Is It Trivia?

May 21, 2016
Posted by Jay Livingston

 Is knowledge important? Or in the age of the Internet, is it all just trivia?

1. A quiz posted on Facebook says “97% of Adults Can’t Pass This Elementary Test (21 Questions).” What is the closest planet to the sun is, where was Einstein was born, which president served three consecutive terms. . . .

I could answer most of the questions. But instead of basking in the glow of the screen’s telling me I was a genius, or being horrified that so many of my fellow Americans flunked, I was bothered by the more important question: so what? What’s the point of knowing facts like these? Unless you’re going to be on Jeopardy, does it matter any more? Most of the 97% do not need to know which planet is closest to the sun, and if they did ever need that information, they could find it on the Internet.

And yet, I probably use someone’s knowledge of stuff like this as a proxy for their ability to think.

2.  Most multiple-choice exams are based on this same assumption – that students who can remember more facts are better students. Years ago I was discussing this with an economics adjunct who had an office near mine.  “Why not use multiple-choice tests for grading?” I said. “If you used some other kind of test, you’d get the same results.”

    “Then why not just ask them their parents’ income?” he said. “You’d get the same distribution.”

3. I told one of my classes that they could choose the kind of final they wanted: open book – meaning books, notes, phones, whatever – or traditional. With open book, I warned, the questions will be harder– not just giving a definition or fact. Even the multiple-choice items will require you to think. I gave them this free sample:

A Mastercard ad shows a father and son at a baseball game.  The voiceover says, “Two tickets $46. Two hot dogs, two popcorns, two sodas $27. One autographed baseball $50.  Real conversation with eleven-year-old son, priceless.”  The idea that conversation with your own son is “priceless” – that its value cannot be put into dollars – means that its value is
    a.    worthless
    b.    utilitarian
    c.    universalistic
    d.    particularistic

Besides, I said, looking up stuff on the Internet or in your books, notes, or downloaded PowerPoints takes time, time that you’ll need for writing.

“So now, how many want open book?” I asked. Hands flew up. It wasn’t even close.

4. Question #10 on the Facebook quiz:

More trivia, important, if at all, only because the US is still stuck with its pre-metric system.

The day after I took this test, I was in the locker room at the gym. One guy there had an empty three-liter Poland Spring jug, He must have been about to use it to mix up some energy elixir. He was asking his friend how many ounces in a gallon, wondering, I guess, if the jug would be large enough. The directions for the magic powder he’d bought probably told him to mix so many scoops with one gallon of water. 

The label said three liters or 101.4 ounces.  The friend was pretty sure that a gallon was 162 ounces. Oh, well. When it’s time to mix the cocktail, they can look it up on their smart phones. And if they don’t, the guy with the jug didn’t look like someone whose buffness would suffer much from a potion that, like his general knowledge, was too diluted.

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