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Trivial pursuit

There’s a YouTube video going around online right now – maybe you’ve seen it – the one where a bunch of high school students are asked various questions. Here are the questions:

  • What’s the capital of Washington (their home state)?
  • Name one Democratic candidate for President in the 2012 elections.
  • Who is the Vice President?
  • What war was the one in which our country won its independence?
  • What countries border our country?
  • Name a country that starts with the letter “U”.
  • How many stars are our country’s flag? Why?

The teens struggled, guessed, and sheepishly realized they didn’t know. Many of their answers were mind-boggling wrong (for the record, Bin Laden is not the Vice President of the US). If you read the comments, many people posted snarky condemnations and predicted dire futures for these teens (ironically, the same dire consequences that were hurled at our kids online for not going to school – go figure!). As the video is shared and “liked” all over Facebook, etc., I’m sure most parents wonder how their own kids would do with these same questions and then quizzed them.

We did.

Not because we were worried that our kids would look just as clueless as these poor kids did (who, I’m certain, were included in the video specifically because of their inability to answer), but because we were curious to see if our kids, simply by living their lives free to spend their time as they wish, picked up these facts.

The answer is yes.

My kids, ages 15 and 17, knew all the answers except for the capital of Washington; however they did know the capital of their own home state (until 3 months ago): Boston. Remember – this was the ONLY time they have ever been quizzed about these facts and they have never been made to study about any of these things at any time.

So, happy dance time, right? At least my kids did better than those kids, huh?


I’m glad my kids are informed about the world around them, that they know some basic political, geographical and historical information and yet…how much of this really matters. I mean REALLY matters. How do we know which bits and pieces of information – trivia – matter in the long run? When does something pass from “it’s good to know this” to “it’s important to know this” to “you MUST know this”? I think we presume too many facts to be in the MUST category.

I do believe that some of it is important from the standpoint of being an informed member of society. I do think it’s good when people know the names of the President and Vice President, but where do we stop? Should they know the names of the members of the Cabinet? The Supreme Court? Should they know all the names of their state reps and senators? And I mean KNOW – right off the top of your head, no hesitation. When does knowing how to find the information, within a reasonable amount of time, matter more than being able to instantly retrieve the information from memory?

Someone once told me that everyone should know all of the state capitals. Why? What possible reason would most people need to know that? The answer, obviously, is they don’t. Any given person’s expertise is someone else’s possibly interesting trivia, easily forgotten after the conversation ends or something else comes along. What’s important for me to know about, as I live my life and pursue my projects, is not going to be completely the same as what’s important for you.

Here’s the thing – we live in an information deluge. Finding out the state capital of Wyoming, or the name of your state representative, or the name of the author of that book you read last year and really liked, or what’s the fastest route to get from western North Carolina to central Florida – all of this – is easily found through reliable sources.

Meanwhile, most of us have no clue how to change our own oil, or safely preserve food, or handle minor home maintenance and repairs. Self-sufficiency is low demand because it isn’t on the standardized tests. So schools trivialize  kids’ educations with trivia. They make the kids spend ridiculous amounts of time studying things they are not currently interested in, all in the name of giving them a well-rounded education, rather than let them explore the world around them at their own pace, in their own way. Who looks foolish now?

Photo by Het Leven. Two nannies in an infant school. The Netherlands, Schiedam, 1921.