Are College Students Stupider and Less Informed Than 30 Years Ago?
December 30, 2001 3:58 AM   Subscribe

Are College Students Stupider and Less Informed Than 30 Years Ago? Professor Anders Henriksson says they ain't necessarily so. He's been collecting students' bloopers for 30 years and suggests they aren't getting worse at all. That's assuming they could, of course. Is he right or just pulling our leg? (from today's Los Angeles Times)
posted by MiguelCardoso (42 comments total)
During Christmas, I had a discussion with an uncle who went on and on about how much more he had to learn in school: Geography, Maths, etc... Everything was better in the old days.

Two hours later, I had to spend the entire afternoon trying to get his computer & internet running again...

-"OK, just close this window and then "Save to New"....

How can we expect these students to know both their history trivia AND their computer sciences, for instance ?!
posted by swordfishtrombones at 4:47 AM on December 30, 2001

How can we expect these students to know both their history trivia AND their computer sciences

Not sure if you were joking or not there, swordfishtrombones, but the two are not at all mutually exclusive. Nor are knowledge of literature and arithmoquining, or understanding of the role of partial agonists of the 5-HT2 receptors in the central nervous system as mood-brighteners and skill in surfing, to pick some random examples.

Knowing as much as possible about as many things as possible is the way to win the great game....
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 5:20 AM on December 30, 2001

And if you have to learn one or the other, learning history is about ten thousand times more difficult and more important than Internet configuration, which is like toilet configuration (baud, ballcocks, proxies, epoxies, whatever) -- call a plumber when your toilet won't work; call a geek when your Internet connection won't work.
posted by pracowity at 5:33 AM on December 30, 2001

win the great game....

You mean Trivial Pursuit?
posted by MrBaliHai at 5:46 AM on December 30, 2001

I was thinking more along the lines of Nude Twister, but whatever polishes your binnacle, cap'n.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 5:47 AM on December 30, 2001

Not sure if you were joking or not there, swordfishtrombones, but the two are not at all mutually exclusive

I agree. I just wanted to explain that over the years, there has been a shift in what people want or need to know.

call a geek when your Internet connection won't work.

Oh my god, I'm the offical familiy-geek now ?!
posted by swordfishtrombones at 6:09 AM on December 30, 2001

Gee, I never realized that Nude Twister required so much general knowledge, but that sort of thing really doesn't flip my minnow anyway.

Okay, I've been involved with enough thread hijackings lately, guess I better behave and get back on topic...ahem.

Actually, I agree with your original comment. My own education was a crazy-quilt of disparate topics: graphic arts, computer science, broadcasting, journalism, foreign languages, and electronic servicing. Angry at having spent so much money on general education and dispairing of ever finding a job that used more than two of those subjects, I was quite surprised to find myself using all of it within a couple of years of entering the job market. I work with people who're specialists, and I'm always amazed by how limited they are in what they're capable of doing outside of their chosen specialty and glad that I didn't go that route.
posted by MrBaliHai at 6:12 AM on December 30, 2001

The Dean of Admissions at MIT thinks that "kids" are getting dumber, and it's because of their generation.

The original article was in the faculty newsletter, so it's on a secure server. You can read about some of the responses in the newspaper, though.
posted by phoenix enflamed at 6:33 AM on December 30, 2001

I'm not so worried about kid's book knowledge these days, everything we need to learn is so damn tactical due to the rapid pace of change. As long as kids learn how to learn, we'll be fine. What I'm worried about is the pressure we apply as a society and as individuals to have our kids grow up so damn quickly, without any thought to their emotional development. Little Timmy knows Perl and his soccer skills truly please his parents, but he has the socialization of a axe murderer.
posted by machaus at 8:21 AM on December 30, 2001

"Zorroastrologism was founded by Zorro. This was a duelist religion."

