Trivia is trivial compared to real intelligence

Life is not a trivia game show.

Everyone wants to believe they are smart. After all, that’s part of why so many students are in college: to translate those smarts into a degree and land that dream job. But thanks to Fox’s new game show, Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader?, many Americans may be questioning just how smart they really are.

Although the show drew millions of viewers in its first week – the fact that it immediately followed American Idol probably didn’t hurt – the premise that a fifth-grader knows more than an adult is simply ludicrous.

Granted, the UCLA graduate featured on the show didn’t know that Columbus Day occurs in October – not September – in terms of being intelligent, that really doesn’t matter. The real concern is that viewers and pundits alike will attempt to extract more than entertainment value from this faddish show.

The education system in the United States has been based on nearly useless bits of information for too long. Sure, some people may know the capital of Vermont or the closest star to Earth off the top of their head, but far more important than the accumulation of facts is the ability to utilize reasoning and technology to find answers when necessary.

It should come as no surprise that some fifth-graders who’ve recently studied the topics featured on the show can spout out the right answers – it is to be expected they could. But their mastery of these tidbits of knowledge shouldn’t automatically earn them the label “smart.”

Today, terms such as “knowledge economy” describe the critical nature of technology and innovation. The decline of manufacturing in America and the rise of Google-type companies brought the world into the information age, where being able to think critically is crucial. Students need the skills to tackle the next big crisis in medicine, the environment or business – not simply identify one from the past.

Fox’s game show, of course, was not intended to be a discourse on American education, but some of the talk in cubicles about the show is disturbing nevertheless. Parents across America are in danger of believing their sons or daughters are intellectual powerhouses simply because they can recite an answer they learned in class that day.

tt can be fun to razz a friend that doesn’t know how many sides a trapezoid has, but the questions could easily be turned around on the fifth-graders. Do they know what a pivot table in Excel is used for or how to attract venture capitalists to their new innovation? The answers to these questions are more important to their future than how many teaspoons are in five tablespoons.

So while Fox is just trying to get higher ratings – which they’ve been lucky with so far – hopefully Americans will consider what it really means to be “smart.” Being smart means a good deal more than just storing bits of information.

“Smart” needs to be redefined as the ability to use current technology to make inroads into the future, and being able to challenge existing thought and think critically about the many facets of a seemingly simple problem.

Utilizing those definitions instead of the game show definition preferred by Fox, it becomes clear that there is a deficit in fifth-grade classrooms, college campuses and American households alike. Unfortunately, it is this measure of aptitude that is more detrimental to America’s future, because many Americans lack the ability to perform that measurement. In contrast, Fox’s mockery – when an exiting contestant is forced to admit, “I’m not smarter than a fifth-grader” – seems trivial in comparison.

Aaron Hill is a senior majoring in economics.