Is general knowledge trivial?

Back in the 1980s, a board game called “Trivial Pursuit” became all the rage. The trivia that was pursued in that game was general knowledge. What is the capital of Colombia? Which is the longest running soap on British television? Who sculpted the Medici Tombs in Florence? What is measured in units of Amperes? Which team won the first World Cup in football? Who was the Greek goddess of love and beauty? And so on. The sciences and the arts, history and geography, sports and entertainment, the erudite and the populist – they were all indiscriminately rolled into one long series of questions and answers, into questions that had answers, into questions that could easily be asked and answers that could easily be expressed. It was all great fun. It still is. But nonetheless, it is, the creators of the game claimed, trivial. Sports or sciences, rivers or mountains, soaps or Shakespeare – it’s all ultimately trivia: none of it really matters

Of course, this is correct up to a point. When the entire spectrum of human knowledge is reduced to a series of simple questions and answers, what can it be other than trivial? We are told of those who excel in this sort of thing because they have spent a long time mindlessly memorising an awful lot of facts by rote – the dates of British kings and queens, the lengths of the world’s great rivers, the capitals of the American states, and so on. Such people are often derided as “anoraks” – usually by those who would themselves take great offence if anyone were to look down on their harmless pleasures. But be that as it may, we may concede, I think, that memorising vast amounts of facts merely to be able to reel them off in pub quizzes is trivial, no matter how enjoyable it may be for those who do it. But while reducing general knowledge to a series of questions and answers may quite rightly be considered trivial, I remain unconvinced that general knowledge itself is trivial. Far from it. For, leaving aside those who simply memorize facts merely for the sake of it, possession of a good general knowledge is generally indicative of an intellectual curiosity, a desire to know about the various aspects of this fascinating world that we inhabit. And, conversely, a lack of general knowledge indicates the opposite – a lack of intellectual curiosity, an indifference. And neither of these polar opposites is, it seems to me, trivial

Of course, as ever, there’s too much for any one person to know. My own general knowledge is not, I think, too bad, but what I may happen to know is of minuscule proportions when set against all that I really should know, but don’t. My academic background is science, but ask me about … oh, I don’t know … ask me about, say, the structure of Planet Earth, and my ignorance will be apparent within seconds. I know there’s this thing called the core – which is, unsurprisingly, at the centre; and the thin, upper layer at the top is called the crust; and that, in between, there’s the mantle; and then there are these things called  … what are they called again? Ah yes … these things called tectonic plates, which move around a bit and cause earthquakes; and … er … that’s about it, really. No, really – that’s about it: that’s as far as my knowledge extends on this matter. Now, I am by no means proud of my ignorance in these and in other subjects: quite the contrary. But if I were to be asked a question on this subject in a general knowledge quiz, I would be likely not to know the answer. But if someone were to be able to answer questions on this subject – perhaps, even, quite difficult questions on this subject – then that ability to answer such questions would indicate to me not mere mechanical memorising of facts, but a knowledge of these important matters born of an intellectual curiosity. And it is to do all of us an injustice to describe this knowledge, or this intellectual curiosity, as merely trivial. It seems to me, on the contrary, something to be admired. 

And yet, we seem to do everything we can to kill off any intellectual curiosity in our children. Small children are full of curiosity: What’s this? What’s that? What does this do? Why does it do that? How does it do that? And yet, far from encouraging this, far from feeding their curiosity, we seem to do our best to kill it off. There is a wonderful scene near the start of Terry Gilliam’s 1981 film Time Bandits, in which a boy is looking through a book, and finds himself fascinated by various things he is discovering about Ancient Sparta. But when he tries to communicate his enthusiasm to his parents, all he gets are indifferent grunts: his parents are busy – well, if not busy, at least occupied – sitting passively in front of the television set, watching some vapid game show. Sure, this scene is an exaggeration for the purposes of satire, but it doesn’t seem to me too great an exaggeration: in the thirty years or so since that film was released, with all our wonderful advancements in digital technology offering even more channels and even more means of communicating vapidity, we have become ever more efficient in killing off whatever spark children might once have had, and making sure that they end up much like ourselves at an early an age as is possible. 