I know for the next week or so I am going to remember that phrase, stop in mid-step, and begin laughing out loud. People will fear me.
posted by mr_crash_davis at 8:39 AM on December 30, 2001

The Dean of Admissions at MIT thinks that "kids" are getting dumber

I can't read the article via the URL in the student's essay. It sounds from the quotes that Dean Jones was encouraging faculty to stand up to students on some new austere-sounding policy about alcohol.
posted by rschram at 8:40 AM on December 30, 2001

From a 1997 speech by Will Fitzhugh, editor of The Concord Review:

"Many social studies Educrats today object to the study of 'mere facts and dates,' and contrast them with 'higher-order' things, like the Emperor's New Clothes--which were not tied down to such mundane concerns as needle, thread, fabric, warp and woof. In fact, these days many teenagers are more demanding of each other when it comes to the facts and dates and names of rock groups and sports figures than most of their teachers are when it comes to the facts and names and dates of history. I would like to give you a test which you will surely fail, but the goal of which is to expose that straw man popularly known as 'mere facts and dates': Try to hear the following as a meaningless list--the Tea Party, 1787, the Monroe Doctrine, John C. Calhoun, Sutter's Mill, Dred Scott, Gettysburg, the Golden Spike, J.P. Morgan, 1918, 'Can You Spare a Dime?,' Iwo Jima, 'Ask Not,' 'I have a Dream,' and Neil Armstrong. Now, I can hardly think of a better example of a 'meaningless list of historical facts and dates,' and yet, educated as you are, you cannot hear them without attaching meaning to them, because you know some history."
posted by Carol Anne at 9:10 AM on December 30, 2001

In reference to the MIT admission bi... woman. Let me get this straight, a school that only accepts people if they have astronomical grades, volenteer at the drop of the hat and are involved in every club and activity possible is complaining that the kids are strung out work aloholics? What makes this worse is that it's coming from the horse's mouth.

Granted there is no other viable way (how do you measure laid-back intellectualism?) to sift through thousands of admissions when there's only spot for a few. But you don't turn around and complain about it.
posted by geoff. at 10:38 AM on December 30, 2001

Here is the article by the MIT dean of admissions.
posted by chemgirl at 11:00 AM on December 30, 2001

call a geek when your Internet connection won't work

Some geeks *really* hate that.
posted by brittney at 11:37 AM on December 30, 2001

I remember being approached by a girl who was in my english class, while I was in a study hall. In our last class, the professor had discussed fallicies of interpretation, and she hadn't understood what he was talking about. She showed me her notes, and I recognized her problem almost immediately. A simple spelling mistake can mess up everything sometimes - phallusies. I let her see my notes, and she caught on to her mistake.

Don't poor answers on essays and tests also reflect negatively upon the teachers? Would their time be better spent on how they can improve their teaching skills, rather than collecting students bloopers?
posted by bragadocchio at 12:14 PM on December 30, 2001



posted by mr_crash_davis at 12:29 PM on December 30, 2001

posted by bragadocchio at 12:36 PM on December 30, 2001

Don't poor answers on essays and tests also reflect negatively upon the teachers? Would their time be better spent on how they can improve their teaching skills, rather than collecting students bloopers?

I agree, but with a caveat. I just finished teaching my first semester (as a TA only, but a significant amount of instructing all the same), and most of my students tanked on the final. Before I knew the results for the rest of the class, I assumed that the fact that my students did so poorly meant that I had slacked off toward the end of the semester and hadn't taught well. As it turns out, unless all three TAs as well as the tenured professor taught badly to the same degree, in reality it was the students who slacked off. I'd love to share some of the absolutely ridiculous quotes in some of the essays I read, but I kind of have an ethical problem with that. I'm not going to judge this professor, but let's just say it's not something I would feel comfortable doing.

I think that no matter how good the teacher, some students just aren't going to get it. It may be that they don't like history, or don't learn it well. There will always be students who don't study and come into exams unprepared. And I've learned from experience that you can make yourself endlessly available for office hours and help after class, and some students aren't going to take advantage of that. Hence, there will always be student bloopers. Which doesn't necessarily mean professors should get into the habit of publishing them. But that may be a different debate.
posted by jennaratrix at 1:26 PM on December 30, 2001

I'm surprised that nobody (not even Carol Anne) has yet commented on the fact that "stupider" is not a word. Intentional irony on the part of the article's author perhaps, or evidence that newspaper editors are more stupid than they were 30 years ago?
posted by MrBaliHai at 1:46 PM on December 30, 2001

MrBaliHat systematically ruins the children's rhyme, "boys/girls are from jupiter they are more stupider" for millions of youths with one deft click of the post button.
posted by machaus at 1:59 PM on December 30, 2001

stupider is a word.
posted by mdn at 2:23 PM on December 30, 2001

I agree with everything this Jones woman said, especially this:

