May 2008

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« Laws of Physics | Main | Is Iran as Democratic as the United States? »


John B

While quite funny, I don't think "Smarter Than a 5th Grader" reflects well on intelligent life to be found in the United States. Sure, some of it's totally useless trivia, but when a "computer consultant" can't answer questions requiring only general intelligence.... OMG! Of course, you have to take into consideration that this is Fox and a "reality" game show, where contestants applaud themselves on cue. In contrast, I found CBC's "Test The Nation" a much more enlightening and entertaining experience. 5th Grader's only redeeming feature is Jeff Foxworthy.

Alexandria Wilks

I think this is a great show it gives me and children knowledge on this show. It shows skills that we and our children should be learning and watching today!It invovles thinking and to show that you go to school for a reason!!!! It is a great show and I will continue watching it and will tell about the show everywhere.


It's not that it's unimportant to know facts and details, it's that facts and details will naturally be learned while kids are being taught to think for themselves and solve real-world problems that they find meaningful to their own lives. So teach the good stuff, and the students will pick up the "easily testable" knowledge along the way.

And... students will be happier too, which is an important part of learning. Neuroscience has shown that the brain doesn't learn well when people are bored or stressed out. But the brain does learn well when people are positive, interested, and reasonably happy, even when problems are quite challenging.

Adrian monk

Well, good point on the constellation thing, I was wrong. And I freely admit it. :)

However, it does not make my point less valid. It's still important to know little things.

But what do I know? :P

Connelly Barnes

Although I do think that homework theoretically has some value in reinforcing that you actually have to want to do something and work towards it to get anywhere at all, in practice convincing people of the value of this ethic by relentless brute force seems doomed to fail -- kids who are motivated will be bored to tears by homework and the other kids will simply have the opposite of the desired value reinforced: they will be encouraged to think that life is full of mindless stupid tasks that you "should" be doing and that the alternative of "having fun" is preferable. Both views seem incredibly shortsided, but I especially object to the one that conflates work with mindless drudgery, as this is just a self-fulfilling prophecy; life is full of fascinating problems waiting to be solved, and exciting ways to apply knowledge, thought, and artistic expression.

Connelly Barnes

Driving classes would be helpful, I tend to run into other cars when I'm driving. What about computer programming, rhetoric and logical arguments, making creative works in music, movies, literature, how to think critically, science, mathematics, how to unlearn incorrect things that you've been taught, how to write a real essay to a real audience, how to teach yourself, how to critically assess your culture and improve upon it, ethics, how people interrelate individually, how to see yourself from the viewpoint of another person, how to analyze causality in large groups, a bird's eye view of human history, what success means and whether it is worthwhile to pursue, identifying prevailing cultural norms such as popularity, beauty, consumerism, the attitude that a "back seat" or "lazy" existence is better for the individual or society, entitlement, what being an adult is like in the United States, and also (most importantly) encouraging kids to do things that they are interested in and leaving kids alone for hours when this lets them work on things they are interested in. I guess these are the things that I either had in my education or would've liked to have more of. Memorizing taxonomies, little factoids about how tiny details are interrelated, and doing "work" for state assessment purposes or "homework" seem like altogether wastes of childrens' minds and time.


There's a good reason for teaching kids these so-called "useless" pieces of information. The information which people deem utterly useless, I find, is directly proportional to the knowledge (or lack thereof) of the person making the allegation.

When in school, and even University, I thought I was being taught a load of rubbish which I would never use, then I hit the real world and found out how relevant some, if not most, of that information is.

Not to slate Americans, but growing up, we learned about our own country, as well as the rest of our continent, about America (mostly North, I'm sorry to say), and Europe. And that was what we covered in Primary School (prior to the age of 13). This was covered from economic, political, geographical, and cultural aspects. Perhaps it would help if you widened the scope of the "useless" information your children are learning, then you wouldn't be in the situation where, statistically speaking, most American teenagers can't name the states of their own country which surround, or are adjacent to, the one they live in, or would be able to point out the Middle East on a map.

