I am sitting at my parents house where everyone is vaguely paying attention to the Dallas/Philly game on Fox when a promo for a new game show called Our Little Genius. The show is produced by the people behind Survivor and Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader. The idea is simple and formulaic: children, between the age of 6 and 12, compete in a trivia contest.
This show, however, has a slight twist. The parents of the child can stop the game at any time and take the money. But that's not it. Parents can also call on "A panel of leading adult experts" - ranging from Ivy League professors to renowned doctors to award-winning scientists - to see how they performed when answering the same questions." In other words, the show is a contest between kids who have memorized trivia and adults who spend their lives tackling complex issues. The show's promos feature a shot of three well dressed men acting embarrassed-- presumably because the 10 year-old kid could list of a bunch of vice presidents and they could not. I do not think there is anything intrinsically wrong with this sort of show, however, because, after all, I was a child trivia nerd.
What pisses me off is how the show equates trivia and knowledge. Both trivia and knowledge are valid categories. There is nothing wrong with learning all of the minutia about a given subject. Trivial knowledge is a fundamental component of being a nerd. I know far more about television shows like Battlestar Galactica, 24, and The Simpsons and I am surprisingly good at early to mid 80s editions of Trivial Pursuit. The trivia is nothing more than the memorization of facts on a subject. The research I did at Hanover and Bowling Green - or anything that people who work in higher education do - relies on the analysis of "trivia" more than the trivia itself. What does it mean that more Republican vice-presidents went on to become president than Democratic vice-presidents? It is questions like that which the simple memorization of trivia cannot answer. It is also the kind of thing that cannot not fit comfortably into a quiz show format. The Ivy Leaguers and award-winning scientists have dedicated their lives to tackling the most complex issues of our time.
What we end up getting is a television show designed around a false equivocation: kids who memorize trivia are somehow equally as intelligent as adults who tackle complex issues. When I tell people that I have a Master's Degree in Popular Culture they typically assume that means I gained a degree in memorizing obscure facts about the 7th season of The Simpsons. Shows like Our Little Genius only work to reinforce an already negative perception of higher education specifically, as well as intelligent people in general. I am sure the "Ivy League professors to renowned doctors to award-winning scientists" are all participating because they know they would have a good time (and we can assume that they were paid well). While working in higher education, I was constantly confronted with questions about my authority to teach or forced to justify my research. There is nothing wrong with having the explain why an analysis of terrorism in contemporary popular fiction was important. The problem arose when talking to people could not understand why teaching their children to think critically about the media is necessary. Questions like, "How is writing a paper about magazine ads going to help me get a job?" were a constant uphill battle in the classroom. The students (and their parents) could not understand how the skills we were teaching in "Introduction to Popular Culture" could be applied outside the class room.
The show, in the end, degrades the importance of education-- real education. Introduction of nationwide standardized gateway testing has shifted education from analysis and knowledge to a repetition of facts. Our Little Genius reenforces the idea that the parroting of facts is what is important. For decades this country has degraded 'intellectuals.' There is a systemic problem in connecting what one does in the classroom and how those skills can be applied after school. The only thing that matters at this point in education now is to simply pass basic tests. Parents watching the show will be further convinced there is nothing wrong with the education system. We will all be left with another generation of kids who can barely read and definitely cannot think critically about the world around them.
UPDATE: It turns out that I was not the only person who took issue with Our Little Genius. Variety is reporting that FOX is pulling the show and reshooting episodes because "there was an issue with how some information was relayed to contestants during the pre-production" of the show." In other words, kids may of been fed answers.