Slouching toward Jeopardy!, part 12: The Trivia Awakening

Jeopardy! wasn’t the only part of the trivia subculture I experienced in 2016.  In June, Chris, Len and Lisa took me along to the local sitting of the World Quizzing Championships, a two-hour pen-and-paper test that was humbling in the breadth of its reference, but also hugely fun to take–the two hours flew by.

In August, egged on by Jill, the second runner-up in the tournament, and by Jim, a writer and King Trivia quizmaster I met through Chris and Len, I went to the grandly titled Trivia Championships of North America (TCONA), an annual event in Las Vegas (in August!), where I played on a Quiz Bowl team and in a couple of other competitions with Kaberi (who’d finished the tournament as the first runner-up, second only to Jason).  Except for It’s Academic, I’d never done anything remotely like Quiz Bowl, and after all my Jeopardy! practice, in which you have to wait for Alex to finish asking the question, I was startled to find how fast people rang in, rather like the Frantics episode spoofing Reach for the Top.

Other games were more my speed–Last Quizzer Standing, the TCONA edition of the O’Brien’s Pub Quiz, and Learned League Live, a live version of the venerable online trivia league, which I also began playing in the fall, egged on by several of the Teachers Tournament players, and navigating the rookie season alongside others.

As I’ve descended farther into the subculture, and particularly as I’ve met or simply observed some people whose knowledge is truly astounding, I’ve been thinking about the relationship of “knowing trivia” to “being an educated person.”  I’m sure I’m not the only one who worries that our students, and people in general, will absorb a false equivalency in which “knowing trivia” equals “being smart,” whatever that is.  What I’d really like them to know instead:

  1. Some people’s brains naturally do a really good job of seizing, cataloguing, retaining, and retrieving information.  People who are interested in improving their abilities in these areas can do so. The ability to use this information intelligently is separate.
  2. Labeling a piece of information “trivia” is not an absolute judgment, rather in the way that a medication’s “side effects” are really just effects.  There are many contexts in which Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar is not trivial.  However, in a category titled BRITISH NICKNAMES (“The Hero of Trafalgar”) or JUST A WORD BEFORE GOING (At Trafalgar he reportedly said, “Thank God I have done my duty” and then expired), it is.
  3. When “trivia people” are very bright and interesting to talk to, it is not because they have acquired a lot of facts; it’s because they are the kind of people who have the ability to become interested in almost anything, which is what led them to acquire a lot of facts in the first place.
  4. What I most want to preserve and nourish in my students is this ability to become interested.  Sometimes it comes through the head, sometimes through the heart, but eventually you need both in order to learn.

It’s time for me to go and watch the first night of the 2017 Teachers Tournament, so I’ll leave the last word to Edith Hamilton, classicist and author of Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes.  She made this observation to the Saturday Evening Post, and a past colleague kindly shared it with me:

It has always seemed strange to me that in our endless discussions about education so little stress is laid upon the pleasure of becoming an educated person, the enormous interest it adds to life.  To be able to be caught up in the world of thought–that is to be educated.





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