Another gem is that since I've been living in Ireland... The principle of not teaching "useless" information has prevailed... and so has the lack of IQ or general knowledge. I've been asked where the sun rises ("North, right?" I could barely contain myself) in relation to someone wanting to buy a NORTH-FACING house in the northern hemisphere because it gets more sun (?!?) amidst a plethora of other amusing, but ultimately stupid questions...of which they should be ashamed! Honestly, I do know smarter 5 year olds, and it's not so much about what they're taught, but about having the previous generation instil in them the love for learning and acquiring knowledge that we were awarded as a gift from our forebears...

And these ignorant muppets, who are so leery of knowledge (be it useless or not) are the teachers and inspiration of our future generations? The human species is doomed.


I'd be more intimidated by a show "Are You Smarter Than a 5-year Old?"

While very pregnant, I took my 5-year old son to a 'baby doctor appointment' - books say this is a good thing to do. When the doctor came in to the exam room, he was very nice to my son and tried to engage him in conversation.

Dr: "Do you know what that is?" - pointing to a poster on the wall

5-year old: "That is the female reprodutive system. Would you like me to explain it to you?"

Of course, he was 4-years old when he drew a crowd in the Science museum while explaining the details of how the steam engine functions and 4 1/2 when he got questions from adult visitors on the intricacies of the Bernouli principle in the aviation museum. And when we visited San Francisco (aged 5), we could not get him out of the "Exploratorium" - we saw little elso of that fair city, as he spent days there.

He's 13 now. He just informed me that 'What is the largest bone in your body?' is a meaningless question, as while the longest bone would be the femur, it may not voluminous bone - so how could you hope to answer an ambiguous question accurately?

And people wonder why my hair is turning platinum!

Old Wig

This column was so good that I shared it with my daughter. You certainly made the point about how much crap is taught in school well. Perhaps the best explanation is that facts about the femur and the stars can be put in standardized tests and CPR cannot. I hope you will take heart in the fact that there are textbooks that teach bullshit detection and critical thinking. I don't know if it is used in the public schools (we homeschool our daughter for religous reasons, we are Episcopalian and the public schools do not serve liquor)but my wife has been using a book titled "The 10 Things All Future Mathematicians and Scientists Must Know (But are Rarely Taught)" by Edward Zaccaro. It's a good book and worth getting if you think your kid isn't being taught to think logically.


I think everyone here is missing the point. The question isn't "what should be taught". The problem is that the education 'industry' (teachers, profs etc) measures itself by test scores, IQ and suchlike. But in the process of measuring itself, the industry measures kids. The real question is, "what should the education system be measuring?" I think this is a variation of Prof Ackoff's book on management f-laws - because educators can't measure the fluffy but important stuff, they settle for measuring something they can - test scores.

David Taylor

Only the stupid actually want to be on national television.

As a nation, America is slowly realizing this fact.

Soon, being shown on TV will be one of the things that sensible people avoid at all costs. Being on television will fall into the same class as going to civil court, getting arrested, and causing traffic accidents. Being filmed will be sometimes unavoidable, but never a pleasant, useful experience.


Yes. We should be spending way more funds on learning how to detect bullshit. Our world is so full of it, we really need to learn as soon as possible how to avoid it. Or at least to call it as soon as we see it. It is present wherever 2 or more people gather together. I've even heard tell of people who can bullshit themselves AND BELIEVE EVERY WORD.

Definitely the social skills classes. Wherein we learn that shooting someone because they cut you off in traffic is hardly ever the optimum first choice response.

And manners. I don't mean the hold your pinkie a certain way kind of manners. I mean kindness. Couldn't we all just be a little kinder to each other?

Because, in the end, nobody gets out alive. Sooner or later we all dance with the Reaper. Couldn't we try, at least, to make our lives here on Earth not quite such a continual hell-fest?

