re smart unless you can remember fifth grade, try That Memory Book: Distractibility, Forgetfulness and Other Unnerving High Jinks of the Middle-Aged Brain by Cathryne Jakobson Ramin, or Keep Your Brain Alive: 83 Nerobic Exercises to Help Prevent Memory Loss and Increase Mental Fitnesss, by Lawrence Katz and Manning Rubin.
For my part, I’ve come to the conclusion that worrying if there is intelligent life in the teenage or geriatric brain may be getting in the way of living intelligently. And while I’m not convinced either way, I now have books that will fit the interests of both generations on my Christmas shopping list — at least those who can read something that’s more than 140 characters long.