But alas, as with all human endeavour, perfection is not something we can ever achieve: despite all the disposal at our means, a few do manage to escape childhood with their intellectual curiosity still more or less intact, and who are capable of displaying a breadth, and sometimes even a depth, of knowledge on all sorts of things – even on such matters as movements of tectonic plates. Rather than concede our failure with these people, we find it easier to brand them “anoraks”, to claim that their knowledge is merely superficial and acquired from memorising facts by rote; we find it easier, indeed, to dismiss their knowledge itself as merely “trivial”. And we do: it makes us all feel better.

And in the meantime, we can watch on television people displaying without the slightest hint of embarrassment quite prodigious ignorance on just about everything, safe in the assurance that viewers are more likely to sympathise rather than otherwise with their ignorance. Of course, one cannot know everything, and what seems basic to one may not seem basic to someone else. For me, say, with my obsession about Shakespeare, knowing which play by Shakespeare features a pound of flesh may seem pretty basic; but to someone else, something about which I am totally ignorant may appear equally basic, and in their eyes, I would be but an ignorant oaf for not knowing about it. Fair enough – although I do strongly believe that knowledge of Shakespeare should not be regarded as esoteric, and that any educated English-speaking person should possess at least a cursory knowldge of the major Shakespeare plays. But leaving Shakespeare aside for the moment, when people display ignorance on basic matters across the board – not merely on literature, but also on science, on history, on geography, on current affairs, you name it – then, after a while, it all adds up, and a picture begins to emerge that I dearly hope is not representative of humanity in general. Surely so many of us can’t find ourselves living in so endlessly fascinating a world, and take so little interest in any aspect of it?

Of course, one has to be careful in saying this. To think that the great treasure-house of culture and of knowledge that we have accumulated across the centuries should belong to everyone, and should not be the preserve merely of an elite, is, as everyone knows, an elitist position to take. Far better denigrate the concept of knowledge itself as essentially pointless – as trivial. That way, we all end up feeling better.

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6 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by alan on June 11, 2011 at 8:08 pm

    I think that a sociologist would argue that ‘General’ knowledge is in fact very particular to your culture and your class.
    I don’t think that the ability to retain and quickly regurgitate lots of facts is considered elitist – in fact it is quite popular.
    On the other hand, claims of understanding, and claims of value are considered elitist.
    I don’t think that this charge of elitism is just because of a fashionable reaction against the ‘cultural imperialism of dead white European males’, however well meaning. I also think that there is also a reaction against academic learning by people who were forced to sit through it on pain of punishment. Historical events are like this – lots of things randomly happen, and when they all move in one direction then ‘important events’ happen.
    At one time there were a lot more alternatives to ‘white collar’ professions (other than McJobs) that required artisanal skills that are no longer in demand in the UK, and these were an alternative route to self esteem than those routes that required academic study. It’s no surprise to me that people stick two fingers up to an educational system that has failed them by failing to acknowledge that different people learn in different ways and value different things – why give respect to others if you get no respect yourself. Sadly this has impoverished publish discourse and damaged many who might otherwise benefit from education.
    Be patient – the educational tyranny you want (as expressed by you elsewhere) will return when the people have completed their self-enslavement.

    Reply

    • … the ability to retain and quickly regurgitate lots of facts …

      This strikes me as something of a caricature. It’s not a very accurate caricature, I think, and it comes perilously close to denigrating that which shouldn’t be denigrated.

      Yes, we can agree that general knowledge quizzes in themselves are not particularly significant, and that much of the skill required to excel consists of the ability merely to store information in one’s mind , and to access that information quickly. However, one can only store something in one’s mind and access it (“regurgitate it”, it you prefer) when that information has entered one’s mind in the first place. It could, as popular caricature will have it, have entered the mind because it has been learnt mechanically, and without understanding; but more usually it has entered the mind because people have had the intellectual curiosity to find out about – and, yes, to gain an understanding of – a wide range of subjects.

