Op/Education #2: Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?

Even though I’ve been writing a lot about personal development recently, I’ll also continue to write about education. One of my goals for this spring is to reflect not only my personal experience with education, but also on the larger system that gave rise to this experience. The Op/Education series will share education-related news and media, as well as a variety of schools and programs, and ask for your opinions about them.

People have recommended that I watch the show “Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?” because of its connection to Reschool Yourself. Here’s Wikipedia’s description of the show:

5th Grader games are played by a single contestant, who attempts to answer ten questions (plus a final bonus question). Content is taken from elementary school textbooks, two from each grade level from first to fifth. Each correct answer increases the amount of money the player banks; a maximum cash prize of US$1,000,000 can be won. Along the way, the player can be assisted by a “classmate”, one of five school-age cast members, in answering the questions. Notably, upon getting an answer incorrect or deciding to prematurely end the game, the contestant must state that they are not smarter than a 5th grader.

The clip above features American Idol competitor and country music artist Kellie Pickler as a contestant on “Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?” What disturbs me most is not that she’s never heard of Budapest. Each of us, although we’d like to think that our particular body of knowledge defines what it means to be intelligent, has blind spots and gaps in our knowledge. Often our ignorance results from lack of exposure or interest, and we develop all kinds of strategies for hiding this ignorance from others (see my post on Impostor’s Syndrome). I don’t think you have to know the capital of Malaysia or Madagascar to be a smart person. It’s more important to know where to find those answers when the need arises, and to feel humbled by not knowing them.

What disturbs me is that Pickler seems to revel in her ignorance. She seems to show it off, taking pleasure in reinforcing stereotypes of the dumb blonde and even dumber American: “Isn’t it funny that I’m famous even though I couldn’t pass a fifth grade geography test?” Host Jeff Foxworthy does his own part to perpetuate stereotypes of pigheaded women and sexist southern men. This is the face that Pickler and Foxworthy, as American celebrities and thus representatives, choose to show to the public.

The YouTube member who posted the video is Hungarian and writes that Pickler “thinks Europe is a country and french is the official language here.….The peak of american education. She propably [sic] wouldn’t be able to pass the 3rd grade here.” The clip has had over 3,600,000 viewers, and other versions of the same clip have had hundreds of thousands more. Flaunting our pride in how much we don’t know, and how successful we can become in spite of it, is not doing Americans any favors with the rest of the world.

Mark Slouka puts the matter this way in the February issue of Harper’s Magazine (email me for the full article):

What we need to talk about, what someone needs to talk about, particularly now, is our ever-deepening ignorance (of politics, of foreign languages, of history, of science, of current affairs, of pretty much everything) and not just our ignorance but our complacency in the face of it, our growing fondness for it. A generation ago the proof of our foolishness, held up to our faces, might still have elicited some redeeming twinge of shame—no longer. Today, across vast swaths of the republic, it amuses and comforts us. We’re deeply loyal to it. Ignorance gives us a sense of community; it confers citizenship; our representatives either share it or bow down to it or risk our wrath.

Seen from a sufficient distance (a decade abroad, for example), or viewed through a protective filter, like film, or alcohol, there can be something almost endearing about it. It can appear quaint, part of our foolish-but- authentic, naive-yet-sincere, rough-hewn spirit. Up close and personal, unromanticized and unfiltered, it’s another thing entirely. In the flesh, barking from the electronic pulpit or braying back from the audience, our ignorance can be sobering. We don’t know. Or much care. Or care to know.

Just as we each have a unique type of intelligence and body of knowledge, we each have our own unique brand of ignorance. It’s less important to be smarter than a 5th grader (e.g. memorize an arbitrary selection of facts) than to have an intellectual humility and ongoing desire to learn more — an awareness of the gaps in our knowledge and an effort to close them.

And please. Never, ever say, as Kellie Pickler did before millions of viewers around the world, “I’m listenin’ to what you’re sayin’, but I only hear what I want to.”

Thanks to Dale Li for sending the clip, and to Brendan Riley for the Harper’s article.


Your Two Cents: Leave a Comment!

What do you think could help people become more aware of what they don’t know, and more humble about it?

What could fuel their curiosity to know more?

Comments (4)

  1. janine

    great post.

    I’m amazed at how terrible the content of that clip was. It’s very painful to think what the rest of the world sees as “American” through trash tv. I wish people across the great wide world would watch Anthony Bourdain instead. At least he’s humble, intelligent, and has a great sense of humor about how people view Americans.


  2. Melia

    I love Anthony Bourdain and am stunned by how willing he is to try the foods Americans (including myself) feel queasy just thinking about.

    I hope that Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are popular around the world, because they are two people who combine a sharp political awareness with cleverness and humility. And their humor isn’t mean-spirited.

  3. Siobhan

    “Is France a country?”
    Oh sweet mother of …. Fair enough her not knowing European capitals, but not knowing if FRANCE is a COUNTRY?! I seriously got a chill.

  4. Melia

    Yeah, and this is who the American media choose to put on TV. Not our best spokesperson, wouldn’t ya say?


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