According to expert reports, the average score on the SAT (the Scholastic Aptitude Test used in the USA for university entrance) has fallen by at least 20% over the last 30 years. Three students out of four at university have failed to reach the level of "formal operations," which is the ability to formulate hypotheses and systematically test them to arrive at an answer to a problem. To be able and creative with abstract ideas, in other words.
The majority are stuck at a "concrete" level of thinking, in which they can only think usefully about actual physical scenarios. Outside of a particular context the underlying principles do not transfer. Abstract reasoning is beyond them, or uncomfortable for them, so they are unable to fully participate and profit from education at a higher level. These are the students who cannot apply what they have learned, because the abstract and the concrete are two unconnected things for them: the result is a mind-body split.
Why has this occurred? Young people read far fewer serious books today and spend less time in intellectual discussion; in contrast, they spend many more hours in watching TV programs with little or no intellectual content: MTV, soaps and sport. Many young people have been brought up on the 30 second sound bite and pap, so their attention span is shorter than it was before, their vocabulary is much reduced, and many fail to achieve communication competence. The pleasure principle has taken over from the reality principle; immediate gratification rules supreme. They do not have the disposition to think abstractly nor the training to do so well.
Even for those of us who had a good education, if we forget all that we learned and never exercise our mental skills with new and challenging tasks, our reasoning ability and effective IQ will deteriorate. We may have an established expertise at work but for most of our time we make the minimum mental effort. It is a fallacy that IQ and mental capacity is inbuilt and unchanging. Like physical fitness, if you don't use it you will lose it!
As yet, this downward trend continues and the situation deteriorates with each year that passes. Ultimately, this could even spell the end of our free democracies, which require participants to have an aware and critical mind. Can anything be done about it?
Yes, for those that care, it is possible to 'get an education' even at an advanced age, and to build up the mental skills one had before or which were never properly developed.