This exam for 8th graders from 1895 is making the rounds.
In summary, my guess is that most college graduates today would not be able to pass the exam.
I remember a similar example from The Bell Curve.
I can think of two ways to explain why modern college graduates aren’t able to answer questions that 8th graders from 1895 could:
1) people are now dumber; and
2) education has been democratized (i.e. made mediocre) – in other words, we now educate everybody, whereas in the past we educated only the intelligent.
I think both of these answers are partially correct. It’s true that education used to be geared toward the intelligent. Some small sub-set of 8th graders are capable of learning these more complex things. Instead of bringing the best and the brightest up to their maximum potential level of knowledge, we have now decided that it is more important to educate everyone to the same level of mediocrity. Behold, Democracy! Personally, I think this decision will, in time, come to be seen as the beginning of the end for America.
Also, this phenomenon can be seen in more than just old tests. If you read old books, you will consistently encounter writing that is much better than the writing found in modern books and that is geared toward a much more intelligent readership.
For these reasons, I don’t believe that the Flynn Effect is actually measuring increases in intelligence.