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Mark Kingwell

Too smart for our own good Add to ...

It's graduation time at universities across the continent and, as so often at this time of year, people ask me: "Are the kids getting dumber? Can they even write?"

This is a bit like debating the value of the designated-hitter rule: The answer says more about you than about the state of play. Answer yes and you brand yourself a bookish curmudgeon, a fogey no matter what your age. Answer no and you align with new cognitive models, social networking websites, early gadget adoption and freewheeling music download.

In other words, it's cool versus uncool. There are even duelling books on the subject so that the sides can point to argument and evidence - although one might detect a potentially fatal irony in the smarter-kids types needing to cite books in the first place, given that books are so, like, 1780.

In fact, though, the more you look, the more it becomes clear that the dispute is about apples and oranges. If smart means clear writing, linear thought and sustained self-organization, then yes, those skills are in short supply; if it means quick-witted talent for hyperlinking, multitasking and other compound gerunds of the screen age, then no, there is no evidence of cognitive deficit - on the contrary.

Statistically, this is truistic. Any human population, plumbed for any cognitive skill, old-school or new, will show a roughly normal distribution of talent. Past academic emphasis on expository writing didn't make for more good writers as a function of population, it just picked out the individuals who were good at writing. With a university population that was both smaller and skewed in favour of that skill, the tail - those declining away from the mean - was shorter. People wanted to be clear writers, and were punished if they were not. But in no case does it mean that kids were smarter then, or dumber now.

This is the point where the dispute typically hares off into a hand-wringing discussion of what universities are for and whether they're any good at doing whatever that is. Socialization machine or crucible of citizenship? Job-training centre or gateway to wisdom?

Unfortunately, all the available answers are both obvious and mutually inconsistent; there can be no right answer because all the half-right answers cancel each other out. So let's ask a different question: What is intelligence for?

The premise behind any worry that kids are getting dumber is that this is a bad thing, a development to deprecate. If Johnny can't write (one side avers), then what hope is there for public discourse, critical diligence and democracy? If Johnny can't tweet (the other side responds), then what hope is there for fast-moving crowd-sourced innovation and collective creativity? Each side defines intelligence in its favour because both assume that intelligence must be the governing value of human evolution.

I have a modest proposal that will resolve this tiresome debate forever: Consider the possibility that both sides are wrong. Imagine for a moment that we have reached the end not only of the book-smarts era of human civilization, but also of the entire smarts era, period. Replacing one form of intelligence with another form just obscures the baseline truth: Human intelligence has become counter-adaptive.

This might sound crazy. After all, it's precisely the ingenious tricks of human problem-solving that have made us so successful at survival. But these same tricks have also generated large negative effects: environmental degradation, weapons of mass destruction, hedge funds, sophisticated forms of torture and the justification thereof. In the global adapt-or-die sweepstakes, humans keep scraping by, almost despite themselves, the net good effects of intelligence just outdistancing the bad.

How long can this possibly go on? In supercomplex systems, ones with multiple variables that are at once interconnected and threatened, failure is rarely incremental, the way it might be in a single-variable system. If one small part of our world fails, the larger failure is likely to be catastrophic and immediate. Just think about downtown traffic snarled by a collision, or the airline schedule during an electrical storm. Now reflect on the global food chain and energy grid - or the financial network.

It's not that we've been dumb; it's that we've been too smart for too long. Success breeds success - literally so in evolutionary terms. We have succeeded well past our safety thresholds. There are too many of us, and we're too good at inventing things. Being smart turns out to be a dumb idea.

Is there anything to be done about it? Well, experience indicates that calls for restraint and sacrifice are rarely successful when people lack other incentives to change their behaviour. So I suggest we tackle the problem at the root: Let's start selecting for dumbness. Not just in the sense of giving up on old-fashioned writing skills. That ship has sailed. Let's go farther and invert the value scale. Let's actively punish the clever and reward the slow and unambitious.

Maybe then, after a few generations, we will breed our way out of this mess and back into a simpler age. "Are the kids getting dumber?" my academic successors will be asked. "Yes!" they will say. "It's working!"

Mark Kingwell is professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto.

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