Thursday, July 13, 2006

Don't know much about a science book / Don't know much about the French I took

I watched Jeopardy the last two nights. How is it that the people who win so many thousands of dollars know everything about everything, except the things that YOU know? One of life's mysteries. 

This evening, the Final Jeopardy category was U. S. History. The "answer" was something along the lines of, "He was the Union commander at Bentonville, site of the last major Confederate offensive of the Civil War." The biggest surprise was that one of the three contestants actually got it right. The reigning champ wrote, "Who was Grant?" The next contestant wrote, "Who was Lee?" [groan] Finally, the last guy went with Sherman and earned a return trip.

This had me wondering whether the program staff steers clear of topics their contestants might specialize in, or whether it's just random. Occasionally, there will be a sports-related category, and invariably, only one of the three is comfortable with it, and runs the board by naming NBA teams, or famous Hockey players. But for some reason, contestants never seem to do well with Civil War clues. Often, none of them will even hit the buzzer. And these are people who have heads full of the most arcane science facts imaginable, can identify obscure composers without pausing to think, and remember the characters in novels they read in junior high.

Granted, naming the respective commanders at Bentonville is something even a lot of Civil War buffs could not do, but you'd think everyone would know Lee fought for the South. His birthday is still a holiday in some parts of the old Confederacy, for crying out loud.

Both nights, surprisingly, the final Jeopardy category was right in my wheelhouse. Tonight, it was the aforementioned Civil War question, and last night it was a combo clue involving geography and the NFL. The clue was (paraphrasing), "Of those states that have two NFL teams, this is the only one bordering on the Mississippi River."
It doesn't take a football fan long to bring up a mental map of the Mississippi River and immediately see flashing lights indicating Kansas City and St. Louis. I got that one faster than it would taken me to recall the pin number on my debit card. BUT, there was that little geographical twist -- you have to know where the Mississippi River is.

The two female contestants both guessed, "What is Minnesota." That's not unreasonable, if you're not a fan of pro football. There is a team there, on the Mississippi, and maybe they were thinking the Twin Cities each had a franchise. Then the lone male contestant's guess was revealed, on national television, taped for posterity: "What is Florida?"

Ouch! Come on, man! The Mississippi River? Florida? I can understand how people might get through all of their school years without committing to memory the na
mes of Civil War generals, other than two or three. Or how someone could be so focused on one period of history at the expense of others. But how does someone get to adulthood without a basic grasp ofat leastthe geography of their native land?

It's a personal mission of mine to ensure that my children will never be the ones who, in those horrifying surveys that make the news every so often, can't find Mexico on the map, or think Cuba is that island across the channel from Calais. I realize it's silly to project one's own interests onto the world at large, wondering why they don't share your enthusiasm for something (I don't get how someone can have no interest in history). And as long as I can remember, I have loved to scrutinize maps, globes, atlases. Really, what's better than
standing before a Raven Maps masterpiece on the wall, a cocktail in one hand, a magnifying glass in the other, and an hour to kill before kickoff?

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