Sunday, April 21, 2013

Are People Stupider Today, or What?

Seems that everywhere I turn these days, there's increasing evidence that people today are stupider than ever. It's an easy conclusion to come to, what with school budgets getting slashed (which would tend to make one believe that fewer folks these days are getting a good education), the popularity of lowbrow entertainment (e.g. reality shows), and poll results where people actually believe that the President wasn't born in this country or that dinosaurs didn't exist. It's easy to throw up one's hands and declare that people are devolving, and brains are atrophying.

But is it really true? Are people in fact stupider these days?

I think back to the 60's and early 70's, when I was a kid, and recall some of the commercials on television, public service announcements, to be exact. I recall commercials exhorting people not to throw bags of litter out onto the highway, something you'd think people wouldn't have to be told.

I vividly recall a commercial begging people to lock their cars and take their keys with them. The commercial was of the "high school auto safety" variety, where some poor nimrod leaves his keys in the car and goes inside a shop. A pack of teenagers sees the car and decides to take a joyride. Naturally, they're not the best drivers in the world, and a hideous accident occurs, complete with screaming teenagers as their stolen car is about to plow into another vehicle.

Wait...people have to be told to lock up their cars and take their keys? People need to be informed that hurling litter out of their speeding cars is a bad thing? Are people stupid or something? Again, this is circa 1967.

While there do seem to be many instances today where intelligence is openly disparaged and stupidity is celebrated, really, is it any different than it was years or decades ago? While one could say that taste has shriveled up and died, and that shame is a commodity no longer found, is intelligence really harder to come by now than it was a few decades ago?

See, back in the 50's, the USSR launched Sputnik, and suddenly America was thrown into a tizzy. "We're falling behind in technology!" America wailed. "We need to teach our kids more math! More science! Build better schools! Hire teachers! Get better, more modern textbooks! We can't fall behind the Commies!"

And as a kid,  I benefited from that. In the 60's I attended the newly built, ultra-modern, John F Kennedy Elementary School in beautiful Somerville, Massachusetts. We had brand new textbooks, all the modern conveniences, and lots of new teachers. Little Known Trivia Fact That I Just Made Up: Starting in 1965, every state in America needed to have at least 100 JFK schools if they wanted Federal funding for education.

So yes, a little metal ball that orbited the Earth and went "beep" helped frighten America into improving its education opportunities. Bravo! Suddenly, stuff like science was cool, hip, and much admired. And it stayed that way,right?

See, when the war in Vietnam escalated and increasing numbers of young men were drafted, many got deferments if they were attending college. So, while the average American young adult male ran the risk of getting drafted and shipped off to Nam, the brainy kids in college got a pass. As a result, a lot of our entertainment culture skewed itself against the smart kids, the "bookworms", the "Poindexters", the "nerds".

For all the idiocy of television today, was it really any better in the 50's or 60's (we already know the 70's were a mental wasteland, so we won't even bother asking). Hey, who remembers "My Mother The Car"? Or how about "Gilligan's Island"?

Now, anyone who's played Dungeons and Dragons knows that when you roll up/create a character, there's an attribute for Intelligence and one for Wisdom. To me, that translates into "book-learning, education" and "common sense" respectively. I'm not sure if it would be opening yet another can of worms to ask, as a sidebar, if people are simply more foolish today than they used to be.

But in any event, after discussing the matter at length with my wife Carol, I've come to the conclusion that people today are no more or less stupid than they used to be. What's changed is the Information Age, the ability to absorb more news stories, sound bites, and what have you, where the best and the worst of people is constantly bombarding us. In other words, the number of stupid incidents hasn't increased; what has increased is the number of ways we get our news, and thus more exposed to idiocy.

Or look at it this way; once upon a time if some nimrod in East Bumfug Mississippi had an opinion that the President was in fact an illegal alien who is here to overthrow America and put it in the clutches of godless, gun-seizing, ethnical types, then there's no way we'd ever really know about it. He's out in the sticks somewhere in his tar-paper shack and you won't ever see, hear, or smell him. 

But these days, all any idiot needs is a cheap computer and web access, and they can vomit their insanity all over the online community. What's worse, if there's 100 other people out of 240,000,000 who agree, they'll post their support. Suddenly, stupidity has a fan base, and it's flashing across your screen. Now, picture every statement of ignorance and stupidity, having a forum. It's easy to look at all of these posts and come to the conclusion that America is becoming stupider by the day.

I've also considered the possibility that, as I've grown older, I've simply become less tolerant of stupidity and find myself compelled to notice it and gripe about it more often. See, I have a theory about long-term exposure to certain external stimuli. I believe that long-term exposure to things like insults, stupidity, body odor, cold drafts, criticism, loud noises, excessive coughing, humidity, bad drivers, late-night freight trains, crying babies, either erodes any given person's tolerance for the particular stimuli, or desensitizes them to it. So perhaps, after constant exposure to stupidity, perhaps my tolerance has eroded?

It may also be a good explanation for why a lot of old people are grumpy. Perhaps it's because they've been exposed to a lifetime of stupidity, selfishness, and foolishness, that they simply have no tolerance for it anymore. Seeing as I am older (not "old" mind you, "old-ER"), the explanation makes sense.

So, take heart, people. Next time you read something about how people think there were dinosaurs on Noah's Ark, Canada is located in Europe, the moon landing was staged, Pearl Harbor was set up by FDR, or that every one of the Founding Fathers was a card-carrying atheist, just remember that people have always thought these things. It's just that nowadays, there's more means  For every opportunity that the Internet gives us to learn something new, it also gives us three opportunities to be exposed to the cream of the crop of DUMB.

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