      Some twenty or so years ago, I used to take part in a quiz league. It was great fun, and the evenings were very convivial and hugely alcoholic. The others in the quiz league came from various different walks of life: we are talking here about taxi drivers, car mechanics, salesmen, office receptionists, even the odd operational research analyst – we aren’t talking university professors here. And many of the people had a quite exceptional level of general knowledge. Yes, this did involve a skill in “retaining and regurgitating”, as you put it, but the information that they retained and regurgitated had been acquired through a genuine intellectual curiosity, and a desire to know and understand better the world they lived in. Far from being worthy of derision, this seemed to me – and seems to me still – entirely admirable.

      On the other hand, claims of understanding, and claims of value are considered elitist … Sadly this has impoverished publish discourse and damaged many who might otherwise benefit from education.

      Yes, I am glad we agree on this. Many people seem to be in denial on this matter, or, if not necessarily in denial, they do not seem to think it particularly important.. But I agree wholeheartedly that the labelling of the claims of understanding and the claims of value as “elitist”, and the subsequent denigration of these claims, have, indeed, impoverished public discourse.

      (I take it you meant “public” discourse, rather than “publish discourse”. Unfortunately, there is no facility to edit comments once you hit the post button, and I didn’t want to be so presumptuous as to edit your post – even to correct a typo!)

      Your analysis of why this has happened is certainly very persuasive, but I don’t know that I am convinced that this is the only reason, or even, perhaps, that this is the principal reason. For were it so, I would expect outlooks on this matter to differ sharply by class – and I don’t think they do. I don’t know that I am capable myself of analysing the causes of this effect: but the effect itself, whatever its causes, is, I think, to be lamented.

      …the educational tyranny you want…

      You’re being tongue-in-cheek there, but only, I think, partly tongue-in-cheek. We must be careful to distinguish between authority and authoritarianism. We may all agree that the latter is undesirable, but without the former, not only would education be impossible, but so would just about every other human activity. The modern paranoia about authority – a paranoia that prevents us from distinguishing between different types of authority, let alone evaluating them – does seem to me most harmful in its effects. But that’s probably a subject for a future blog post.

      Reply

  2. Posted by Robert on June 11, 2011 at 11:54 pm

    The same people who trivialise those who know the plots of Shakespeare will not be interested in the latest finding of a death certificate refering to a possible relative of the bard. It is suggested that the particulars of the circumstances inspired him to create the death scene of Ophelia. What I find astounding is that the academic had to understand Latin before he could trawl through hundreds of documents of the sixteenth century. It is heartening to realise that the so called ‘dead’ languages are studied by those who have a respect for the past and are able to discover such material. Castorboy

    Reply

    • Hello Robert – it’s good to see you here again.

      I’ll have a search on the net to find out a bit more about the possible inspiration for the death of Ophelia. As far as I know, when Shakespeare was stiill a boy, a young girl (from the available evidence, we may infer that she had been mentally ill) had drowned herself in the Avon: this young girl’s name was Kate Hamnet. And Shakespeare’s own boy, who died shortly before the first production of Hamlet, was named Hamnet. It seems at least possible, maybe even probable, that Shakespeare had the tragic Kate Hamnet in mindw when writing about the death of Ophelia. And if, as legend has it, Shakespeare himself played the ghost of Hamlet’s father, he may well have pondered on the irony of being the living father of a dead son playing the dead father of a living.

      Since classical languages are rarely taught in schools nowadays, we have inevitably lost touch ith a very valuable civilisation. Western civilisation, it is generally agreed, rests on the two principal pillars of the Greek and the Hebraic – the classical and the Biblical – and losing touch with both these cultures does seem to me an irreparable loss. It may, I guess, be argued that the loss isn’t really very signifciant; and it may also be argued that there are other factors that more than compensate for this loss. I would contest both these arguments, but even if I were wrong in contesting them, I cannot see how it can be denied that there has been a loss in the first place. That there has been a loss seems to me self-evident. I deeply regret that the classics formed no part of my own education, but thank heavens we are blessed with high quality translations!

