We lose intelligence when our society becomes too automated
Recently, I read about an interesting archeological finding. Apparently, humans started to use flint knives one hundred twenty-five thousand years before the first flint hammer was found in the archeological record. In other words, it took 125,000 years for man to learn to tie a stone to a stick. We shall soon return to that era if we insist on dumbing down our children and ourselves. Intelligence, in the simplest terms, is the ability to solve problems. If there are no problems to solve, intelligence will be quickly bred out of humans.
With a little practice, I could again learn to calculate a square root using division. That I cannot program a DVD for cable TV does not strike me as being above my abilities, but only dire necessity would force me to do so. (No grandchildren around for the short-term and intermediate future.)
One of the reasons I feel capable around technology is that I attended Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan. The curriculum was science-oriented. Chemistry and biology were taken in the sophomore year, with physics left for juniors. That provided room for experimental physics during the senior year. We took plane geometry and then went on to solid geometry, leaving calculus and other esoteric math courses (which I did not take) for the senior year.
One day, I sat down in my honors history class and saw a book on the desk behind me. Picking it up, I found the title to be "Comparative Greek and Latin Grammar." I asked S. why he was reading it. "For fun," he answered. I still do not know if he was joking.
It was the time of Sputnik, and the American government was in a blind panic because we had fallen behind the Russians. Suddenly, the pillars in the library were surrounded by new bookcases filled with books from the National Science Foundation with undergraduate and graduate math and science textbooks. I certainly did not use them, but others may have.
Dr. Bender, who was our physics and experimental physics teacher, had years of experience working out at Brookhaven National Laboratories on Long Island before he came to Stuyvesant. I was blessed one day to enter the experimental lab when some student was winding the last coil for a particle accelerator they were constructing. I got to wind the last two turns on that coil. What an absolute thrill! I spent many lunch hours in the ham radio "shack" learning code and theory. I think I still remember Stuyvesant's call letters — WA2CLE.
Image: Electrical engineering students at the Colorado School of Mines, 1942. Library of Congress.
What happened at Stuyvesant was an example of providing space at the top for whoever could reach higher. I ate lunch with Ronnie G., who later piloted a space shuttle. Danny F. sat in front of me in homeroom. He won the Westinghouse contest that year by solving a math problem that was, until that point, unsolvable. At that time, he was only 15 years old. A few of the kids in my class became very important, so important that they disappeared into ARPA and other such agencies (ARPA preceded DARPA.).
Many of the Stuyvesant graduates are so grateful for their education that they support an alumni association that funds special projects for the current crop of students. The best way to develop skills of any kind is to be able to tinker. Today, tinkering takes money, because otherwise, there is nothing worthwhile to tinker with.
So this is how we come to the crossroads between equality of opportunity and equality of outcome. This choice takes us down two completely different roads and to two different destinies. Either we are a problem-solving animal or we are not. Soon we will not have to know how to drive a car, lay bricks, or run a business. These tasks will be either automated or optimized by algorithms that are not understandable by anyone with blood in his veins and a brain in his head. Nothing that is repetitive will be outside a computer's abilities.
The proper approach to retaining the human facility to solve problems is to have a constant flow of problems to solve. That is true for exceptional students, but it is even truer for slow and average students. We progress by being forced to progress.
The most ironic finding to date about intelligence is that when grandfather is forced to solve problems, father and grandson find the same problems more within their grasp. (That is how birds know how to build their nests even though they have never seen one being constructed.)
If we turn this understanding around, when grandfather is given a sterile learning environment, father and grandson will become relatively incompetent. The intelligence of children, then, is at least partly inherited through the challenges faced by the grandparents and parents. In this way, we produce our own fate. Suck on the implications of that for a while!