Are you smarter than a 5th grader?

In the late 2000’s, the TV network Fox ran a game show called Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader? Not much of a departure from the conventional trivia show model, it involved a single contestant trying to answer questions taken from elementary school textbooks. The contestant was occasionally allowed to call for help from one of five “classmates,” who were school-aged cast members. And, of course, upon answering a question wrong, the contestant was required to admit that they are “not smarter than a 5th grader.”

The show was funny — in that magical way that satire lets us laugh about things that would make us uncomfortable if discussed soberly. It was funny because we knew that those contestants, who were apparently dumber than rocks on the show, would go back to their lives and work for a living wage, budget their earnings, take care of their families, cook healthy meals, plan parties and vacations, and do all the other things necessary for independent living — all things which 5th graders are generally unable to do.

It was funny because it told us what we all knew but couldn’t say, that our values are backwards, that it’s ridiculous to define intelligence as a quality that is not only unecessary for competence but which rarely overlaps with competence, that is, people get less smart as they get more competent.

It was funny because we heard the same complaint from every school child — “Why do we have to learn this?” And we never had an answer to that question. It was funny because it was true. Why, indeed, do we have to learn it? If I’m just going to forget it in a few years, like Mom and Dad did, why go through all the trouble of memorizing it?

It wasn’t funny to us kids. It made us feel good about ourselves, that we were “smart,” smarter than our parents! We wanted and needed that validation. We needed it, so we tried to ignore the nagging contradiction —  tried to not realize what a part of us was always trying to realize, that we were never really smart, it was just a game show — a trivia show — that this whole school thing was a trivia show and the teachers were the audience and the grand prize was an A+, and that once the show was over we would leave the studio and go out into the real world, where the trivia doesn’t matter but you can still use the prize to buy stuff.

I think we were able to laugh at that show because we never believed we could do anything about the problem. “Yeah,” we would chuckle, “what a crazy screwed-up culture we have!” We were able to laugh because nobody was seriously asking us to do anything about it.

The first time anybody suggested to me seriously that maybe kids don’t need to learn all that stuff, it made me deeply uncomfortable. Now you are talking about messing with a system that’s older than anyone alive. You are talking about doing open-heart surgery on this guy who is obviously sick but you’ve never been to medical school have you? It’s not funny anymore. People’s lives are at stake.

Let me say it then: Kids don’t need to learn all that stuff. I’m only telling you it’s okay to confront those contradictions you have always known were there. Kids don’t have to learn trivia to be successful in life. There are real, legitimate schools where kids grow all the way up without being taught any trivia, and those kids come out competent at living.

If this makes you too uncomfortable, then go on laughing. But if you’re ready to confront the contradictions, to challenge an old, broken system, you know where to find us.

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