For example, we can’t assume that they actually know what is considered cheating these days. It is possible that they do not realize that pulling something off of the Web and not citing the source is a bad thing. I understand that cheating cases of this sort have escalated in the past three years at MIT, so I encourage you to clearly define your rules at the beginning of each semester, describe the repercussions of violating your rules and then follow through if violation happens. Remember that most adults in their lives cave in to them easily, so they will push back hard. Stand firm through all of their excuses and whining. Eventually they will realize that you mean business and they’ll comply because Millennials generally want to obey the rules.

posted by rschram at 2:34 PM on December 30, 2001

machaus: I prefer to think that I've saved children from the evils of a cruel gender stereotype. Besides, they can always jump rope to this cool rhyme instead: Lincoln Lincoln I've been thinkin'/What the heck have you been drinkin'?/Is it whiskey? Is it wine?/Oh my god, it's turpentine!

stupider is a word

It doesn't show up in the online versions of the Oxford English or Webster's Unabridged dictionaries and I'd consider them to be slightly more authoritative sources than a generic dictionary website that doesn't list its pedigree. In any case, I wasn't really trying to start a grammar flame war.
posted by MrBaliHai at 2:55 PM on December 30, 2001

This is interesting given that IQ scores have been trending upwards for the last century or so.
posted by electro at 3:15 PM on December 30, 2001

My girlfreind taught Comp at the University of Miami last year and she can answer your question with a resounding YES!

Perhaps though we've always been this stupid but the growth of mass media just allows to see more gratuitous displays of it.
However, a while back, I bought one of those windsheild glare covers for my car and it came with a warning "Do not operate vehicle when sheild is in place," which means, of course that some imbecile tried to do just that. So maybe we are just getting dumber.
posted by jonmc at 3:25 PM on December 30, 2001

"Stupider" is fine! My New Shorter OED includes "stupidish" and "stupidness."
posted by Carol Anne at 3:35 PM on December 30, 2001

You know, I only suspected that stupider would be recognized as a word because a few weeks ago my MS Word spell / grammar check suggested that "more simple" should be replaced with "simpler", so the old two syllable rule was weak. (Word accepts both "stupider" and "more stupid" - I know, I know, you have better authorities than microsoft to turn to :). I do too, but I'm lazy...)

Anyway, as always with language, it's right if people agree it's right... which people, and how many of them, is the eternal question.
posted by mdn at 4:12 PM on December 30, 2001


I wasn't saying the media caused more stupidity, just that thanks to talk shows, court shows, "COPS" and "World's Greatest Police Chases" type of programming we just get to witness it more.
As far as the windsheild warning goes, I've been witness to enough idiotic behavior to say that I believe that someone did actually try to drive the car with it on. Besides, insurance companies don't strike me as that creative.
posted by jonmc at 4:27 PM on December 30, 2001

Clue to the seriousness of this newspaper article:*Book Proves*.....
posted by Mack Twain at 4:49 PM on December 30, 2001

Eric, isn't that a picture of yourself?
posted by msposner at 5:16 PM on December 30, 2001

Eric - you sir, are an asshole.
posted by tomorama at 5:46 PM on December 30, 2001

"Stupider" is fine! My New Shorter OED includes "stupidish" and "stupidness."

Sweet plastic Jeebus, is that what my native tongue is coming to? The horror! All those years I was corrected by my English teachers were apparently for naught. I wonder if I'll be able to slip "stupidish" past my editors in the next magazine article or tech manual that I write?
posted by MrBaliHai at 6:06 PM on December 30, 2001

Maybe your English teachers were wrong? Or at least subscribed to some made-up rule that didn't reflect historical usage? Lots of well-meaning types have decided to reform usage on more "rational" grounds, coming up with stupid, or at least stupidish, rules concering bizarre things like number of syllables as a constraint on comparatives. Some of them even got some play; English teachers are as naive as anyone else.
posted by rodii at 6:25 PM on December 30, 2001

I was unable to create a new Meta Talk account, so I am going to post my reaction to what has been said in the "you are an asshole link" here at Metafilter.
1. I am not an asshole and anyone who was offended should definately relax a bit.

2. I would like to thank whoever noticed my true intentions and pointed them out.

If everything that may offend someone was pulled from here, there would be nothing left.....I think those of you who tried to make me feel like an asshole, rather than shrugging it off are the truly insensitive ones.
posted by Eric Lloyd NYC at 8:33 PM on December 30, 2001

Before that post comes off as "I don't care what I did"--I do want to say that I did learn something about the atmosphere at Metafilter and will post accordingly in the future.
posted by Eric Lloyd NYC at 8:36 PM on December 30, 2001

One: every generation is stupider, more violent, shallower and just plain not as good... according to the previous generation :) It's been that way since Adam bitched to Eve about Abel not herding the effing goats properly.

