Flynn’s Retreat and Academic Idiocracy

I recently came across some remarkable news: the Flynn effect, the mysterious trend of ever-rising IQs that has been documented though most of the early and middle 20th century and has been the source of much technocratic/laissez-faire optimism, appears to have actually begun reversing in many countries. We are, it seems, now measurably becoming “dumbed down”. This is claimed to be due to “environmental factors”.

My own experience may be relevant here as far as these intellectual “environmental factors” go, for not too long ago I was involved with proctoring a statistics-based course, focusing on applications in public health and medical research. This was graduate level, at a pretty high-ranking research university.

Here are some of the interesting features of how the course was designed:

1) extra-credit quizzes, worth 5% of the total course grade;

2) extra credit questions on both the midterm and final exam, together totaling an entire grade-point (B to A);

3) lowest homework quiz score is dropped;

4) most exam questions do not require showing any of one’s calculations;

5) finally, most amazingly, an extra-credit “make-up” exam, where you get to “redo” questions you got wrong on an exam for credit (I helped get this particular foolishness blocked at least, and got a good dose of student flak for it).

Final result: of all students, and even without 5),

• About four-fifths got an A or A- (with about half of these scoring above 100%),

• one-fifth got some kind of B,

• One student got an F (because they didn’t even show up for the last 2 exams).

This is now considered “successful teaching”; indeed the professor who designed the course and rubric and gave the lectures was cited for “outstanding contributions” to teaching.

Of course the real shock, after larding the course with this much extra-credit and other fudges, is that anyone still got less than an A. In reality, belying the grades, I would say perhaps a bit under half the students understood the material at a functional level by the end. However one quickly discovers that:

• If a student gets anything less than an A-, they will complain because this stops them from doing “capstone research”.

• If a student gets anything less than a B-, they will complain because, in a misguided attempt to battle grade inflation, programs have moved towards making B- the minimum passing grade–thus pressuring instructors to simply inflate their grades even more.

These students will go on, one assumes, to fairly responsible positions in management, tech, and perhaps clinical research. We already are beginning to see how that works out. But if the university is just a business and students are just customers, who are we to deny them what they paid for?

Degree mills, everybody: it’s what the People (& college administrators) have spoken for! If IQs are indeed sliding, this kind of inflation of coursework will be both partly to blame, yet also increasingly demanded—thus completing the vicious circle.

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