We all need some type of general wellspring of shared knowledge just so we kind of feel like maybe we belong somewhere. I think, however, that our wellspring of shared knowledge needs to be updated somewhat.

Many college English courses still rely upon writers who mention chamber pots quite often. When was the last time you changed a chamber pot I ask you? Methinks that maybe I have never changed a chamber pot! Must I continually read about changing chamber pots when, most likely, I will never be called upon to do so? Especially while having to wade through archaic English that is not likely to come sweeping back into fashion anytime soon.

Perhaps instead of learning archaic English, it would behoove (some of that archaic English we don't need, except for its comic value) us all to learn a second language that is commonly in use today.

I think the most important thing to teach is to never be afraid to ask questions. Also, we much teach where and how to find possible answers to those questions.

And don't always just accept any old answer first handed to you. Always ask why is such and such a certain way? Maybe you'll find new answers for old questions! And then learn to ask better questions!

Just keep growing and learning. Never reach a point where you become a human knick-knack just gathering dust in your self-imposed corner of darkness.


That school sounds like it would be Dale Carnegie bootcamp.
Cyrus (

Gill Bates

Ya my doctor said tibia instead of femur and now my legs are 2 different lengths. What a dipstick!


Depends on your definition of useless. Knowing which bone is which and what happens if they break is not useless if you then go on to a career in medicine (or the NFL).


This such an extremely complex question, and while there are so many exceptional posts, I feel the need to add my two cents. American schools used to produce the most important thing a society can have: Entrepreneurs. And how? By producing people with what I would term a basic set of basic skills, and exposing them to millions of other facts of the life and the world. It grows the most important things - Hope, resourcefulness, and ingenuity.

Everything else is somewhat irrelevant. You always needed a few people to be classically trained, as they were needed to become the society's truly noble, selfless, and honorable leaders (A few key words there). They needed expertise in a few things and extremely broad exposure to EVERYTHING else you could cram into a human mind, to be able to make intelligent and reasonable decisions on a daily basis in their fields that were in the interest of all.

These two groups are what made America great. I would argue every one of us had fallen into one of them, and basically how good we were really determined how successfully you were from a societal point of view.

However, all that fell apparent (How/Why is a book someone should/will write in 10-30 years). When you focus only on core educational concepts you alienate those who can't conform to the script (Your classic American underachiever that began emerging in mass in the late 70's and max'd out in late 80's.). When the tides shifted and we began focusing on cooperative, confidence building and feel good education (To quell the chaos, so to speak), we unknowingly began a move toward vocational education (The highest performers self-segregated to get as far along as they could at levels of competition, while the majority "settled in"). And now, with testing galore the rage de jour, all we've done is reinforce a minimum standards mentality. What we've breed is mass-mediocrity like the US has never seen, and now everyone from employers to colleges have watered-down expectation to be able to cope with that.

So what does the future hold? I wish I knew. I feel that between the immigration issues we face and the watering-down of the 95% which should be a typical American, American dream in no longer achievable not because of a lack of opportunity, but from a lack of capability. And what happens when one fails? The government now steps in to take care of you (Financing such entitlements through the blood-letting of those who can... That number grows smaller each day...).

And what of our a truly noble, selfless, and honorable leaders. They've opt'd out: Either so distracted from reality and overly fixated on their own part of the culture to give a damn about the rest, or just using their "gifts" for their own benefit (Almost every major politician I can think of falls in this later category, along with a great many of our greatest scientists and business leaders).

When all of this comes to fruition, my bet is the age of America is officially over. We will join the ranks of Rome & the former British Empire in history within 50 years. Let the age of China begin.

Michael B.

I'd like to point out that at the close of the show, they run a brief little paragraph stating that the members of the Class (That would be the fifth grade students) receive a review booklet before the beginning of the show that may contain possible information that might be helpful in answering the questions...

