Years ago, I saw the movie Timeline, itself an adaptation of Michael Crichton’s novel of the same name, and I was struck by one very profound insight in the otherwise atrocious film. Superior knowledge is not superior intelligence. Or put more appropriately: our predecessors were not morons.
In the film (and, I presume, the book as well), a band of time travelers wind up stuck in 14th century France, and find that all of their supposedly superior knowledge is useless. Only one man manages to utilize his future knowledge effectively at all, and that only gains him employ (quasi-slavery, really) as a weapons designer for a warlord. Think for a moment what you would really do if you were cast into the 14th century and left to fend for yourself. How much of what you know would be useful at all? Could you even survive?
Read the Meditations by Marcus Aurelius and try to come away from it with the notion that you’re a smarter man than he. And even where the ancients were demonstrably wrong, ask yourself very carefully if you, having been brought up in their time, would have done any better.
Contrary to the common belief that mankind is locked in an endlessly progressive trajectory, where each day humanity’s collective wisdom ever-increases, I suspect it has actually done the opposite.
When I read some of Thomas Sowell’s work on economics, for instance, I am often struck by the notion that when he passes there is no one left to replace him. Who else alive is even capable of carrying on in his place? In essence the Austrian-Chicago school will die with him. And yet, when Thomas Sowell was young, there were many masters in the field.
When I read G. K. Chesterton, I can see no living man who can equal him. The same for Tolkien, or C.S. Lewis (though John C. Wright comes close, at times). Western civilization as a whole has entered into a realm of intellectual twilight, in which the great thinkers are either long dead, or nearing death, and there are few in the new generation even willing to take the torch from them and carry on. Of those willing, how few are able?
I’m a nobody. Contrary to the Secret King rabbits of the world, like John Scalzi or Wil Wheaton, I have no delusions of my paramount importance. I am not able to carry the intellectual torch of those who came before me. But if I cannot do it, and very few are even capable of doing it, how will the West go on?
Some of my readers may be familiar with the movie Idiocracy, which didn’t see wide release because the studio blocked it. One wonders if this was because the film hit too close to the mark. In any event, the story posits that intelligence will decline in Darwinian fashion because only idiots bother having lots of children. Five centuries later, an average Joe of exactly 100 IQ thaws out and finds himself to be the smartest man in the world.
Yet is this truly the mechanism for the dumbing down of the West? The Flynn Effect posits a natural increase in intelligence, rather than a decline. And the Progressive narrative is one of consistent human improvement. So what’s going on here?
Certainly, the decline of the college campus is a contributing factor. Obsession with identity politics, gender studies, and other nonsense does not produce a higher grade of intellectual. Ostensibly smart people are steered away from legitimate inquiry into Progressive political spew. But there’s another factor at work, and I’d like to provide some anecdotal insight into it.
On my high school’s math team (yes, there was a math team, and yes they were all nerds), we were assigned a battery of ten questions, with a bonus eleventh question that was considered supremely difficult. Immediately, I took that question and left the rest of the questions to my compatriots. These were studious geeks who had memorized arcane formulas, knew each and every documented method for doing anything required of them. They went home and lived math, breathed math, and I know at least one of them went on to MIT.
No so much for me. Everything I used was constructed on the fly from whatever I managed to remember. I spent the entire hour on this one question, and my work to achieve the answer covered several pages in barely-legible chicken scrawl. In the end, I was the only one in the meet to come up with the correct answer. I later learned that the method I used to solve the problem was how the original mathematician came to figure it out. Though, of course, he eventually simplified the process considerably. Since my compatriots had not reached that level of education yet, they could not solve it. Since I relied upon my ability to just figure things out, I had a chance to.
Now, don’t misunderstand me, I’m no mathematician either. But the point is, there is a difference between people who can competently reproduce the work of another, and those who can step outside that and innovate. Since I was a supremely lazy student, my talent for figuring things out was used primarily to avoid studying or memorizing. But I could fill in the gaps, and before long it became clear to me that most other people either couldn’t, or wouldn’t, do the same. I have no doubt that some of my compatriots on the math team could probably score higher than I could on any test covering subject matter already memorized. I also knew that, at some level, I would always be beyond them.
To this day, I rely on my ability to just “figure things out” rather than take formal training. A few years ago, I purchased a badly-damaged pinball machine and restored its functionality. Pinball machines are complex electronic and mechanical devices, and most people would have balked at doing that. I knew that I would figure out each problem as it came, and that I could do whatever I needed to do. And yet most Americans of the modern generation can’t even change a tire. It is possible that they score higher than I do on many tests, but they are still lacking something essential.
I’m not trying to brag here. As I mentioned, I am supremely lazy in many ways, and I know I have wasted a great deal of my potential, which is not something to be proud of. And there are areas of life in which I have been profoundly stupid. But this may go some way to explaining how the Flynn Effect and the Great Dumbing Down can be simultaneously true.
We’ve created a generation of people who can quote Plato, but who don’t understand him. We have people who can read and understand the archaic language of the available translations of the Meditations, but who could never author something anywhere near as profound. We have Americans who can memorize the formulas, but never really understand the math. They can’t just figure things out, they must be told. But the Progressive narrative continues to be the endless betterment of the human race.
If Idiocracy were made properly, based on the trajectory of society today, it would be filled with low-IQ SJW morons who nonetheless acted like pretentious jackwagons, never admitting their own errors. They would assure you that 2+2 = 5 because someone else told them so. It would be axiomatic to them. Their arguments would be an endless appeal to authority, laced with unsubstantiated accusations of judgmental behavior. It would be full of fat people who insisted that being thin was unhealthy because they didn’t have fat to survive the winter. Simultaneously, they would assert that winter would never come because global warming. They would assure everyone that pink was a natural hair color, and nobody was ever born with a gender. Science would be considered discriminatory and therefore wrong. Everything that felt bad would be considered bad by default, they would say, because nothing that feels bad can be good, and nothing that feels good can be bad.
In other words, Idiocracy would look like a modern American college campus writ large. The President wouldn’t be Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho, porn star and pro wrestler. No. The President would be a fat old lesbian woman who spent her entire life spewing blatant falsehoods about how oppressed she was. After all, she would say, she’s only a multimillionaire. She’s totally one of the regular folks. She would be Hillary Clinton.
The future is stupid, but it’s a special kind of stupid, unlike the drooling idiocy we’ve seen before in history and depicted in Idiocracy. It’s a sort of book-smart, life-dumb, pretentious superiority complex. It is idiocy masquerading as intelligence, like the guy who laces every sentence with ridiculous jargon in order to sound smart. It’s the guy who looks in the back of the book for the answer, and then says he completed the assignment. It’s the game developer whose sole achievement is writing a word document, it is the game critic who hates games. It is the movie reviewer that loathes cinema, or the vegan food critic assigned to review a steakhouse. It is the Socialist who insists that, though every form of it has resulted in great heaping piles of human corpses, we really ought to give it another go, only this time with the entire planet.
It’s a very highly evolved form of stupidity. But, nonetheless, the future is stupid… unless we can successfully change course.