Culture > Television

Knowledge in jeopardy

Television | Ken Jennings, who is being called the Michael Jordan of game shows, claims 38th straight win on Jeopardy!

Issue: "Democrats are all smiles," Aug. 7, 2004

The long-running game show Jeopardy! ended its season with a loud bang. Ken Jennings, who is being called the Michael Jordan of game shows, won again for the 38th straight day, winning a record total of $1,321,660. He also set a new record for a single game, blowing away the old record of $52,000 by scoring $75,000. (The show will resume in six weeks, whereupon we can see how long Mr. Jennings continues his run.)

During the season-ending match, Mr. Jennings gave the wrong answer to only two questions. The software engineer from Salt Lake City, a Mormon, did not know the alcoholic beverage that goes into a Stinger cocktail. Nor did he know that gumbo needs "roux." But everything else he nailed. Categories such as Bangladesh, celebrity marriages, mythology, Oscar winners of the 1970s, Shakespeare, birds-he slam-dunked them all like Mr. Jordan in his prime.

The old quiz shows were all about knowledge. Jeopardy! was originally an attempt to vary the genre by having contestants give the questions rather than the answers. (The board gives an answer: "The wife of James Carville." The contestant supplies the question: "Who is Mary Matalin?") It amounts, of course, to the same thing. Later, game shows devolved into doing silly stunts, but the prime-time Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? brought back the true quiz show that rewards knowledge of genuine facts. Now that Jeopardy! has ended limits on how many times a contestant can appear and has produced a millionaire, that classic game show has returned to prominence.

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And deservedly so. True, the knowledge rewarded is trivia, unconnected facts of little practical value. But, as the classic philosophers emphasized, knowledge does not have to be a means to some other good. Knowledge is good in itself. As someone pointed out, it is better to know something than not to know it. (Who was Samuel Johnson?)

More importantly, Jeopardy! and the awe-inducing performance of Mr. Jennings reminds us of a truth that our current educational theories have forgotten and that many talented people have ignored. Someone can be intelligent while still being ignorant-a great mind with nothing in it. Being smart is not enough. You also have to know stuff.

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith


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