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?