Grading on a curve: is America getting dumber?

Grading on a curve, you may remember from school, is when your teacher “adjusts” everyone’s test scores to better match the intelligence level of the class. Maybe no one got an “A” on a strict 90/80/70 grading scale. Maybe the highest score was only an 86. So, does that mean everybody ought to study harder next time? No, that means we lower our standards. We grade on a curve… now 86 is an “A.” Good job everyone!

We’ve been grading this country on a curve for quite a while now, adjusting our standards to better match the intelligence level of the Average Joe. And average has gotten pretty low.

IdiocracyIn the 2006 movie, Idiocracy, filmmaker Mike Judge predicted a time when ignorance and lack of basic intelligence is the norm and the smartest person in the world is an average soldier, cryogenically frozen since the present. Ha. Ha. Get it? It looks like Judge could predict the future.

Fa La La La La
Have you noticed how simplistic and repetitive pop music these days? Rudimentary rhymes and stories. “Let Her Go” by Passenger. “Say Something (I’m Giving Up on You)” by A Great Big World.

William M. Briggs, statistician and professor of statistics at Cornell, proved this observation by looking at the lyrics of top pop songs from the 1940s to 2010. He compared the total word count of each song with the “uniqueness” of the lyrics and came to this eye-opening conclusion: “Word count is soaring,” Briggs reports. “But word uniqueness is dropping.” In other words, pop songs are getting dumber. Briggs believes we’re rapidly approaching pop songs that’re basically monotone chants.

Our Level Best
Early on in my advertising career I wrote a commercial where a character calls himself a “suave spokesperson.” An account exec demanded I change “suave” to something else because consumers wouldn’t know what it meant.

“They’ll think it’s a shampoo,” he told me with a straight face.

“We’re part of the media,” I told him. “We owe it to people not to dumb things down.”

“It’s not our job to educate the American people,” he replied. Last time I checked, the exec was teaching advertising at an east coast college.

I’m continually told the average American reads at a seventh grade level. That sentence, according to the Flesch-Kincaid Readability Index, reads at the level of a sophomore in college. Dumb it down to: “People read at a seventh grade level” gets it to that 7th grade sweet spot… but at what cost?

“Been around the world and found that only stupid people are breeding…”
Flagpole Sitta by Harvey Danger, 1997

Just the Facts, Ma’am
85% of Americans have at least a high school diploma but only 1/3 of Americans over 25 have a bachelor degree or higher.

Our teenagers rank 21st in the world in reading. They come in 24th in science and a sad 31st in math. In a recent poll, only one in six Americans of all ages could point to Ukraine on a map. It’s been in the news about as much as the Malaysian plane crash and yet almost no one had any idea where the country was.

Forget what people believe about evolution or global warming, 1 out 4 Americans think the sun revolves around the earth even though it’s been proven without a shadow of a doubt since the 16th century to be the other way around.

Charles Simic, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, author, and college professor pulls no punches when he writes: “What we have in this country is the rebellion of dull minds against the intellect… It took years of indifference and stupidity to make us as ignorant as we are today.”

Political candidates accuse the president of “elitist snobbery” for suggesting every American should have the chance to get an education beyond high school (to cheering and whooping from agreeable crowds).

Wise Up
The world is a complicated place, getting more complicated by the minute. It’s understandable that people are yearning for simple answers. Ignorance is bliss, I know… But the country’s population is getting more blissful by the minute.

Simic concludes: “there’s more money to be made from the ignorant than the enlightened, and deceiving Americans is one of the few growing home industries we still have in this country. A truly educated populace would be bad, both for politicians and for business.”


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