I've been doing a lot of reading recently on nonverbal learning disorder (NLD). I have a few clients who fit the profile and are pretty impaired by it, and I know people personally who seem to have it to varying extents. In a nutshell, NLD is a neurological profile where an individual has superior verbal skills with nonverbal skills that are substantially limited in comparison. In Rondalyn Varney Whitney's book on NLDshe mentions that the number of people with NLD has grown tremendously in recent years. Whitney speculates that NLD is on the rise because children are not able to run and play unsupervised and instead spend too much time engaged in structured academic-like play and not enough time exploring and interacting.
A number of books I've read mention that NLD is most common in the upper-middle-class and upper-class demographics. Some books, although fewer, mention that the incidence in the United States is much higher than in other countries. I think that Whitney's theory about excessive structure in U.S. children's lives -- particularly affluent children's lives -- is definitely valid. I also think that, on a related note, the practices of the U.S. school system are responsible for the large number of young adults today who, although they may not have full-blown NLD, have very strong academic knowledge and a very noticeable lack of common sense.
There are three factors that are present in the U.S. school system to a much stronger extent than in European school systems and which I think contribute to individuals having NLD or NLD-like traits. (I use European school systems for comparison because this is the only other school system with which I am familiar and because the cultures are otherwise fairly similar in terms of children's daily lives.)
1. The school system in the U.S. is strongly influenced by fundamentalists who have been successful in preventing schools from teaching anything that may entail any sort of teaching of "values." This limits the extent to which class material and discussions can actually relate to modern society and students' lives.
2. The school system in the U.S. has responded to our realization that our graduates' academic skills are inferior by teaching skills earlier instead of more thoroughly or with more preparatory lessons, so that students are faced with lessons for which they are not developmentally ready. Students are forced to write before they have sufficient fine motor skills to do so naturally, and are taught to memorize arithmetic sums before they have the reasoning skills to understand what the operation actually means.
3. The school system in the U.S. is operating in a very litigious society where hands-on learning projects such as carpentry, cooking, or sports are considered to be too much of a liability until the upper grades.
Students also learn that, at least in the younger grades, approaches incorporating multiple intelligences or real-life skills are only used for students who need extra help. By the time students get to high school, this is ingrained, and students believe that the only useful part of school is academic coursework. In a typical high school, the courses that are numbered so as to count for college admissions are the ones that teach solely academic skills. I remember reading a college admissions guide that specifically said any class with "applied" in the title should not be taken and would count against me. Is it any wonder that we have so many college graduates who have passed calculus courses and don't understand how a checkbook works?
This phenomenon is even more notable in the area of courses that teach common sense such as social skills and safety. In a typical high school, any course about relationships or health or social and emotional issues is either a remedial course or is a course that is required for all students but doesn't count for anything, thereby is seen by students as useless and wasteful regardless of the content. My high school offered an English class called "Relationships," which entailed reading of (mostly contemporary) short stories and articles and discussing and writing papers examining the relationships among the characters. What a great opportunity for adolescents, who can always use a place to talk about interpersonal issues and who can really benefit from learning when a relationship is dysfunctional or abusive. This class was considered to be "not college preparatory material." Why not? My undergraduate college offered similar courses in the anthropology, philosophy and literature departments. My graduate university grants degrees in the study of interpersonal relationships. But unless you later pursue studies in these specific areas, a typical high school education will teach you that it is important to learn about courtly love but not to learn how relationships among modern common people work.
My high school also offered criminal justice courses, which were largely discussion-based and taught students about the law and how it affected them. While students could also pursue this interest further at the regional vocational center while still attending high school, the courses taught in my high school were not intended as preparation for any sort of career. These courses did not count for anything other than as an elective toward high school graduation and were also viewed as remedial classes recommended for students having a hard time passing enough classes to graduate. I can't tell you how many college graduates I have discussions with each day who could have really benefited from these classes. I speak with people all the time who think that being arrested makes a person a criminal or that it is illegal to express disagreement with the president. But since learning about the law is remedial, these college-bound folks were so lucky as to have learned instead about people being drowned or stoned or burned for being witches or adulterers. That's much more important than knowing the laws of the society in which we actually live, right?