New Study Says America is Losing its Innovative Edge
Life + Money

New Study Says America is Losing its Innovative Edge

America 3.0 is a new column that assesses fiscal issues across America as if this nation were a company and its citizens were stockholders. The column will delve into subjects ranging from energy to health care, and defense to financial policy, always keeping an eye on the bottom line of what makes good fiscal sense now and in the future.

By some measures, Americans are losing their minds. Standardized test scores are slipping in many states, and multiple studies show, among other things, that many high school students can’t identify the United States when shown its geographic outline, and that over 60 percent of Americans don’t believe in the theory of evolution. Not good news for succeeding in what some economists call the Knowledge Economy.  

In the midst of a lingering recession, Americans are in a mood to believe that we aren’t as smart as we used to be. Otherwise, the thinking goes, we’d be doing a whole lot better at creating jobs, fixing roads, solving the immigration crisis, capping runaway oil spills, and repairing the economy.

The latest salvo in the “we’re dumber” camp came last month in a Newsweek cover story that reported a decline not in academics, geography or the understanding of science, but in creativity. According to co-writers Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, a still unpublished analysis of data from a widely used creativity assessment has concluded that American ingenuity has been slipping since the 1990s.

In the midst of a lingering recession, Americans are in a
mood to believe that we aren’t as smart as we used to be.

This disturbing finding comes from education researcher Kyung Hee Kim of the College of William & Mary and her analysis of 300,000 children’s results after taking the Torrance Test for Creativity. Named after its originator, the psychologist E. Paul Torrence, the test has been the gold standard for measuring creativity for over 50 years, and has been taken by millions of children around the world.

The drop detected by Kim comes as the U.S. continues to spend more than almost anyone in the industrialized world on education — 7.1 percent of our GDP in 2005 compared to an average of 5.8 percent for the 30 countries that are members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. (This includes most of Europe, Japan, and South Korea). China, which is not part of the OECD, reportedly spends 2.5 percent of its GDP on education, although this is rapidly rising.

The apparent juxtaposition of these two trends — more money for less creativity — should be of great concern to us shareholders in America, Inc., if it’s true. The ability to think creatively is often a crucial component of innovation and discovery in science, technology, policy, the arts and, yes, in education.

Are We Really Getting Dumber?
But is the U.S. really falling behind? Are we really getting dumber?

“I don’t see a decline in creativity at all,” says Ken Goldberg, Professor of Industrial Engineering and Operations Research at the University of California at Berkeley, who studies creativity, among other things. “There is a huge amount of innovation going on in art, in film, in engineering and on the web. What has changed is the way creativity is measured now compared to the era before computers and the internet.”

By many measures, the U.S. remains the overwhelming leader in education and in brain power. For instance, Americans won seven out of the 13 Nobel Prizes awarded last year, keeping up the pace of winning roughly half of all Nobels since the prize began in 1901. The U.S. also leads the world in patents filed in industrialized countries in 2009, and in papers published in peer-reviewed scientific journals. And a third of the top 100 universities in the world are in the U.S.

This suggests that at least some of the money the U.S. spends on education is paying off. Yet this hardly tells the whole story, as the negative trends also proliferate — such as a steady decline in OECD ranking for the U.S. in science test scores, and in the ranking for the number of students who earn a high school degree.

Another alarming trend that many critics believe is impacting creative thinking is the shift in public schools from less structured curriculums that aim to teach creativity and analytical thinking to an emphasis on learning by rote. This change has come as the federal government and many states have adopted standardized testing that ties test scores to teacher and administrator pay, and to federal aid for education. As Bronson and Merryman report in Newsweek:

"When faculty of a major Chinese university asked [Indiana University researcher Jonathan] Pluckier to identify trends in American education, he described our focus on standardized curriculum, rote memorization, and nationalized testing. “After my answer was translated, they just started laughing out loud,” Pluckier says. “They said, ‘You’re racing toward our old model. But we’re racing toward your model, as fast as we can.’"

While it’s not surprising that rapidly modernizing countries in Asia are catching up with the U.S., it’s too early to lament any serious decline in innovation in the U.S. Yet we need to be careful as a nation to preserve our creative edge — our ability to think out of the box — and to spend our money wisely to fill in gaps in educating those Americans who won’t be winning Nobel Prizes, but are nonetheless crucial to solving the many problems we face.

David Ewing Duncan’s most recent book is Experimental Man: What One Man’s Body Reveals About His Future, Your Health, and Our Toxic World.

Related Links:
On Darwin’s Birthday, Only 4 in 10 Believe in Evolution (Gallup)
U.S. Slipping in Education Rankings (UPI)
‘Stupid in America’ (ABC News)