18 March 2007

Using Kids Badly

A.D. Freudenheim, The Editor

The new television game show “Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader” is clever and witty, and its success in the ratings bolsters this point. But, as with past game show / reality TV exercises such as “Are You Hot? The Search for America’s Sexiest People”, this new series rather misses the point, not to mention a great opportunity. The producers should have taken advantage of the less-sullied minds of today’s fifth graders to ask questions that will really challenge the contestants, and American audiences broadly: to learn more about the world, to decipher the mysteries of life, and to evaluate the moral and ethical questions that kids so often see with a clarity unavailable to adults.

Imagine for a moment, while I offer three examples...

  • Instead of asking “How many cups are there in 8 gallons?”, participants might have been asked “How many Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) were found in Iraq?”

  • Don’t bother with “What year was Abraham Lincoln first elected?” Move directly on to “In which recent election were ballots in many states not properly counted?”

  • Why worry about “Which geological period are we currently in?” when rapid climate change may hasten the arrival of the next one. Perhaps the question posed should be “Which nation produces the most carbon dioxide?” or even “Should global warming be of concern to America?”

The idea that Americans have a problem with a very basic level of “literacy” is hardly new. Our public school system was (once) pioneering, driven by the belief that education is critical to the success of the nation. We have wavered since then, creating systems that don’t work, or work quite poorly. Many critics have also achieved great fame (and, likely, small fortunes) by establishing the scope of how much we don’t know and trying, in one way or another, to remedy the problem. Bully for them, though it seems rather more difficult to measure subsequent improvement, despite the “information age”in which we allegedly live.

Alas, Fox’s new TV show does not do much to help. At a time when we have a deeply incurious, anti-intellectual president, a four-year war with no end in sight, a Congress firmly intent on doing nothing (while looking very busy) until the next election, presidential candidates who lack either a sense of direction or, simply, common sense, and a population that seems increasingly less able to distinguish between Britney and Brittany, we ought at least to put the wisdom of our children to better use. Either that, or get them off of television and outside for some exercise – which might address another of our “growingproblems.


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