Are You Smarter Than A 5th Grader?

Fox TV show doesn’t get it

The Fox Broadcasting game show Are You Smarter Than A 5th Grader? last February delivered the highest viewership for a series premiere on any network in nearly nine years, according to preliminary data released by Nielsen Media Research.

“Name the god who raised the storm that sent Odysseus over the side.” The adult contestant starts to perspire, then makes self-deprecating remarks, only to be interrupted by the game-show host: “Can’t quite remember—well cheat: ask a 5th grader.” The child’s response is…“Poseidon.” “She’s right—and you’re richer by $250,000! Now, for half a million dollars: “Do polar bears eat penguins?”

The first question is my own; the sequence and second question are taken from the Fox game show I watched at the behest of Education Next. I cannot do better than quote the admirably sober summary of the show in Wikipedia:

Content is taken from elementary school textbooks, two from each grade level between first and fifth. Each correct answer increases the amount of money the player banks; a maximum cash prize of $1,000,000 can be won. Along the way, the player can be assisted by a “classmate,” one of five cast members (who are fifth grade students), in answering the questions.

A search on Google indicates that across the country, 5th graders regard it as hilarious to watch their parents squirm: Quick—what is the most common element in the earth’s atmosphere? Oxygen? Wrong! (I leave it to any embarrassed readers to ask the nearest child for the correct answer.)

The reason adults can embarrass themselves in these quiz shows has less to do with their schooling than the fact that most have not used 5th-grade facts in many years. In response to a report from Diane Ravitch and Chester Finn that most American 17-year-olds have deep deficits in historical knowledge, Benjamin Barber sardonically proposed a multiple-choice test for 47-year-olds: his point was that both we and our teenage children would do well on items of immediate social, cultural, and economic relevance and poorly on the rest. A sample: “Book publishers are financially rewarded today for publishing (a) cookbooks (b) cat books (c) how-to books (d) popular potboilers (e) critical editions of Immanuel Kant’s early writings. For extra credit, name the ten living poets who most influenced your life, and recite a favorite stanza. Well, then, never mind the stanza, just name the poets. Okay, not ten, just five. Two? So, who’s your favorite running back?”

To be educated is not to win a contest for remembering factoids. The Fox show’s banal humor hides the sad truth that our children are too often deprived of the experience of immersing themselves, losing themselves in creations of complexity, imagination, and beauty. Knowing that Poseidon was a god in ancient Greek literature is surely useless in promoting economic well-being or the capacity to participate in civic life. The same is true of having studied this passage from Homer:

Poseidon, the earth-shaker, made to rise up a great wave, dread and grievous, arching over from above, and drove it upon him. And as when a strong wind tosses a heap of straw that is dry, and some it scatters here, some there, even so the wave scattered the long timbers of the raft.

And then recognizing in these lines from Virgil a lovely yet self-consciously derivative evocation:

Baleful Juno in her sleepless rage [summoned] a howling gust from due north [that] took the sail aback and lifted wave top from heaven, oars were snapped in two…over her flank and deck a mountain of grey sea crashed in tons.

But to have these verses as constant companions is to know something a 5th grader does not: to hold beauty in the mind, and to swirl it in the glass of delight.

-David Steiner is dean of the School of Education at Hunter College, CUNY. He is former director of arts education at the National Endowment for the Arts in Washington, D.C.

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