We’re all getting cleverer... but we also need to think critically

The humanities encourage critical reasoning: students at IF’s 2016 Thinking course discuss Marcel Duchamp’s artwork “Fountain"

The humanities encourage critical reasoning: students at IF’s 2016 Thinking course discuss Marcel Duchamp’s artwork “Fountain"

By Peter Wilby

A few months ago, I was talking to James Flynn, an American-born academic who discovered what became known to psychologists as “the Flynn effect”. He showed that, across the world, average IQs had risen by roughly three percentage points every decade since at least 1930, and almost certainly much longer. To put his findings at their crudest and most dramatic, the average person living in the early 20th century would, if given a present-day IQ test (where the average is by definition 100), score between 50 and 70 and therefore now be regarded as mentally retarded.

Since there can be no biological explanation for this phenomenon – which is not seriously disputed by reputable psychologists, though Flynn is not one of them but a political studies specialist – the explanation must be environmental. According to Flynn, modernity makes us brighter through its extra years of education, greater of supply of jobs that require abstract thinking and analytic abilities, leisure pursuits (such as video games) that make greater cognitive demands, and media that bombard us with visual symbols.

Most Britons and Americans in 1900 thought of the world in concrete, utilitarian terms. Ask them what dogs and rabbits had in common and they would say that we use dogs to hunt rabbits. To say they are both mammals would have been meaningless to them even if the term had been familiar. Modernity puts a premium on abstraction and classification. It requires people to put on what Flynn calls “scientific spectacles”.

Moreover, Flynn argues, those spectacles raise the quality of moral debate because they make people take the hypothetical seriously. He told me how he challenged his father’s racial prejudice by saying “what if your skin turned black?” His father regarded it as a “dumb” question: “who do you know whose skin has ever turned black?” Racists still exist, Flynn conceded, but they never answer in that fashion and, in general, modernity puts racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination on the defensive.

So, if we are all using scientific spectacles and raising the level of our moral reasoning, how would he account for Donald Trump’s success? The answer, you may think, is that much of Trump’s support came from voters who don’t have college degrees: 67 per cent of white non-graduates backed him. But among white graduates, he also got a majority (49 per cent against Hillary Clinton’s 45 per cent). 

Evidently, level of education alone didn’t account for Trump’s success nor, I believe, would IQ even if we had data on how his voters perform in tests. Moreover, Flynn says there is no evidence that presidential debates on TV have become more analytic over the past half-century. If anything, they have become less so. Using emotive language to get a visceral response is still the best route to political success and, if we read across from Trump’s voters to Brexit voters, that is probably true in Britain too.

Flynn offers two explanations. First, the rise of visual culture has a downside: far fewer people read serious novels and history. “They live in a bubble of the present, believing what they are told because they have nothing to position it against.” Second, students learn to use scientific spectacles largely in specialist, utilitarian contexts. Even the best universities don’t produce good citizens or even try to do so.

What all this suggests is that, in designing an education system that will more closely serve the needs of what people like to call “the real world”, we have lost something important. We are not giving graduates, let alone non-graduates, the skills of critical thinking. These are embedded in humanities subjects -- history, philosophy, literature -- which also take us, or should take us, deeply into the realm of moral reasoning. As the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Nicholas Kristof once put it, the humanities “give us a toolbox to think seriously about ourselves and the world”. And that toolbox should be freely available to everyone, whether or not they want to or can go to university. Then perhaps we may get better levels of democratic debate and better political decisions.

Peter Wilby is a columnist for the New Statesman and former editor of the New Statesman