      Reply

  3. Posted by Caro on June 17, 2011 at 1:01 am

    Himadri, while I don’t think the sort of knowledge asked for in Trivial Pursuit is exactly trivial, it does sometimes exist in something of a vacuum. I remember my father used to ‘ask me questions’ which I begged for, perhaps less for gaining knowledge than for showing off my knowledge. Dad’s questions (he left school aged 12, with his favourite subjects history and arithmetic – I wrote maths originally, but he would have said, and probably only studied, arithmetic) involved capital cities of Europe mostly and dates of battles. Doubtless there were others but those are my main memories of these questions. But he never gave any context to these, so thought I (once) knew the dates for the battles of Crecy and Bannockburn and the like, I had no idea, didn’t even think to ask then about them, what these battles signified, or who they were between or why. Just dates in isolation. They have been useful to me, in that I have a little tag to tie some historical bits too.

    I certainly value the history I did at school which meant I learnt enough to be able to pin an event in English history to its time, its king and its context a bit. I wish I had that knowledge for Scotland and even for NZ more thoroughly.

    But I don’t agree that people no longer value this sort of general knowledge and quiz type questions – in fact it seems to be the sort of information and knowledge most valued, rather than in-depth knowledge. Our newspapers now have a quiz every day, our stuff.co.nz site (the main NZ news site) has a daily quiz and it is always among the ten most popularly read bits, sometimes even No 1, over all the other news national and international, important and silly. My kids enjoy very much doing crosswords with me, and other parents report the same. And quiz nights are as popular as ever.

    I learnt Latin at school and loved it, but I can’t honestly say it has led me to read the classics in their original, or even in translation. I read parts of the Aeniad at university in Latin, but I don’t remember much of it, beyond Dido burning herself in a pyre. I sometimes regret not knowing Greek but only because it would have allowed me to translate those little bits in books or novels that sometimes crop up.

    There are still people who value and pass on knowledge – I have read many very good non-fiction books in recent years, full of research into past records. The one I am reading at the moment, on something that might seem trivial – the rose – is chockerblock full of European literature that I haven’t even heard of let alone read, full of explanations of allusions in literature and politics, full of religious and symbolic ideas of the past. Nothing is taken forgranted in this book, any received wisdom is analysed and often challenged from the literature of the past, or an understanding of it beyond the superficial.

    And I am sure there are lots of people doing this sort of work, often for a much more knowledgable audience in a more academic way. But there are also people like this author making their knowledge accessible to ordinary people.

    Cheers, Caro.

    Reply

    • Hello Caro,

      You say:

      But I don’t agree that people no longer value this sort of general knowledge and quiz type questions – in fact it seems to be the sort of information and knowledge most valued, rather than in-depth knowledge.

      I think that is my point: in-depth knowledge isn’t valued. Or, at least, it isn’t valued enough.

      Merely picking up a whole lot of information as an end in itself, without any awareness or even interest in the context, may be an enjoyable thing to do, but it is not especially valuable, as such: “trivial” is an appropriate adjective to apply to such an activity. But, at least in my experience, possession of a broad general knowledge is usually indicative of a quality far more important – it is indicative of an intellectual curiosity. And this is far from trivial. And it is precisely this quality that seems to me insufficiently valued in our society.

      When I find myself flicking through various television quiz shows (I can’t bear to watch them all the way through), the level of basic ignorance on display, on just about everything, I find staggering. And I find equally staggering the general public acceptance of such widespread basic ignorance: it is knowledge that is considered exceptional – ignorance is taken as the norm. I am not speaking here of the inability to remember things quickly, or the nervousness that is only to be expected in front of television cameras: I am speaking here of a lack of the intellectual curiosity required to gain knowledge in the first place; and also, quite frequently, a lack even of any acknowledgement of its importance. Even the most basic knowledge is nowadays regarded as esoteric.

      And it shouldn’t be like this. In western societies, we have now had generations of universal education, and I do feel we should have more to show for it than this. As Alan says above, “claims of understanding, and claims of value are considered elitist”, and, further, that “this has impoverished public discourse and damaged many who might otherwise benefit from education”. I find it all very sad.

      Reply

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