Where I spray-paint my thoughts…

What is Common Knowledge?


I’ve been thinking about the question of “common knowledge” — things that everyone is supposed to know — a little this week, partly because of the “Friends” clip above and partly because I had another crack at the Jeopardy! Online Contestant test, which is always good for revealing how much “common knowledge” I actually don’t know.

Awhile back the whole ten seasons of “Friends” appeared on Netflix, and both our teenagers watched the series, which meant a lot of blasts from the past for me and Jason if we were in the room at the time. We relived not only the highs and lows of what was (in its early years) an extremely funny sitcom, but also the years of our own lives that unrolled while we watched that show (we dated, married, bought our house and had both our kids while Friends was on air, so we kind of grew into adulthood along with the characters).

One of the things that really struck me in re-watching the show was how aggressively anti-intellectual all the characters (except Ross, who has a PhD in Paleontology) are. Four of them (Ross, Chandler, Monica and Rachel) apparently have college degrees, but the things they don’t know, and the pride they take in not knowing those things, is sometimes staggering. This is exemplified in the clip above, where the three women make fun of Joey for not knowing who “we” (i.e. the US) fought in World War One, and then realize that they don’t know either, but think maybe it was Mexico.

This is jaw-droppingly ignorant, and I’m inclined to put it down to typical sitcom exaggeration — making characters look dumber than anyone could possibly be, for the sake of getting a laugh. But then I reflected a little more and thought, maybe it only seems staggeringly stupid to me because I have a history degree, teach history, and am a history geek. Maybe the question of who fought who in WWI is not actually general knowledge for most educated people? And that (along with trying the Jeopardy quiz) made me think — what’s actually included in “common knowledge”? What can most educated people be expected to know?

I would think that “Who did we fight in WWI?” would be a general-knowledge level question that most people can answer, while, “What were the terms of the Treaty of Versailles?” is a specialized-knowledge question that I’d expect only someone with a strong background in history to be able to answer (I would hope that my World History students could answer it on the days before and after the final exam, but I know most of them will forget it within a week).

I wondered, what about my “general knowledge” in areas I’m not particularly strong in? Science, for example. I studied Biology and Chem in high school and got good grades, did first-year Biology in university, and haven’t touched a science subject since then. I know that I have forgotten a lot of things I learned in those courses.

One of the Jeopardy Online questions was “Na is the symbol for this element,” which I knew immediately (sodium). But another (from a different night when I didn’t take the test) was “Generally this metal has to be at -37.93 degrees Farenheit to become a solid” and I would not have gotten that answer (mercury) within the allotted 15 seconds. I might have figured it out given more time, by asking myself, “Aren’t all metals solid anyway? What metal do we commonly see in a liquid state?” but I definitely would not have gotten there in 15 seconds.

Is that “common knowledge”? By definition the people who get on to Jeopardy! (and trivia buffs in general) have to have a knowledge base that’s at least a bit broader and deeper than the general population. But they don’t ask expert-level questions on Jeopardy — that is, not the kind of questions you’d have to answer if you were getting a degree in a subject.

So what all this thinking has taught me is — I don’t actually know what constitutes “General Knowledge” or “Common Knowledge.” I’d hate to think that I’m looking down on people, like Monica, Rachel, Joey and Phoebe, for not knowing things that seem obvious to me, if those things really aren’t common knowledge. (I don’t actually mind looking down on sitcom characters, but I’d hate to transfer that snobbery to real people). At the same time, I’d like to think that I know enough things, outside my own area of expertise, to avoid looking stupid about things like Math and Science, but I’m not really sure I do.

So I put it out to you, blogosphere and social media friends! What do YOU consider general knowledge, or common knowledge? Do YOU know who your country fought in World War One, without being a hardcore history junkie? How much do you know about subjects outside your own area of expertise? And just how dumb ARE the characters on Friends?


2 thoughts on “What is Common Knowledge?

  1. Think of it this way… suppose that everything you know is on the circumference of a circle (distance around the circle or pi x d), and everything that you don’t know is inside the circle (area of the circle or pi x r x r) – forget what lies beyond your circle!!! Circles come in all sizes and your circle may be bigger or smaller than other peoples. Now comes the interesting part, for every one unit of ‘stuff’ you don’t know, and decide to add that to your circumference, the amount that you don’t know, ie, the stuff inside your circle grows by a quadratic amount. Therefore, by learning and increasing our own knowledge, we learn how little we actually know. This is a huge sliding scale depending on the original size of your circle. For some characters, like ditzy sitcom characters, their circles are made unbelievably small, so the majority of people can relate. When you know little, there is little that you don’t know. When you begin to learn, very quickly the amount inside the circle, or the amount you don’t know, becomes greater than what you do know.

    Common Knowledge… I would say there IS a basic set of common knowledge, but it is totally biased by the environment in which you live, grew up in, geographic or otherwise. Reading increases common knowledge. It stands to reason that less reading means less common knowledge. The poeple that I know who are the best at Trivia, are well read, broadly interested people, I call them multi-dimensional. They may not be genius, but they are so multi-dimensional that they know something about a lot of stuff.

  2. So interesting, Trudy! I can’t say I’m the sharpest tool in the shed. I definitely have gaps in my “common knowledge”, depending on what interests me. But I am always baffled by the amount of people who have NO CLUE what is going on in the world around them RIGHT NOW. It’s like they live in a vacuum. I mentioned ISIS to someone the other day, and they were like “Who?” I think it’s important to know history and facts and all that, at least SOME OF IT for god’s sake, but maybe what’s even more important is to know what is happening NOW, things that are affecting our lives and the future of our children. Then again, history and facts are so tangled up in current events, perhaps it’s hard to separate any of it. Feminism, for example. Hard for people to understand why feminism is so important if they don’t have a sweet clue how women have been treated for the past thousand years.

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