Common Stock

Knowing something about everything versus everything about something

Illustration by Marc Rosenthal

A few weeks ago emissaries from the game show Jeopardy! swept through a quadrant of rural Connecticut, chumming for contestants, and one of my sisters signed up for a quiz. She did pretty well, though she wasn't tendered an invitation. Afterward, at a family gathering, we fielded some of the questions. Hamlet's mother and father? City in South Africa reminiscent of flowers? French word for a newborn's wardrobe? Battle where Cervantes lost the use of his hand? I would like to report that we shouted as one, "Gertrude and Hamlet!" "Bloemfontein!" "Layette!" and "Lepanto!" In truth, we presented a pathetic spectacle of mumbled feints and embarrassed glances.

The moment brought to mind the passage in My Early Life (1930) in which Winston Churchill described his encounter with the Latin portion of the entrance examination for Harrow.

I wrote my name at the top of the page. I wrote down the number of the question 'I'. After much reflection I put a bracket round it thus '(I)'. But thereafter I could not think of anything connected with it that was either relevant or true. Incidentally there arrived from nowhere in particular a blot and several smudges. I gazed for two whole hours at this sad spectacle.

Our poor showing on those Jeopardy! questions should probably have come as no surprise. One of the great constants in public commentary is the fretting over how little Americans know about a great many important matters, and how rapidly even that puddle of knowledge seems to be evaporating. Last winter the American Council of Trustees and Alumni released a widely publicized study revealing that some 80 percent of seniors at elite colleges and universities had scored the equivalent of a D or an F on a rudimentary survey of American history. Only 22 percent of the students surveyed knew that the words about government's being "of the people, by the people, for the people" came from the Gettysburg Address. Only 34 percent could identify the American general at Yorktown. On a more positive note, 99 percent correctly identified Beavis and Butthead.

Snapshots like this one are often compared with the bright picture in other countries. Some years ago the National Endowment for the Humanities published a selection of questions from tests administered to university-bound students in France, Germany, England, Wales, and Japan. It's hard to imagine any American senior, except maybe the young Michael Beschloss, relishing an encounter with any of these questions. The French baccalaureate exam asked students to explicate a passage from Kant or write an essay on the (unmistakably French) topic "What does one gain by losing one's illusions?" The British exam for the general certificate of education probed deeply into American history: "'Unbelievably naive' or 'a dogged man of principle': which verdict better characterises the conduct of Woodrow Wilson from 1917 to 1920?" The entrance exam for Tokyo University demanded the following: "Describe the nature of the way the Chinese absorbed Western culture, using the examples of their response to the Jesuit priests between the late Ming and the early Ch'ing dynasties."

Of course, Americans lose face not only when compared with students in other countries but also when compared with Americans of yesteryear. Not long ago, at a beach house, I chanced upon a 1956 edition of the board game Go to the Head of the Class, and discovered that American children of the 1950s—themselves objects of scorn—had it all over their descendants. Players of the game must answer questions correctly in order to advance. "Who was the 'Napoleon of the Stump'—President Tyler, Polk or Pierce?" "Was Lillie Langtry or Lillian Russell known as the 'Jersey Lily'?" "How many seedless apple trees were there in the world in 1905—5, 25, 205, 2,005, or 2,505?" "Birchard was which President's middle name?" "Simone Simon was born where?" The game, advertised as being for people "8 to Adult," is now virtually unplayable.

Evidence of this sort is undeniably sobering—but it tells only part of the story. The fact is, the dwindling amount of knowledge that Americans hold in common seems to be outweighed by an expanding amount of particularized knowledge held by groups of individuals. This counterphenomenon is forcefully brought home by each new edition of The Yearbook of Experts, Authorities & Spokespersons, a reference work to which I have developed a mild addiction. A few minutes with the yearbook will change the mind of anyone convinced that America has become the home of the slouch.

Americans have always harbored considerable respect for expert advice (think of Squanto and Lafayette, Dale Carnegie and Dr. Ruth), and the impulse now extends to every last corner of experience. The Yearbook has been published annually since 1984, and it seems to have grown fatter with every edition—the 1999 and 2000 volumes each contain upwards of 10,000 citations. This is the work to consult when you need to find the people in America who know everything about something: anger management or managed care, premarital investigations or premenstrual syndrome, cult groups or ethnic groups, needlework or needle exchange, e-business or E. coli.

Presented by

Cullen Murphy

Says Cullen Murphy, "At The Atlantic we try to provide a considered look at all aspects of our national life; to write, as well, about matters that are not strictly American; to emphasize the big story that lurks, untold, behind the smaller ones that do get told; and to share the conclusions of our writers with people who count."

Murphy served as The Atlantic Monthly's managing editor from 1985 until 2005, when the magazine relocated to Washington. He has written frequently for the magazine on a great variety of subjects, from religion to language to social science to such out-of-the-way matters as ventriloquism and his mother's method for pre-packaging lunches for her seven school-aged children.

Murphy's book Rubbish! (1992), which he co-authored with William Rathje, grew out of an article that was written by Rathje, edited by Murphy, and published in the December, 1989, issue of The Atlantic Monthly. In a feature about the book's success The New York Times reported that the article "was nominated for a National Magazine Award in 1990 and became a runaway hit for The Atlantic Monthly, which eventually ran off 150,000 copies of it." Murphy's second book, Just Curious, a collection of his essays that first appeared in The Atlantic Monthly and Harper's, was published in 1995. His most recent book, The Word According to Eve: Women and The Bible in Ancient Times and Our Own, was published in 1998 by Houghton Mifflin. The book grew out of Murphy's August 1993 Atlantic cover story, "Women and the Bible."

Murphy was born in New Rochelle, New York, and grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut. He was educated at Catholic schools in Greenwich and in Dublin, Ireland, and at Amherst College, from which he graduated with honors in medieval history in 1974. Murphy's first magazine job was in the paste-up department of Change, a magazine devoted to higher education. He became an editor of The Wilson Quarterly in 1977. Since the mid-1970s Murphy has written the comic strip Prince Valiant, which appears in some 350 newspapers around the world.

How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well. Bestselling author Mark Bittman teaches James Hamblin the recipe that everyone is Googling.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus


How to Cook Spaghetti Squash (and Why)

Cooking for yourself is one of the surest ways to eat well.


Before Tinder, a Tree

Looking for your soulmate? Write a letter to the "Bridegroom's Oak" in Germany.


The Health Benefits of Going Outside

People spend too much time indoors. One solution: ecotherapy.


Where High Tech Meets the 1950s

Why did Green Bank, West Virginia, ban wireless signals? For science.


Yes, Quidditch Is Real

How J.K. Rowling's magical sport spread from Hogwarts to college campuses


Would You Live in a Treehouse?

A treehouse can be an ideal office space, vacation rental, and way of reconnecting with your youth.

More in National

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In