What is your measles IQ?

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Ontario now has a website called mycanceriq.ca. The health minister, Eric Hoskins, launched it this week but the journalists dutifully attending only wanted to know about measles and, sadly, there's no mymeaslesiq.ca. If there were it would have just one question: Did you vaccinate your kids? If you said No, you'd go immediately to the result and it would say: You're an idiot, do it now.

In fact, attitudes to measles vaccinations seem like a good proxy for IQ testing. Sources like the Red Cross and UNICEF say global fatalities from it went from 750,000 to 164,000 between 2000 and 2008 due to shots. What's to argue about? The U.S., where measles is spreading from Disneyland outward, is often considered a particularly stupid society. That's based on surveys regarding evolution and climate change, or scores on international tests.

Personally I'd rely more on the abysmal levels of their Sunday morning news shows or presidential nomination races. Or the replacement of teaching in U.S. schools by standardized tests. Learning to take tests is the opposite of learning to think. (I exempt that Super Bowl play call by Seattle not as stupid but as trying to show you're too smart -- or are they the same thing?)

But smart and stupid are rarely clear, even in the U.S. Mississippi, often considered the most benighted state and one with wretched records in higher education, scores well on the measles test. Vaccination is mandatory and there are no flakey opt-outs (for "philosophical" reasons) allowed. It's had no cases. California on the other hand, affluent and liberal (two Democratic senators), lots of university grads plus Silicon Valley, also boasts the Disney measles epicentre (versus Epcot Centre) and large pockets of upthrusting non-vaccinators, described by author Seth Mnookin as the Prius-driving, composting set.

The gold standard of U.S. stupid is its myth of sheer individualism, free to thrive with no relation to others embodied in public institutions like government. Myth: meet infectious airborne measles. We are none of us out here alone. For most, and probably all, humans, individuality can only flourish with massive social supports. They're codependent. Even the Arizona MD who told CNN, "It's an unfortunate thing that people die, but ... I'm not going to put my child at risk to save another child … It's not my responsibility ..." can only believe something so inane by being embedded in a social context that ratifies his foolishness as normal. Otherwise it would ring false as soon as it emerged from his mouth.

Zoom out now (or north) to Canada. There's spreading unease at the universities about declining enrolments in the humanities. Maybe it's abetted by anxiety over jobs in the precarious new work world and uncertainty about the use value of the humanities. Might this trend also be contributing to stupidity? Aren't the humanities where you learn how to think (versus know things with certainty and absorb information): through literature, philosophy and art you gain a sense of the need for ambiguity and skepticism. I'd normally be on that side of the argument. But smart is never even that unambiguous.

Harold Innis, possibly Canada's most prominent prof ever, said the best-educated eras were those that had no formal education. He cited England in the early 1800s, when large numbers of poor people rose "to distinction": Robbie Burns, Tom Paine, Cobbett, Dalton. "Compulsory education increases the numbers able to read," wrote Innis, "but does not contribute to understanding."

What does? Lively discussion in non-hierarchical, non-competitive venues, where you're not being talked down to by experts or competing for grades or jobs. Where minds can change and you may never know whose idea eventually prevailed, since it doesn't matter. But for that you need public spaces where those fruitful exchanges can happen and sharpen minds in the process.

Which brings us back to Ontario and the Wynne government's order to close many Toronto schools -- precisely the kind of public spaces we need more of: not for formal teaching but for adult ed, community groups, public meetings, etc. If some are underutilized as schools, that's an opportunity. We need more not fewer such spaces if we're going to get smarter. Selling them off is just dumb. Anyone smart would figure out how to keep them going.


This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: flickr/World Bank Photo

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