Dangerously Stupid Kids

In SF Gate, Mark Morford warns of the coming collapse of America due to all of the stupid kids coming out of our educational system. He hints at the horrors an anonymous high-school teacher at Oakland High School has witnessed and warns us that the future shown in Idiocracy is upon us. He has a lot of scary things to say, from how letting a kid under 6 years old watch any TV will scramble their “basic cognitive wiring and spatial perceptions” for life to how high school students don’t know how to use a ruler to draw a straight line.

I’d be a lot more worried if these arguments weren’t shored up by anecdotes, bad and fuzzy data, and stupid logic.

For instance, what reports and hard data is he referring to when it comes to TV and the under-six crowd? There was a study in 2005 showing TV’s modest bad effect on reading for kids under 3, but another study that just came out in October of 2007 indicated that heavy early TV exposure that’s later reduced doesn’t cause behavorial problems or poor social skills. There’s no support for the idea that one glimpse of TV will turn your kid into an idiot, which is why the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no TV before age 2, but allows one to two hours of TV after that age.

Mark also makes much of how, out of 182 school days in a year at Oakland HS, there are 110 days when someone is giving standardized tests somewhere in the school. Oakland has some 2,400 students. They’re clearly not all taking standardized tests all 110 days, so what fraction of any given students’ time is spent in testing? 80 days out of the year? 40? 2? We’ve got no clue. It’s like saying that it rains somewhere on Earth every day of the year, so we’re all going to be flooded.

He’s got all kinds of dumbifying causes. Cell phones. iPods. Electromagnetic fields! Junk food!! Videogames!!! Why, kids today can’t use a ruler, and a compass? Forget it! And it’s all because of those horrible public schools! Or because they’re a bunch of pussies who don’t ride in the back of pickup trucks or on car roofs! Or because they don’t go camping and can’t recognize plants! He’s gone to the grocery store, bought a bunch of theories about why students don’t do well, gone home, shoved them all in a blender, and served the resulting lumpy paste to us while yelling alarms in our ears. The only causative factors he’s missing are parents, an anti-intellectual American culture, and the students themselves.

Maybe kids are getting dumber. But from this column’s evidence, it’s not like the adults are necessarily all that smart, either.

5 thoughts on “Dangerously Stupid Kids

  1. It reminds me of a column I read in the local paper of the small south-Alabama county-seat town in which I grew up. I was probably early teens, which dates the column to about 1958 or so. The paper’s editor, not generally known to be curmudgeonly, spent his six-inch space on how the town’s youth would never amount to anything because they couldn’t put an acceptable point on a pencil with a pocket knife. Few of them carried penknives, he averred, and those who did couldn’t use them constructively. Perhaps what we’re seeing is, to borrow a phrase, the “mismeasure of man.”


  2. Thank you! What a relief to see a bit of critical thinking about the Morford essay. It’s ironic that while Morford rants on the whack anti-intellectualism of the conservative religious right and others, he uses the same rhetorical tools. Anecdotes, fear and numbers masquerading as supporting data.

    Jimminy, how old is he anyway? Based on his piece and depending how he defines “young” maybe he’s right?

  3. That kind of cynical rhetoric always annoys me, so thanks for debunking it!

    By way of an interesting contrast, I recently heard about the “Flynn effect”, whereby average IQ scores on standardised tests have been rising for decades, most notably in developed countries. The difference is that Flynn and others don’t claim that kids are necessarily getting objectively smarter; there are lots of potential factors, like increasing cultural familiarity with abstract brain-teaser questions. But I like the idea that too much TV and videogaming can actually make your brain better at some important skills (at the expense of others).

  4. Just a general thumbs-up… I enjoyed your thoughts about eating fish associated with pregnancy, I always enjoy what you have to say about race and how those of us who benefit don’t get to claim to be absolved, and your comments about why arguing logic with certain useless tools is pointless was very fun. 🙂 My favorite may be your comments about the Republican party and the trainwreck this election will become for them. I laughed for a long time. Thanks!

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