Obscured by trivia

I’ll admit up front that I’ve never been a fan of books of trivia so this discussion of the growing popularity of trivia books was both surprising (there’s really interest in those things?) and interesting [via A&L Daily]. The supposition made is that increased interest in trivia is a symptom of an increased desire for information mixing with an increased desire for instant gratification. There is also the suggestion that a focus on trivia reflects a loss of “the patience required to mine the deeper satisfactions of old”.
There is no rigorous support for these claims, but they sound plausible to me. I think about the recent fashionability of spelling bees. I have no particular problem with spelling bees, and I certainly value the correct use of language, particularly in formal settings. But they seem like a prime example of extensive memorization being equated with intelligence, at least in their mass marketed presentation. I know that, in order to be competitive at a high level in spelling bees, one needs to know the influence of the etymology of a word on its spelling. But I would be really curious to see statistics on the number of spelling bee participants who go on to become linguists. Because, in the presentations I have seen of bees, there isn’t any focus on the deeper understanding of the structure and evolution of language that could be built on top of a comprehensive knowledge of its constituent parts. And that may be due to the bees being presented for a trivia-focused society, but I have suspicions otherwise.
It is interesting to see the article describe trivia books as a offspring of the information age. This is unintuitive to me. As someone who has an always-on internet connection, I cannot imagine buying a trivia book. If there is a tidbit of information I want, I can likely find it on the internet, and if I can’t my library’s on-line catalog can help me find a credible source that will not only include that fact,but generally also an interpretation of it. And that is, I think, the key to why some people bemoan an interest in trivia. Facts are only interesting when you add interpretation. (Any students who have gone through my Fundamentals of Information Systems course with me are now flashbacking to our inforamtion = data + context forrmula….) Trivia is very carefully written to be striking without much interpretation – my guess is that the strikingness is often related to its ability to give a pat summary to a very complex topic. It doens’t invite analysis and can even be phrased to discourage it. The first example in this article says “the first paved road was 7 1/2 miles long and 6 feet wide and was built in Ehypt… 4,600 years ago”. After the initial expected response (I imagine) of “wow – that’s long, and that’s longer ago than one would have thought” the statement gives you nowhere else to go. All of the questions that scream to be answered – why was it built? what was it used for? *how* was it built? how is “paved” being defined? and how do we know this is the first paved road? – just sit there. The shame is that people have gone to the effort to collect all of these facts, but instead of building on the attraction of these nuggets to jump into these more interesting questions, actually stiffle those types of questions by quickly jumping on to the next context-free nugget.
There are obvious educational implications, both for the types of evaluations that we value of our students, and for the expectations of our students for what “learning” means. They reinforce the importance, in our “information age”, of teaching students how to process and analyze – how to be active participants in information consumption.

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