Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Your Government Schools on Display

Tuesday is Idol night at the Spook household, a time I normally devote to the computer, running errands, or watching something else on the TV in the bedroom. However, Mrs. Spook, Miss K (our eldest daughter) and The Princess (our granddaughter) are loyal Idol viewers and whenever I pass through the den, they're ready to pass on the latest news from that dreadful pop singing competition. From what I can gather, the male contestants performed last night, and the favorite appears to be a Justin Timberlake clone from Virginia. Just what America needs.

But I digress. I returned to the den at the end of Idol last night, just in time to catch the latest Fox offering, a game show called Are You Smarter Than A Fifth Grader? As its name implies, the show's premise is simple: adult contestants win money by answering questions drawn from elementary school textbooks. The adults compete against a "class" of fifth graders who answer the same questions. To make it easier for the grown-ups, they are allowed to select one of the fifth graders as their partner, and they can even "cheat" (up to three times in a game) by copying the kid's answer, or substituting it for their own.

I don't think Fox or the show's producers envisioned the show as an indictment of our government schools, but that's what it may prove to be. Consider the first contestant on the premier episode; a 40-year-old man named Seth, identified as a UCLA grad with a history degree, and a 3.0 undergraduate G.P.A. According to a brief blurb flashed on the screen, Seth later went to law school, although it's a bit frightening to think that he might have graduated and is actually a member of the bar. Based on his performance last night, I'd say that Seth isn't exactly the sharpest tool in the shed, and that 3.0 at UCLA was apparently the result of grade inflation, not scholarship.

Here are two of the three questions Seth faced last night, before opting to take his winnings and "drop out of school." He managed to earn $5,000 by relying on the answers from his fifth grade partners; without them, Seth would have walked away without a dime.

1. In what month do we celebrate Columbus Day (Seth's answer: September)

2. Who was the first President to be impeached (Seth's answer: John Quincy Adams--and remember, the contestant has a degree in history).

The correct answers (for those who actually need them) are at the end of this post. For good measure, I'll even toss in a bonus "animal science" question, also posed on last night's show:

3. True or False: Polar bears often feed on penguins.

The second contestant, a 27-year-old computer consultant named Lakeisha, fared slightly better, correctly naming the "Mayflower" as the ship that carried the Pilgrims to the New World. However, she needed help in identifying what "REM" stands for (the sleep cycle, not the rock band). A clip from tonight's show suggests that she's also a little confused about the definition of a trapezoid.

I'm happy to report that none of the fifth graders on the show had any difficulty with these questions, although they're clearly very bright--and telegenic. The adults, on the other hand, give you plenty of reason for concern. Forget the old saw about "forgetting" much of what we learned in grade school with the passage of time. Most of the questions asked last night covered basic knowledge--stuff every American should know, or be able to reason out on their own. Clearly, the contestants on display last night aren't candidates for Mensa membership, but they're not mentally impaired, either. Distressingly, they are the same people who vote in Presidential elections, and accept An Inconvenient Truth as scientific gospel.

Moreover, the contestants I saw seem to fit a demographic profile (late Baby Boombers/Early Generation X) that endured some of the most disastrous experiments in public school education, and the shift from learning to indoctrination at the university level. Watching Seth and Lakeisha last night, you got to wonder if they ever learned this stuff, or spent more time in self-esteem classes, learning to feel good about themselves. Only in America are kids encouraged to be proud about how little they know, and as adults, display their ignorance on national TV.

And finally, the answers:

1. Columbus Day is celebrated in October.

2. Andrew Johnson was the first President to be impeached.

3. Polar Bears live in the Arctic region, while most penguins reside in Antarctica, Argentina and New Zealand--the opposite end of the earth, for those who rode the short bus. So the odds of a bear feasting on a penguin are approximately, zero.

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