An eye-opening experience...
It's an odd, odd environment. Lots of the participants are retirees, college students or folks just looking for a little extra cash to get by. I'm in a fairly unique situation. Over the course of ten studies, it's become fairly apparent that I'm atypical from the average participant -- specifically my work experience, education and general breadth of what I had always considered common knowledge.
Common knowledge and common sense aren't that common, it appears. At first, I found it amusing, and it was a bit ego gratifying. Now I find it humbling, and more than a little frightening.
During the most recent study, I played in several games of Cranium, the popular party game. There are all sorts of different categories, ranging from general trivia, vocabulary and artistic skills. I tend to do quite well at Cranium, as I feel I'm fairly well rounded, if not especially "deep" within any of these categories.
Over the course of the games, I was shocked and appalled at some of the discoveries made:
- I was the only person at the table (of 6 players) who knew that all squares were rectangles, but not all rectangles had to be squares. When I explained the necessary requirements for a square, and the distinctions for a rectangle, I was met with baffled looks, and one of the ladies finally said "Ah well, I never was good at math."
- I was the only person playing who had ever even heard of Appomattox Court House. It was a "fill in the blanks" clue, where you only get to see 3 of the letters, and then need to solve the puzzle based on the clue. The clue was "Surrender Site" and the puzzle was displayed as A---M----X. I knew it before the card hit the table, feeling the clue was so obvious, but I bit my tongue, hoping someone else would jump in. I explained that this was where General Lee was asked to surrender by Ulysses S. Grant, ending the American Civil War. To which several people asked "who?"
- I was the only person at the table who knew that Leonardo DaVinci painted the Mona Lisa.
- I was the only person at the table capable of spelling what I had considered fairly common words: bachelor, banshee, cellular and (believe it or not) diaper.
- No one else at the table knew who Lucille Ball was. That's not so much common knowledge as just showing how old I felt. I'm only 33 -- it's not like I grew up watching I Love Lucy when it was first running. But how could anyone 26 or younger (as they were) not know who Lucille Ball was?
Things were further fragmented when we played Scrabble. I had politely warned them that I was fairly good, and had played for a long time. I offered assistance to anyone who wanted some help during the game. But over the course of the game, I was questioned over the spelling (or very existence) of the following words: smelt (the metalworking process -- no one had ever heard of it), fated, illicit, pare (that's not how you spell the fruit), jape, fiat, akin.
The following words were also spelled wrong by other players: deus (I accepted it as latin, but he had thought he was spelling "deuce"), doush (a woman thought she was spelling "douche"), fale (fail), ferrit (ferret) and several other similar spellings. I couldn't help but think that the rest of the players had litereally only ever learned how to spell phonetically, and not traditionally -- and had probably read very, very little.
It did nothing to boost my ego. There was no sense of pride or fun in winning. I felt something akin to pity. Not necessarily for these people (they're all very nice and otherwise bright, clever people), but for the "state of the world." It made me a bit frightened to think that this is the next generation assuming responsibilities for the world.
As soon as I got home, I read a bunch of books with my three-year-old son, Ben, and we spent hours building words with his blocks and spelling things out on his Magna Doodle. I have a greater sense of resolve now to do what I can to instill a passion for learning, reading and education in my son. The same sort of passion I felt growing up.