Watching the quiz show Jeopardy is a good way to track the shift in general knowledge that is taking place in our culture.
My school years were in the 1950s. In grade school we were still required to memorize poems, drill the conjugations of irregular verbs, practice handwriting, and learn spelling rules.
In junior high we studied our first Shakespeare play: Julius Caesar. I can still remember most of Mark Antony’s speech at Caesar’s funeral—and a lot of smaller selections that we were required to memorize.
In high school we studied three more of the plays: As You Like It, Romeo and Juliet, and Macbeth. I can still recite some of those speeches and couplets as well.
I remember studying A Tale of Two Cities in tenth grade and falling in love with Sydney Carton. We were required to give a book report every six weeks. We were given a list of “good books” from which to choose. And we couldn’t get away with pretending to have read them. The English teachers always seemed to know what questions to ask that couldn’t be answered on the strength of a book jacket blurb or a movie version. And we were required to do a certain amount of reading during the summer.
High school is when I read Moby Dick for the first time and memorized–my own idea–the chapter called “The Lee Shore.” It’s a short chapter to be sure, but it made such an impression on me that I wanted to make the words my own. It appealed to my teen angst. And “Invictus.” And the end of Donne’s sermon with the “No man is an island” bit. Back then, the school literature anthologies still had lots of good stuff in them.
I can’t remember if it was in my own time or on class time, but I became acquainted with both the Iliad and the Odyssey somewhere along the way. I left high school knowing about the characters in them: Achilles, Hector, Ajax, King Priam, Cassandra, Odysseus, Athena, Mentor, Telemachus, and so on and on. My friends and I were even mean enough to dub a rather unattractive boy–behind his back of course—Cyclops.
Clearly I had a literary bent even back then, but I remember things I learned in classes other than English. I learned that the monk Mendel discovered genetics by studying peas. I knew about Luther launching the Reformation by nailing his 95 theses to the church door at Wittenberg, about the Dreyfus Affair, and the Trail of Tears and how that bad man Andrew Jackson declared, “Mr. Marshall has made his decision. Now let him enforce it!” (Note Oriano’s correction to this purported quotation in the comments.)
So what has all this to do with Jeopardy?
When I watch Jeopardy, I’m often surprised at the questions none of the contestants can answer.
Trivia games reflect a generational shift. General knowledge that was considered important in the 1950s is no longer being taught. Or if it is, young people are not learning it. They’re learning other things. Some days I don’t much enjoy Jeopardy because on those days I don’t know many of the answers. For example, teenagers snap out answers on math, geometry, astronomy, and chemistry, while I sit there without a clue. Adult contestants who can’t recognize a quotation from Gone With the Wind, or a reference to the Witch of Endor, know all the answers when it comes to HBO series, celebrity divorces, and American Idol. Yesterday, three contestants in their late thirties or early forties went blank on King Priam and Androcles and the Lion, but were able to answer questions about rock stars that left me in the dust.
It seems very sad to me that children aren’t being introduced to the literature, characters, and ideas that still illuminate my existence. I bewail the changes, but, like King Canute, I cherish no illusions about anyone’s ability to command the tide. I’ll probably keep sharing what I think is important on my websites, but I’m beginning to feel that we’ve already entered an age in which the only books that matter are how-to books and exposés, and the only valued ideas are in the realms of science, technology, and business.
As Dizzy Gillespie put it, “Each age has its own shit.”