I have been cruising around the blogs I like to visit and ran across an excellent thread
over at Paul Jané's blog. Essentially it was a call for comments on his sense that stupidity is on the rise in society. I posted this comment which has some of the ideas I have been working on for a couple of pieces buried in it. Sorry that it's long.
Dumb warning labels are not the Cracks of Doom. Rather they are the silly end of product liability - an idea which, my legal friends will remember, started life when an alleged snail was found in a bottle of ginger beer and the plaintiff had the great good luck to have an appeal heard by Lord Denning.
The broader questions: a) lack of common sense, b) the rise of stupidity, are more interesting.
The straight genetic explanation is attractive in a neat, Social Darwinian kind of a way. But almost certainly scientifically wrong. The less bright have always outnumbered the intelligent in relative terms simply because that is how statistics work. If you have a normal distribution, by definition, most of the population will fall within one standard deviation of the mean.
But what about a decline in the mean? Across time the mean could, indeed, drop. Though probably not because the less intelligent are having more kids than the intelligent. That is always the case and, happily, those children will tend towards the mean.
A more nuanced explanation is that the West has cleverly engineered two and a half wars which selectively killed the very best and brightest males. WWI killed the English, Russian, German and French elites, (and more than a few members of the Canadian). WWII mowed down the cream of the next generation and a huge proportion of the world's Jews. The "half" would be the assorted near wars, civil disturbances and revolutions which swept away the losing sides in orgies of ideological cleansing. (Shooting the bulk of the Russian officer corps on the eve of WWII was not Stalin's most horrific act; it was, perhaps, his dumbest.)
The genetic pool can absorb any number of deaths within the 90% of the population within one standard deviation from the mean and is likely enhanced, in a nasty sort of way, by deaths in the bottom 5%; but the top 5% is irreplaceable.
However, not too much weight should be put on this sort of argument because the majority of those battlefield and ideological - though not genocidal - deaths were male. Blessed as my sex is, the genetic reality is the mean is far more effected by the deaths of intelligent women than of intelligent men. So while there may well have been a transitory decline of the mean - (giving a partial explanation for the politics of the 1930's and the 1960's) it would likely have rebounded as the children of the intelligent female survivors began to breed.
So how come we run into the absence of common sense and the abject stupidity we all encounter daily.
Three suggestions: television culture, the end of childhood, vanishing mothers.
Nora Ephron remarked that "our children are being raised by appliances." The Kaiser Foundation (and I quote from memory) found that more than half of America's two year olds watched 2-4 hours of television a day.
If you want to raise a remarkably dumb person start them in on a steady diet of passive, repetitive, dumbed down material when they are barely able to talk. You really don't need to look a whole lot further for an explanation for the appearance of societal stupidity than a nation of two year olds watching TV.
But if you want to look, the next thing is the disappearance of anything resembling childhood. Six month olds are parked at infant daycares, two year olds go from day-care to pre-school to "activities" to play dates. They are seamlessly organized to ensure that not a single minute away from the TV lacks adult supervision and adult goals. "Good sharing" I hear happy speak mums - or more likely nannies - say to their kids at the playground, just before the "we have to go now, it's time for...." Their child was not sharing, their child was trying to discern and fulfill the wishes of an adult.
Common sense is an internal compass which has nothing at all to do with pleasing your mum or nannie. It is about being able to look at a situation, assess it, and come up with the right behaviour for the circumstance. It is learned behaviour; but it is not taught adult to child. It is taught by one child getting a shove from another, not liking it and figuring out what to do next.
By imposing adult supervision at every step in a child's development, (along with lunacies such as "zero tolerance" for fighting, and endless whining about "appropriate" behaviour), we have eliminated the one place a child can begin to gain the experience needed to create common sense.
Which leads to the question of "why has this happened?" Not very PC of me to say this but mum being at work is a fair candidate.
Adult supervision has come to mean supervision which adheres to standards of conduct which embody the most obnoxious characteristics of that prissy girl we all knew in grade five. "No fighting", "I'm telling", "He called me a ....".
Now, back when I was in grade five, the kids and their mums all knew that prissy girl and discounted her reports and her motives by the standard 97.4%. But that meant two things had to be true - mum had to be at home and involved enough with her kids to know where to apply the discount. And, the prissy girl couldn't be the principal or the school board.
Neither of those things are true now.
While a lot of ink has been spilt over absent fathers, not nearly enough has washed over part time mums. It is simply too close to the bone. Women who believe they have to work also have to believe that their absence is not harming their children. That requires a great deal of faith and not a little self delusion.
Childhood is an odd process. There is no right way to have a childhood. There are only better and worse conditions to be a child in.
If you take two children of roughly the same intelligence and one has had mum's full attention from birth and the other has been watching two to four hours of TV since he was six months old, which do you think will come out the less stupid?
Childhood is by its nature cumulative. In brute terms, if you take childhood to run from birth to twelve there are a little over 100,000 hours of it. Less 43,000 hours of sleep, leaves you with 57,000 waking hours. If you take 13,000 of those and spend them in front of the TV or playing really facile computer games, you are left with a mere 44,000 hours to form a character, teach the child to read, write and do simple sums, do sports, take music lessons, learn to swim, ride a bike, get dressed and, did I mention play? It seems like a lot of time; but it is only around 10 hours a day.
Simply turning the television off - and it can be done, I did it with my elder son when he was eleven - adds back three hours a day. In itself a huge improvement if those hours are filled with something even slightly worthwhile - thank you Harry Potter and Phillip Pullman. But imagine the gain if those hours are added with a caring, competent mother to guide, direct, teach, play, support and love the child.
One of the strongest indications of the overall idiocy of the West is we have systematically allowed conditions to arise which make it difficult, if not impossible, for women to give up paid work to care for their children. For all of the lip service paid to the brave ideals of feminism, we have fought to ensure equality in the workplace at the cost of gutting the home. Is it any wonder that stupidity, ignorance, cruelty and indifference seem to have rushed in to fill the void?
Mothers can be exasperating, difficult and downright impossible; but simply by being there for their kids they begin a virtuous spiral. When a child comes home from school with a problem, a mum uses whatever common sense she has to work it out. And a mum begins with the idea that she is on her kid's side. No matter what.
While I am pretty sure common sense is learned in the school yard and just mooching around a neighbourhood with a couple of friends, wisdom is apt to come with a couple of cookies, a glass of milk and the one person in the world a child should be able to count on.