The television game show is a format that never seems to go away. Just when you thought it was permanently relegated to the daytime daypart, Who Wants to be a Millionaire brought it back to primetime. Comedian Howie Mandel recently resurrected his own career with an NBC game show called Deal or No Deal and now Jeff Foxworthy is getting in on the action on FOX with his show Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader? Taking initial advantage of a cushy time slot after American Idol, Are You Smarter is turning in high ratings for being such a young show.
Two things work in favor of Are You Smarter: seemingly easy questions and kids that know all the answers. The premise of the show is simple: a college-graduate contestant tries to answer elementary questions about subjects such as astronomy, biology, reading or math on his or her way to winning one million dollars. Contestants can get help from a pint-sized cadre of fifth-grade students that sit off to the side in a classroom of sorts. Most, if not all, of the adult participants have left the show with less than $100,000 in winnings for their grade-school efforts. One final kick in the nether-regions is administered by Foxworthy as they begin their walk of shame offstage. He makes them fulfill the promise that they made if they lost by looking into the camera and telling America that “I am not smarter than a fifth-grader.” Network television at its best.
What makes Are You Smarter something worth commenting on is its definition of “smart.” I have often bristled at the modern notion of “smart” being the ability to rattle off a bunch of facts. Typically we think of “smart” people as being good at Trivial Pursuit and Jeopardy. There’s nothing quite like being able to name all the US presidents in order to impress your friends and colleagues at a dinner party. They’ll probably even call you “smart.” But you’re not. At least, you’re not simply smart because you know this useless string of information; you’re just a well-trained human parrot. Now if you can elaborate on each president and why he was effective or not with all the political and historical pressures that were at play during their terms of office and how this affected the direction of the country as a whole and why that is significant for us today, then yes, you might be smart. You see, I believe Albert Einstein was correct when he said that memorizing things that can easily be looked up was a waste of time and energy. Whether or not he actually said this is debatable, but a real quote from him goes like this: “Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school.” In other words, Einstein understood that intelligence—being smart—is not measured in the ability to recall facts, it is in the ability to put those facts into their proper context. And this is precisely opposite from how public schools—which “educate” the vast majority of our children in this country—go about teaching their students.
It is important to remember that the Bible, the infallible example for professing Christians, is a narrative first and foremost. If God had merely meant for us to understand a few propositions about the world and His interaction with it, the Bible could have been a few short chapters. While the propositional truth that it contains is vitally important and foundational, the teaching style of the Bible is contextual. If the Bible were being written today by modern historians, it would be filled with dates, names, and places that have little or nothing to do with the main reason for remembering such events. The narrative is what ties the events and the facts together. The facts themselves serve little purpose without the grander context of the main story. How often have we bought into this method ourselves and taught our children “memory verses” in Sunday School that they can offer back to us at the tip of a hat, yet they still don’t have a clue what the verse itself means in the greater context of surrounding verses and chapters? John 3:16 is the classic example of a verse that has been ripped from its natural habitat and put on display in football and baseball stadiums the world over as an evangelistic prop. How many people can recite this verse and remain clueless to what it actually means in the larger context of Jesus’ late-night discussion of the two births with Nicodemus? We may know the “facts,” but we’re no “smarter” for it.
It is rather convenient then for FOX and Foxworthy to capitalize on this shortfall of the American education establishment. Eight or nine years are spent cramming unrelated facts into the brains of its subjects only to be regurgitated onto a test paper and forgotten. The next three years at the high school level further reinforce this disconnect by finally introducing the narrative to the students, the only absolute of humanistic education: that “truth” is relative. Diversity, not university. By the time the student graduates from a highly esteemed college somewhere, this one absolute has been so ingrained and hammered into him that fifth-grade facts are something of the dimly-lit mental past and certainly of no tangible good in a society that demands specialization, not generalization. This is the paradox of the modern education system–what Allan Bloom in 1987 referred to as The Closing of the American Mind. Not closed-minded because we are so set in our ways and sure that we are right but closed-minded because we are so open-minded that nothing means anything anymore. It’s not that you and I must come to terms by agreeing to disagree, Bloom argued that we must disagree in order to agree; relative truth demands it. Or as G.K. Chesterton put it at the turn of the 20th century: “The purpose of Compulsory Education is to deprive the common people of their commonsense.” FOX and Foxworthy would agree.