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David Bouchier: A Few Well Chosen Words

David Bouchier: Intelligence Test

Courtesy of Frenchly
Students taking the notoriously difficult end-of-high-school exam, known as the "bac," in France.

It has been reported, but not much discussed, that Norwegian researchers have discovered that intelligence, as measured by standard IQ tests, has been declining since 1975. I had been wondering about this myself, especially for the last couple of years. In the national league table of IQ tests, America comes in ninth, slightly behind Norway. In case you hadn’t guessed, Hong Kong and Singapore come in first. America’s average IQ score has gone down at about the same rate as in many European countries, which seems to suggest that intelligence is on the decline across the Western world. What’s going on?

I’m not smart enough to figure out the reasons myself, but experts have speculated that the apparent decline of intelligence may be due to less rigorous teaching methods in schools, and to the rejection of reading in favor of semi-literate video entertainments. 

By the time you get to my age you should have come to terms with your intelligence, or lack of it. We have not been tested for a long time, and we don’t expect ever to be tested again. So it is tempting to feel a bit smug about this apparent decline of brain power in the younger generation. It’s just confirms what every senior citizen believes. Sex, drugs, rock and roll, and the internet have fried their brains.

But I had a chastening experience this summer in France. It’s true that France is rather an intellectual nation, where even the bookstores can give you a headache. But normally the casual visitor doesn’t have to think about this and, of course, not thinking is what most of us do best.

I didn’t escape quite so easily. My French teacher – I am sure with the best of intentions – gave me as an exercise the task of answering a list of question from the philosophy section of the baccalauréat or “bac,” an examination that French students take at the end of high school. Now I’m no intellectual but I do claim to know a little bit about philosophy, and I wasn’t afraid of a few questions designed to be answered by 18-year olds. Not until I looked at them. Try these.

Question 1: “Does culture make us more human?”

Question 2: “Is desire a mark of our human imperfection?”

Question 3: “Can one be indifferent to art?”

And ten more questions like that, along with this coup de grace: “Is truth final?” All these had be answered in four hours, in essay form – no multiple choices.

To be sure, these were questions posed to students who had been taught and prepared at school to expect them - but still, teenagers.

I was tempted to dodge the test by pretending a sudden illness or a mental breakdown. But in the end I went ahead and answered the questions as well as I could, and in French of course just to make it harder. My answers made the teacher laugh, but only with amazement. She confirmed that I would certainly have failed the exam, as she expected and I expected. But 88 percent of teenage students passed this same examination this year, which makes me wonder: whose IQ is really in decline – theirs or mine? The correct answer is not one I want to hear, in French or any other language.

Copyright: David Bouchier