Drowning in the Danube

  Jerome Shea       April 22, 2008      Weekend Wonk

So not long before E. D. Hirsch got his shorts in a bunch over the fact that the latest generation did not know the facts that they should know and therefore were in danger of becoming culturally illiterate, “Trivial Pursuit” hit the market and became an instant and enduring success. Is this a contradiction?

I suppose it depends on the questions (even if there is a gray area). Simply put, some facts matter and some do not, or, some are culturally important and some are not. Or maybe some have historical “reach” and some do not. I’d have a hard time telling you who plays for what baseball or football team right now and, frankly, I don’t think that such knowledge is ever going to be important in a “cultural literacy” sense (there is culture and then there is pop culture), although I could be proved wrong eventually. But I do know who Joe DiMaggio was (and that he was called “The Yankee Clipper”) and Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig (and why he is remembered so tragically). These facts, these identities, have stood the test of time. What about the in-field fly rule or “Broadway Joe” Namath, or the fact that Joe DiMaggio was briefly married to Marilyn Monroe? Borderline, I’d say, but we can agree to disagree. But when we get down to the name for those tips on your shoelaces or how many gargoyles there are on Notre Dame cathedral, I’d say we are definitely dealing in trivia. Such trivial “facts” are useful only on quiz shows or for friendly one-upmanship around the game board on a winter’s night.

Then there is specialized knowledge. As an English professor, I know what the “Great Vowel Shift” refers to and I can explain it in some detail. As well I should: it’s part of my job to know. But I don’t look down on my colleague in the psychology department because she is ignorant of that “fact.” (For one thing, it could cut both ways.) A friend suggests that a chemist probably knows the periodic table backward and forward, as he should. But cultural literacy, I would hold, asks only that any educated person should know what the periodic table is (a table of the elements according to their atomic weights). He should not be expected to know the atomic number and weight for, say, iridium.

So toward one end of a spectrum are facts that are specialized and toward the other end are facts that are uselessly arcane, real trivia. The stuff that most of us ought to know so that we can get along fairly efficiently in general conversation—cultural literacy stuff—lies somewhere in the middle with, again, boundaries that we can clumsily negotiate and adjust.

But then we come back to this love affair that we have always had with facts, how many little nuggets of knowledge you can cram into your memory banks and retrieve to impress your friends or perhaps earn serious money (is “earn” the right word?). Trivial Pursuit. Botticelli. Twenty Questions. “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” (when I was a lad it was “Twenty-One” and “The $64,000 Question”). Quiz shows—among the cheapest entertainment to produce—go back to the very earliest days of radio and, then, television. Of course, we play the drama to the hilt, with isolation booths, spooky music, flashing lights, ominously ticking timers, questions taken from a big safe flanked by armed security guards, and so forth. I admit it: for a while I was hooked on “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” Part of the fun, of course, was to try to answer the questions myself, to beat the experts, thus showing my love/hate relationship with trivia. There was something clean and primal about the satisfaction. These are small dragons, but the more of them you can slay the more heroic you are. Yes, I think that’s it: trivia is manageable and clear. Lord knows that the world is a mess and a dangerous jumble. You might have no better plan for victory in Iraq or what to do about global warming than the next frazzled fellow, but by golly you do know that the real title of “Whistler’s Mother” is “Arrangement in Gray and Black Number 1.” Surely that counts for something.

Doesn’t it?

Ken Jennings, all time champion “Jeopardy” winner, said graciously about his talent, “It’s related to intelligence [but] it doesn’t make you smart the way Stephen Hawking is smart….” Precisely.

Oh…and surely you know who Stephen Hawking is. Doesn’t everyone?

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