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Exterminate myth of dumbing down

Is dumbing down a myth? Are we wrong to think that because children no longer read Jane Austen, don't know the date of the Battle of Waterloo or can't tell a queue from a cue that they are all becoming stupid? Are TV programmes and computer games, far from making children mindless, actually raising a generation that is smarter than ever?

I have long been sceptical of nearly all claims about youth going to the dogs. I do not believe, for example, that one-third of our 11-year-olds are illiterate or even semi-literate, which newspapers and politicians keep repeating as though it were established, incontrovertible fact, like the distance from London to Glasgow. Some 11-year-olds do not read as well as other 11-year-olds. There is no more to it than that.

Two things prompt me now to suggest that, in any case, how children perform on reading tests doesn't matter as much as we thought. First, I have been watching the new Doctor Who. This is not Doctor Who as I remember it from two decades ago, with its papier-mache models and clunky plot lines. The "special effects" are more sophisticated, as you'd expect, but so is the dialogue. "Lots of planets have a north" (to explain why the Doctor, an alien, speaks with a northern accent), "That will do nicely, sir" (in response to the offer of a computerised credit chip 200,000 years in the future) and "Earth can be destroyed in 45 seconds" are just three examples.

No doubt there are others I miss; I confess I find it hard to keep up, just as a 16-year-old may find it hard to keep up with what is going on in Jane Austen. If this is mass-market television, the masses must be cleverer than we thought. Second, as recently reported by Sarah Baxter in the Sunday Times, an American cultural critic, Steven Johnson, has argued in a new book that video games and other gadgets exercise our brains as never before. These games require pattern recognition, problem-solving and a grasp of probability theory and spatial geometry. They demand a level of active engagement and a speed of understanding far beyond the usual narrative structures of books and films. The same applies to today's TV series, which use multiple narrative threads and do not always portray events in chronological order.

As Johnson points out, average American IQ scores have been rising since 1943, but the increase accelerated in the 1990s. Something doesn't add up.

If today's children are being fed junk food, junk culture, junk parenting and junk schooling, how come they are getting brighter?

In the 19th century, as we moved from an agrarian to an industrial and scientific society, the need was for wider literacy and numeracy and more formal learning. These skills were taught in schools because they were impossible to learn at home, most parents then being illiterate. Now we are moving into a different kind of society, the "knowledge society" - as it is sometimes called - where more people earn their living from design, marketing and services of various kinds. We thought at first that conventional education was more important. The new society demanded higher levels of literacy, numeracy and scientific knowledge and, given more working mothers and more TV in the home, schools had a bigger job to do in raising intellectual levels.

But perhaps we were wrong. Perhaps children now learn more and get more intellectual stimulation at home than they do at school - and perhaps the things they learn there are more useful. If so, most of our conventional debates about schooling are redundant and we need to rethink the upbringing of the young as radically as the Victorians did.

Peter Wilby is editor of the New Statesman

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