The purpose of education (2); or, forward the Flynn Effect!

Coelum, non animum, mutant.

— Quintus Horatius Flaccus (65 – 8 BCE), Letter XI to Bullatium

Place may be chang’d; but who can change his mind?

Chrismwparsons writes, somewhat provocatively, that the ultimate purpose of education is to “ensure the increasing success of the human species.”

To begin with, I thought that this was perhaps a grandiloquent flourish too far. As a teacher, it is not surprising that I believe that education is genuinely important — but that important?

However, some further thought has led me to believe that Chrismwparsons has, in fact, hit the nail squarely on the head. Education, even in the limited sense of formal schooling, does have a definite and measurable impact on the human condition. That impact is known as the Flynn Effect.

In the 1980s, philosopher James Flynn noticed that the producers of IQ tests periodically adjusted their scoring formulas upwards so that the average IQ score remained fixed at 100. In other words, the tests were being made harder in order to prevent “IQ inflation”. IQ tests have been used in many countries over the last century. In some places, every schoolchild has been tested, as well as adults entering the military or government service. Flynn examined these datasets and his conclusion was startling: IQ scores have been rising over time.

And rising at a non-trivial and fairly constant rate of three IQ points per decade. Steven Pinker comments:

The implications are stunning. An average teenager today, if he or she could time-travel back to 1950, would have had an IQ of 118. If the teenager went back to 1910, he or she would have had an IQ of 130, besting 98 percent of his or her contemporaries.[ . . . ] To state it in an even more jarring way, a typical person of 1910, if time-transported forward to the present, would have a mean IQ of 70, which is at the border of mental retardation.

— Steven Pinker, The Better Angels Of Our Nature p.884

One of the causes of the Flynn Effect is more school. Over the course of the twentieth century and in every country, children spend more time in school. By contrast, in 1900 a quarter of adults in the United States had less than four years of schooling. Flynn suggests that this has led to more people seeing the world through “scientific spectacles”: a number of forms of scientific reasoning have percolated from the schoolhouse into everyday thinking.

And, Flynn suggests, the mindset of science trickled down to everyday discourse in the form of shorthand abstractions. A shorthand abstraction is a hard-won tool of technical analysis that, once grasped, allows people to effortlessly manipulate abstract relationships. Anyone capable of reading this book, even without training in science or philosophy, has probably assimilated hundreds of these abstractions from casual reading, conversation, and exposure to the media, including proportional, percentage, correlation, causation, [ . . . ]  and cost-benefit analysis. Yet each of them—even a concept as second-nature to us as percentage—at one time trickled down from the academy and other highbrow sources and increased in popularity in printed usage over the course of the 20th century. [Pinker p.889]

Graph from Flynn, J. R. 2007. What is intelligence? Cambridge, U.K.: CUP p. 8, cited by Pinker p.886
The Flynn Effect: Rising IQ scores, 1947–2002. Source: Flynn, J. R. 2007. What is intelligence? Cambridge, U.K.: CUP p. 8, cited by Pinker p.885

It is noteworthy, however, that the rising tide of the Flynn Effect does not seem to lift all cognitive boats equally. For example, arithmetical skills have not increased at the same rate as interpretation of complex visual stimuli — it is supposed that since we live in environments which feature increasingly complex visual displays, we are perhaps getting better at extracting information from them.

Arthur C. Clarke once made the mordant observation that we have no evidence that high intelligence contributes towards the long term survival of a species. He suggested that it might turn out to be as useless in the long run as heavy armour was to some species of dinosaur.

He also commented that, in his opinion, humanity was engaged in a race between education and disaster.

I think he was right in both respects. The Flynn Effect suggests we are getting smarter. But are we getting smart enough quickly enough?

Only time will tell.


2 thoughts on “The purpose of education (2); or, forward the Flynn Effect!

  1. Alex Brown April 17, 2017 / 11:51 pm

    Trivial in a way, but wasn’t it HG Wells who thought humankind was in a race between education and catastrophe?
    Arthur C. Clarke has some ripper lines, though :).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s