Durham News: Opinion

Steven Unruhe: The kids are more than all right

“Young people have the attention span of a gnat,” says an article promoting Google Glasses.

“It is a simple fact of science that nothing correlates more with ignorance and stupidity more than youth,” says the editor of the National Review Online.

“People no longer know how to write,” says Cambridge Professor David Abulafia, who blames Twitter and Facebook.

We have heard all this, and more. “_______ (fill in the blank: cell phones, video games, social media, rap music) are making kids dumb.”

I have some news from the front: Our kids are smarter than us.

(For those of you reading this from a Twitter or Facebook link, the above sentence should read You are smarter than your parents.)

I don’t mean they can teach us how to use Skype on our phone, or that they can watch television shows on the computer.

I mean smarter, as in they think faster, and deeper, than we do. They are smarter than we are now, and they are smarter than we were when we were young.

You don’t believe me. I don’t blame you. We see kids doing stupid things every day. They drive while texting (heck, they walk across a busy street while texting). They multi-task drinking and sex, which is a really dumb idea in every way imaginable. Then they post a video of themselves engaged in doing so, an even dumber idea.

Doesn’t matter. The facts are in. IQ scores have gone up three points per decade for the past century, as documented by the psychologist James Flynn. This translates to a gain of nine points during my almost 30 year career in teaching, a 15-point gain for my 7-month-old grandson’s generation. For the stats geeks, that is a truly stunning increase of an entire standard deviation in half of a century.

This can be hard to see up close. We tend to spend our days around people like us. Our children, and our friends’ children, look pretty much like us.

The world our children inhabit, though, is infinitely more diverse and complex than the world of my youth. This is the intelligence trump card – our children practice being smart.

Our children see new stimuli every day. Their brains are working, and learning, every day. It turns out that video games are good for kids, at least in terms of making quick decisions and remembering complex patterns. So are music videos, in their mish-mash of genres and cultural references. As our population has gone mobile, so has our culture.

For all the talk of failing schools, it is nonetheless true that children are better educated than 50 years ago. We have changed the definition of student success – kind of like moving back the finish line in a race and then saying runners have slowed down.

High-achieving students in the past would be middle of the pack today. I was accepted into UCLA having taken one college-level class in high school, and skipping my fourth year of math. (I was sure I would never use it again). Now I teach kids who are rejected by UNC-Chapel Hill after having already completed a semester’s worth of college credits.

Moreover, and more importantly in terms of shifting the over-all bell curve, children not going to college are much better educated than 50 years ago when less than half of North Carolinians had graduated high school. For one, they are in school. For another, they are taking harder classes. They may struggle through algebra, but they have seen it.

It is a simple equation: better-educated parents will raise better-educated children who will navigate a more sophisticated world.

The upshot, according to Flynn, is that each new generation has stronger skills for abstraction and categorization, two basic building blocks of intelligence.

Our children are smarter than us. If the race goes to the smart, our kids are winning.

Steven Unruhe has spent the last 29 years trying to convince ever-smarter high school students that they will need math and journalism in their futures. He can be reached at hookunruhe@gmail.com

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