A rolling stone gathers no knowledge

Posted: Monday, November 03, 2008

While others worry that Americans are getting dumber, I'm excited about a future in which I am one of the smartest people in the country. These columns will win Nobel Prizes in economics, literature and fields not yet invented, like kickassedness and noyoudidntity. I will be asked to run an Ivy League university solely based on my insights: Avoid land wars in the Middle East; buy stocks when the Dow drops 40 percent; do not floss with licorice.

Some worry that contemporary Americans are too stupid to vote because they can't find the countries that we're at war with on maps, even if those maps are just of Iraq and Afghanistan. Despite such arguments - laid out in books such as Susan Jacoby's "The Age of American Unreason" and movies such as "Idiocracy" and "Wall-E" - I don't think we're intellectually lazier than our ancestors. In fact, I suspect that writers who rant about blossoming stupidity in the U.S. are actually insecure about their own intelligence. So when I heard about Adam Winer's new book, "How Dumb Are You?: The Great American Stupidity Quiz," I asked him to devise a test for me to challenge one of them to a smart-off.

Winer administered a 50-question quiz to Jacoby and then me. I finished in 15 minutes, pretty sure I crushed it. The only thing I blanked on was the team name of the bad guys in World War I. Apparently Germany and Italy hadn't yet hired the marketing genius who came up with the friendly sounding "Axis." By World War III, those guys would have been calling themselves Iron Maiden.

Jacoby got two wrong. She didn't know how many degrees were in a triangle or which month has Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Which proved I was more capable of helping a middle school math student and more likely to do it if he were black.

I was pretty excited about my presumed victory until Winer called to say I lost big. "Don't you cover politics? Don't you cover current events?" he asked. "You didn't know what language they speak in Iraq. You thought water boils at 120 degrees. That means you think sweat should be boiling off your head on a hot day."

According to Winer, I got 11 wrong. Although I dispute most of those. If asked to name a Charlie Chaplin comedy, I think "The Little Dictator" is close enough to "The Great Dictator" and a good deal funnier. And while the third line of "The Star Spangled Banner" isn't quite "Who brought stripes and bright stars through the perilous night," at least my version, unlike the real one, makes sense and has a verb in it.

I called to congratulate Jacoby, but she was a sore winner and dismissed the quiz as stupid. Apparently once you start dismissing things as stupid, it's hard to stop.

"This test is a product of the digital culture," she said. "I feel even more strongly now than when I wrote this book that the digital culture confuses information with knowledge."

I do think fact-based tests like Winer's can be revealing. Sarah Palin's failure to define the Bush doctrine exposed her lack of interest in foreign policy, just as my inability to date the dinosaurs shows I got all of my information about paleontology from Hanna-Barbera.

But I still don't buy that Americans are getting dumber. As we know from "Harry Potter," young people are reading more: Since 2002, juvenile book sales have grown 4.6 percent. And even video games and Facebook trump watching TV as far as brain activity. They're certainly more stimulating than whatever our grandfather's grandfather spent his boyhood doing - farming and getting beaten. So what if people no longer know state capitals and water boilin'? The age of a finite set of information to master is long over. Instead, we know how to problem-solve and filter information better than our grandparents ever did. And that makes us better voters. If you don't believe me, just watch them try to navigate a voting machine.

• Joel Stein is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times.

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