In the special Education Life supplement from the Sunday New York Times, I write about how IQ scores have risen throughout the last century by as much as 30 points. The social scientist James Flynn has done a lot of the most interesting research. This summer, for example, he discovered that women’s IQ scores had surpassed men’s, possibly a result of the more demanding roles women have assumed as they juggle family and jobs, and their increased access to higher education.
This article examines why children’s IQ scores have not risen as quickly as their parents.
WHEN the social scientist James R. Flynn started analyzing more than 50 years’ worth of I.Q. scores, he noticed something peculiar. On tests that assessed vocabulary used in everyday life, adults showed enormous gains — nearly 18 points. That made sense. Many more people attend college and work in professions now than in 1950. But when he examined children’s scores, he was surprised by how far behind they lagged. Usually facility with words trickles down; children hear and absorb parents’ expanded vocabulary and discussions. But that hadn’t happened. Children’s I.Q. showed only a 4.4 percent gain.
“I.Q. gains over time pose interesting questions about American society,” Mr. Flynn said, speaking from his home in Otago, New Zealand, “and this is one of the most interesting.”
Flynn posits a generation gap that is reinforced by a distinct teenage subculture.
Mr. Flynn has a theory: that since the 1950s, when adolescence began to emerge as a distinct culture, generations of teenagers increasingly segregated themselves from the adult world. “Who would have thought that child and teenage subcultures would have become so powerful and inward looking as to keep them from being socialized” into the linguistic mainstream, Mr. Flynn said. “Even younger children seem somehow more culturally distant from their parents.” He notes that children read and write less, and thanks to texting are more accustomed to spelling phonetically.
I’m not so sure. After all, the gap between parents and teens was much more pronounced in the 1960s and early ’70s during the height of the counterculture. I think we really don’t know just how new technology like the Internet and texting is affecting learning and the brain. In any case, there is good news:
The differences in I.Q.’s disappeared once children reached adulthood and entered the working world. The gap’s rate of increase also began to slow in 1995.