I am often asked how colleges can justify liberal arts education in a world trying to decrease college costs, increase college completion rates, and ensure that college education is job-relevant. Here is what I say.

Almost any kind of reasonable education increases IQ, even through college. The reason is that education, unless it merely involves rote learning, increases abstract-thinking skills.

Stephen Ceci and colleagues at Cornell have shown that education is a causal factor in raising IQ scores. And a recent issue of the The Wall Street Journal contains an article by a world-renowned scholar from New Zealand’s University of Otago, James Flynn, noting that since the beginning of the 20th century, IQ scores around the world have risen on average three points per decade.

On what is often considered the “purest” test of intelligence, the Raven Progressive Matrices, gains have been five points per decade. This means, as Flynn points out, that “in 1910, scored against today’s norms, our ancestors would have had an average IQ of 70 (or 50 if we tested with Raven’s).

By comparison, our mean IQ today is 130 to 150, depending on the test” (See “Are we really getting smarter?”http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10000872396390444032404578006612858486012.html?mod=WSJ_hps_sections_lifestyle.)

Flynn has referred to the increases as “massive IQ gains.” His work has been widely accepted as valid in the field of psychology. But have higher IQs created a better world?

Politicians running against the incumbent for the U.S. presidency often ask: “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” The rest of us might ask, “Is our society better off now than it was a century ago?” Certainly it is better off technologically. Many societies have reaped the benefits of great technological advances.

Two homes my wife and I have owned, one built in 1904, when IQs were just starting to rise, and the other built at the end of the 20th century, when they had risen greatly, serve as a metaphor for what has changed. The newer house is technologically far more sophisticated.

But we have no doubt that the 1904 house, with its sturdy, meticulous construction and its plaster walls, will still be standing when the end-of-century house has gone to ruin. Few consumer products are built to last anymore. Not many are even worth fixing.

Today, despite rising education levels and rising IQs, we continue to have wars in much of the Middle East and Africa.

Economically, North America and Europe are less stable than at any time since the Great Depression. Avoidable human-created fiascoes abound, from global warming to the mortgage crisis. Socioeconomic-class differences, already at record levels, continue to increase.

Deaths that once occurred as a result of undernutrition now are occurring as a result of over-nutrition.

How can such a “massive” increase in IQ and the concomitant increase in levels of education, including college education, have produced a society of relative IQ “geniuses” worried about the next massive terrorist attack emanating from terrorists who have experienced the same massive increases in IQ?

There are many good things happening in the world today, but it scarcely seems to be a world run by geniuses for geniuses.

If the increases in IQ coupled with our troubled world tell us anything, it is that our society’s preoccupation with intelligence, narrowly defined, is misguided. Douglas Detterman and his colleagues at Case Western Reserve University have shown that the tests by which we sort our society socioeconomically, such as the SAT and the ACT, are merely IQ tests by another name.

The way things now work, individuals who do better on the tests have more options in terms of college admission, and the availability of higher-prestige colleges and universities gives them an advantage on the job market. The skills measured by such IQ tests seem, given our society, insufficient to produce the kind of society we would desire. So what is missing?

The state of our society suggests that IQ in the absence of critical thinking, common sense, wisdom and ethical reasoning is not enough. If we do not educate students liberally in a way that develops these important, broad thinking skills, we will risk all for which we have strived.

Although it might seem that IQ tests measure these other skills, to some degree, they don’t. Many researchers — Michael Shermer, Keith Stanovich and I, among others — have been interested in the phenomenon of how smart people can be so stupid.

Valid studies have shown that people can be “IQ smart” but irrational, foolish, and lacking in common sense. One only has to look at how political systems are operating today to marvel at how the politicians currently running countries are doing less than the genius-level jobs we might expect from their elevated IQs. One also has to worry about the genius-level people who put them into power.

So what’s the solution? A liberal-arts education teaches students how to effectively use the abstract thinking skills that standardized cognitive (IQ) tests measure.

For example, through the study of philosophy, students learn how to construct and evaluate complex arguments and to see multiple sides of those arguments.

Through the study of literature, students learn how the great minds of the past have construed weighty problems of peace and war, love and hate, famine and plenty.

Through the study of history, students come to realize how our ancestors coped with the kinds of economic, political and social challenges we face in our contemporary life.

Through the study of foreign languages, students learn how better to communicate with people of other cultures and other belief systems, and to realize how much of importance gets lost in translation.

And through the study of music and the arts, students learn to experience the heights of aesthetic pleasure.

Throughout our American history, we have found various ways socioeconomically to stratify ourselves — by wealth, gender, socially defined race, and now test scores. If the tests measured the kinds of critical-thinking, ethical-reasoning, common-sense, and wisdom-based skills we need to create a better world, we might all be better off. But they do not.

These skills are not merely exercises of abstract thinking. They are skills that develop through the kind of liberal education that is threatened by contemporary society’s increasing emphasis on courses leading to direct economic benefit and culminating in rapid completion of college degrees.

The question is not how we can create a higher-IQ society but rather how we can create a wiser society more intent on striving for a common good. The answer is not merely through courses that enhance abstract-thinking skills (IQ) or job preparation, but rather through liberal-arts courses that develop the intellectual maturity our society needs to thrive and even to survive.

About the author

Robert J. Sternberg is provost, senior vice president, Regents Professor of Psychology and Education, and Kaiser Family Foundation Chair in Ethical Leadership at Oklahoma State University.

He is president of the Federation of Associations in Behavioral and Brain Sciences and treasurer of the Association of American Colleges and Universities. The views in this article, however, are his own and do not represent those of the organizations with which he is associated.

Contact him at robert.sternberg@okstate.edu.