A great scientific mystery has been solved. It happened the weekend before Election Day, so you might not have heard about it amid all the campaign noise. Good news: Now's your chance to catch up!
Here's the mystery: Why, you probably have been wondering, are young people today so dumb—especially compared to people of earlier generations? After all, when those of us in The Middle Years (or even older) were in our teens and twenties, we knew utterly everything, whereas the Youth of Today know almost nothing. This holds true despite the fact that they can look up anything almost instantly, whereas those of us who came along before wireless Internet access had to acquire knowledge by any number of arduous means, including walking to the library or even, if all else failed, asking an Old Person for help.
You could chalk up this perceived state of affairs to the habit people have of thinking everything was better back when they were young, except for one depressing fact. During the past four decades education spending per pupil has shot up, class sizes have shrunk, and yet test scores have stayed flatter than a 10-cent pancake.
Finally we know the answer. Earlier this month scientists announced three new elements had been named: Darmstadtium, Roentgenium, and Copernicium. The elements are man-made and can exist only under laboratory conditions. This is is like Newton's apple: It explains so much.
Back in your humble servant's school days, the Periodic Table had only 11 elements: hydrogen, oxygen, carbon, nitrogen, metal (magnetic), metal (non-magnetic), plastic, and I forget the other three. Chemistry class consisted of Mr. Storck dropping things into a cup of liquid nitrogen and smashing them with his shoe. Biology, taught by Mr. Haas, consisted of watching film strips from the 1950s about people with elephantiasis and guinea worm. Nobody took physics because it hadn't been invented yet.
(Film strips, by the way, were a cutting-edge multimedia pedagogical tool that were going to revolutionize classroom instruction and turn every child into a rocket scientist. Just like laptops and tablet PCs are doing today!)
Point is, back then nobody learned much science because there was not much to learn. Nobody had heard of quarks or pulsars or gene sequencing or dark matter—let alone later discoveries like Cylons, Ferengi, or Decepticons. (It was a simpler time, but people were happy then.) So passing your science test was a breeze. Science fairs? Same deal. Build a papier-mache volcano, toss in some baking powder and vinegar, and collect your gold star. Easy-peasy.
Nowadays, they won't even let you into the science fair unless your research into Calvin-Benson cycle catalysts for artificial photosynthesis is drawing venture-capital offers from private-equity firms.
Same for history: They just keep making more of it. For the WWII generation, the Great Depression wasn't history, it was current events. They didn't have to learn about the civil-rights movement or Vietnam or Watergate or Reaganomics because none of that had happened yet. Today's pupils not only have to learn all that more recent history, they will soon be learning the history of 9/11, the Iraq War, and the Obama administration. And the cohort after that? Good luck to them, because they're going to need it.
Ditto English. Great writers from Clive Cussler to Danielle Steele keep cranking out new masterpieces. Every year the major dictionary publishers add new words (retweet, tinfoil hat, cryonaut) and eliminate obsolete ones (aerodrome, cassette tape, literacy). Even the rules of grammar keep changing, as The Onion reported a while back: "The U.S. Grammar Guild Monday announced that no more will traditional grammar rules English follow. Instead there will a new form of organizing sentences be."
By contrast, math is the one area of study where people don't keep making more of it. Once mathematicians proved there are transfinite numbers—numbers bigger than infinity—there was really nowhere else to go. Nothing left for math to do but sit back and rest on its laurels. If anything, math is moving in the opposite direction from other academic disciplines: The best mathematicians are busy solving old puzzlers, like Fermat's last theorem. Know what that means? It means math is getting easier over time, not harder.
Don't believe it? Just look at the most recent NAEP test scores. Reading scores are down. Math scores are up. Case closed!
A. Barton Hinkle is a columnist at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, where this article originally appeared.