Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?

| June 3, 2010

You would think the working appeal of the game show Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader must lie along the same lines as the humor of its host, Jeff Foxworthy. Namely: the self-deprecating, red-neck, “we’re sooo stupid… How stupid are you?…” brand of humor. One could point to the apparent brainlessness of any number of guests. If, say, that were your particular line of research…

But I think the point actually runs deeper than that. And this is the show’s unwitting brilliance. The real take home message is not about watching a bunch of eager fifth graders trounce ill prepared adults. But rather, that these very same fifth graders will grow up to be those adults.

What the show, uhm… shows, is that what we “know” in fifth grade does not necessarily come with us into our adulthood. Or rather, what we do in fifth grade may be good for showing off to, or embarrassing “old” people, in the moment, but that it has little to say about our future selves.

Now, this could be cynical: education doesn’t work, and our educational system is clearly failing to educate people properly. But what if we took it to call into question some of our more dear understandings of what education is for in the first place. First, that it has less to do with the storing of knowledge for the future than we might imagine. But also, conversely, that our future lives and livelihood may have less at stake in these specific knowledge bases and “literacies” than some would have us believe.

As shocking as it may be to see that someone can be so out of the ballpark in converting 2 1/2 yards into feet that they miss it by several factors, perhaps we should take the time to register the shock that this hardly seems to have hampered them in life. In other words, not only might the storage of knowledge and “cultural literacies” be a far less workable proposition than we might imagine, it may turn out that we over-value it as an outcome.

Indeed, we may prefer to pretend to aim at “the future”, but what if it turns out that our concern is more to feel a particular way now about “our children.” We even possessively call them that: “our future.” Meaning to say, not our actual future, but an alternative present we wish were ours. In other words, the image we have of current children allows us to re-imagine ourselves for ourselves. Once they are adults, after all, they are no longer useful in that role, and we cease to value them the same way. In fact, we can then take pleasure in sacrificing them to our vision of fifth graders. And in the process we ask our fifth graders to perform for our edification.

Maybe the cynical angle—the redneck hypothesis: our schools failed to prepare us—would be more comfortably familiar than the alternative thought that maybe they serve us all to well!

At the very least, even if one is more old-school than I am, and believes in the bankability of the transmission approach, it should cause pause to think about what testing at any given moment is actually testing.

If I know something in fifth grade, what do I know?

A.) Something

B.) Nothing

C.) TBD

What do you think?