Look for it in the credits. Suddenly the show got a LOT less interesting, wouldn't you say?

Odd Johannessen

I know my comment is slightly beside the point, but here in Norway a book was published called " How much did Elvis weigh whhen he died". This and many other such as it contains informations about femurs and Big Dippers. I believe this type of information was never meant to be particularly useful. The knowledge of these things, however, are what makes conversations interesting, enhances social skills, improves language and maybe, after following a loooong trail of thought, influences your career and most certainly the kind of person you have become.
For the record, Elvis weighed 104,5 kg when he died.


...anyway, until those clever fifth-graders have succesfully completed a tax return or raised a family, they can wipe the smug look off their snotty faces.


If you watched the episode aired on 3/8/07. I believed that some of those kids (Alana & Kyle) on this show have shown their lack of honesty !!!
THis happened when Phil, the contestant had only 1 cheat left, which was "copy the answer"...
Question: how many cups are equal to 5.5 gallons?
Answer: 1 gallon = 16 cups, so 5.5 gallons = 88 cups.
Alana's answer: 89 !!!
I don't think it was a SMART WRONG ANSWER !!! how could she missed by 1 cup????? her fave subject at school is MATH !!!
I believed, she wanted Phil to copy her answer, so, Phil would have been wrong, and lose the game !!!
The next question, Kyle was the classmate... it's about geology...
when Kyle was asked how sure he was about his answer, he snorted and gave a thumb down...
so, Phil panicked... and instead of copy Kyle's answer, he decided to take the money and quit.
It turned out, Kyle's answer is right !!!

Goodness gracious... couldn't believe they don't value the meaning of honesty...
I thought those kids were there to help the contestant???
not to hinder them from winning... !!!
ah well... how naive am I ???


I think alot of people are missing the point that this show makes...1) I can't believe there are idiots that are proud of themselves for answering such basic questions and 2) that they aren't more embarassed or ashamed when they don't know the answers. I am in the computer field (gasp, I do use that higher math!!!) and find that knowing a diverse amount of information helps me think laterally when needed. Worse yet what does this say about our American society when this drivel (along with 1 whole night of primetime animated cartoons on another evening)is considered entertainment? Good heavens people, get a life.


If it makes you feel any better, Scott, I got my first CPR certification in 5th or 6th grade.


What sickens me the most is that kids in school, especially in the teen years, are not being taught how to handle finances and the evils of credit cards and other types of debt.

As far as the trivial things that you mentioned, I agree with the other poster that some of the seemingly trivial things give kids a basic knowledge of how things work, or at least stir an interest in the field, as in learning about human bones stirring an interest in the fields of medicine or anthropology.


I totally disagree. Kids today are more well-behaved and conservative than in a long time. The "kids today" routine is as old as the cavemen, and just as untrue. We all think that way of younger people.

Jan Erik Storebo

Learning useless stuff is annoying, but what really annnoyed me at school was learning stuff I'd never use, because it would never come in handy in my work, because someone more qualified would get a job where it was needed, and I would never take a job where it was needed. Like advanced math. We do need someone who knows it, and that just doesn't include me, so a job where it's needed would not come to me, at least I wouldn't be able to keep it. I do not know to what degree Americans may choose their subjects in college, but in Norway many subjects are mandatory and choices are restricted. Social sciences, perhaps 3 languages, chemistry biologi & physics, math, economic theories and "corporate finances", and a few more depending on the school. I did not choose. I just dismissed everything I couldn't imagine myself studying.What was left I took. Then I was told I needed more subjects. I found it ridicolous I had to wait untill university to study what I wanted and could manage. School is defended by remarks like "people need to readand write". That's okay, but during school you learn very little you will actually need. school is mainly a waste of a lot of resources in its current form. Very strange, particularly in the US wherre people may go to school to learn unnnecessary stuff, but don't receive good free hospital care.

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