Two: perhaps more than anything, today's universities provide increasingly specialized degree programming. Fifty years ago, when a hs diploma was the standard terminal degree, a university degree was less specialized and included a great deal of what are today considered "elective": history, philosophy, rhetoric, composition, literature, the hard sciences. Instead, classpaths are designed to produce workers, rather than thinkers - my belief is that they do so to make up (after a fashion) for the decline of the trade school and, prior to that, the apprentice-journeyman-master education path for craftsmen. Because of this, though the quantity of people with college degrees has dramatically increased (a good thing in itself), the 'classically' educated person has all but disappeared. Most people lack historical perspective, critical thinking skills, cultural awareness and appreciation, an understanding of myth and allegory, language skills, and a rudimentary knowledge of how the universe operates.

So, a guy with an accounting degree is going to have trouble, by and large, with a history question. His skills and education simply did not lie in that direction.
posted by UncleFes at 9:35 PM on December 30, 2001

Maybe your English teachers were wrong?

I've talked to both of my editors at work about this and they agreed that while "stupider" may indeed be recognized as a valid word nowadays, "more stupid" was the preferred progression between "stupid" and "stupidest". They both made very crinkly faces of disgust at "stupidish" as do I.

So, point conceded. It's largely a question of colloquial usage making it's way into the official vernacular after time. I'm no reactionary when it comes to language, but I prefer to stick with the earlier style on this one.

I swear on a stack of Webster's that I will never get this anal retentive in MeFi again...Stupider is as stupider does.
posted by MrBaliHai at 8:30 AM on December 31, 2001

They both made very crinkly faces of disgust ...

Well, I think it has more to do with this. Language rules are psychological facts, and often so-called improper usages are heard and repeated because there's no real pressure on a speaker to conform. They don't violate a rule that's psychologically real. There is however pressure to conform to saying "more fun" (as opposed to "funner") or "most frightening" (as opposed to "frighteningest"). Those rules are psychologically real.
posted by rschram at 10:23 AM on December 31, 2001

I'm no reactionary when it comes to language, but I prefer to stick with the earlier style on this one.

I can't disagree with that. But the thing is, often the "earlier" style is actually the later style. I don't know with this particular rule, but take two common examples: split infinitives and the use of "they" to mean "his or her". Both of thise were in common use up until the 18th century or so, when reformers decided that English should be more "logical" (or more like Latin). The idea that "they" can only be used for plural subjects or "you shouldn't split infinitives" took hold in certain educational circles and was passed down to a few generations of educated folks; they had less impact on the way people, even educated people, spoke. As writen language became more and more vernacularized people started committing these "errors" in print, and this is now seen as evidence that language is changing. But all that's really happening is that, of the two existing standards, one is supplanting the other, and it happens to be the one that's older--that's the irony--not younger.

That said, I think it's fine to say "more stupid". Style is pretty arbitrary, and if one way sound better or has a better rhythm or whatever, go with it. I'm just saying we should confuse the stylistic preferences of editors or english teachers with the god's truth.

On rschram's comment: I agree. There seem to be places where the rules have a gray area, though, plus there is real sociolinguistic variation built in. Those are the places where style and prescriptivism get a grip and just won't let go. I bet--having thought about it for 30 seconds--that the actual "rule" of comparatives would involve complex prosodic conditions that are hard to specify exactly (involving feet rather than syllables). Is "crazier" better than "stupider"? How about "feistier"? "Happier"? And how about register? Which sounds better:

a. He is crazer than a shithouse rat.
b. He is more crazy than a shithouse rat.

(Sorry for carrying on with this--I'm not trying to be quarrelsome, I just think it's interesting.)
posted by rodii at 11:04 AM on December 31, 2001

the two syllable rule applied to words of two or more syllables that didn't end in "Y". If they end in y, the y changes to an i, and "er" is added, so feisty, crazy & happy all follow the old rule.

Which is obviously not really the rule anymore, and maybe never really was. But we won't skip to saying people are intelligenter or articulater then each other, either...
posted by mdn at 3:07 PM on December 31, 2001

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