Those Who Don’t Know History are Doomed to Lose Money on “Jeopardy!”

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The evening game show Jeopardy! is a loose tradition in our family, encompassing three generations. My wife and I watch it faithfully, our son recently tested to compete, and my 93-year-old mom shocked me one night when, out of the blue, she called to breathlessly announce she’d gotten five answers correct. (God love her.)

Unlike most TV game shows, Jeopardy! is less about luck than skill and knowledge. On a recent show, there was a category about European history. One category answer was (WHAT IS) THE MAGINOT LINE?*

Only one of the three contestants got it right. He was Canadian. The other two were Americans.

Fear not, I won’t play the liberal parlor game of bashing Americans and extolling Canadians (as much as I like maple leaf country). Rather, I want to highlight that Americans today, as the Sam Cooke song goes, “Don’t know much about history.” And I will also add literature to history.

I use Jeopardy! as my proof positive because the contestants represent a healthy cross-section of educated people across America. Over many years of watching the show, I’ve noticed they do OK with subjects like science and math, and even better with technology, current affairs, and general trivia. And, like hungry canines, they gobble up modern TV and movies.

alex trebek

If Alex Trebek says “Oh no” for the Daily Double, it’s not only a wrong guess, but probably a dumb guess.

But questions concerning historical subjects prior to, say, the year 1990—and which haven’t been dramatized in a popular Hollywood movie—often result in ringing silence. This includes questions about Americans’ own history, to the embarrassment of Yanks like me.** Beloved Jeopardy! host Alex Trebek (a Canadian-American, and who recently startled fans by revealing he has pancreatic cancer) has also noted these difficulties with historical topics.

Jeopardy! contestants tend to lean toward eggheadedness. Therefore, if they struggle with history, one can only imagine how vacant Wheel of Fortune contestants might be.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author/historian David McCullough (The Johnstown Flood, Truman, John Adams, 1776) has also expressed dismay. A few years ago, after giving a talk at a prestigious university in the U.S., he was approached by a young co-ed who said “Mr. McCullough, until your talk, I never knew where the Thirteen Colonies were located!”

Since history is joined at the hip with geography, knowledge of this subject also seems to elude many Americans. I once volunteered for a local GED tutoring program. One of the other volunteers was a full-time, accredited high school teacher. One evening, I mentioned I’d just returned from running a marathon in Vermont, and she asked me where Vermont was.

(To her credit, though, she was a whizz at algebra and geometry. She also had the greenest eyes I’ve ever seen shamrock.)

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David McCullough, dean of popular histories

Recent statistics show that the U.S. is ill-prepared to remain a global leader through the 21st century. A 2015 Pew Research Center study of 71 countries ranks America 38th in math, and 24th in science, based on worldwide scores of 15-year-old students. Americans’ reading and foreign language skills are also extremely low. Paradoxically, though, more Americans than ever are entering the workforce with a minimum bachelor’s degree.

This discrepancy between low educational scores and a plethora of university degrees tells me that, while high schools may be handing out diplomas like Tootsie Rolls, and colleges are spitting out graduates while adding decimal places to their tuition figures, there’s not much actual education going on. One-dimensional specialization, vocational training, and earning capability, perhaps. But not education. It doesn’t help that university history curriculums include fluff elective classes like “History of Rock and Roll 101.” (I speak from experience, having two kids who wasted our money on this cotton candy.)STEM-Logo

While I applaud leaders like ex-President Obama, who made science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education funding a priority, I’m concerned that other subjects are falling by the wayside. The inference, I think, is that the liberal arts—which include history as well as social and physical sciences, geography, philosophy, English, and creative arts—are “soft” subjects, and aren’t as important. In other words, they won’t insure America’s economic and military dominance. I guess the thinking is that we can accept slipping behind western Europe, and now even Taiwan, regarding education, health care, and environment, as long as we still have a powerful Wall Street and Pentagon.

I may lack certain education and research credentials, but my “man-on-the-street” observation tells me that de-emphasizing a well-rounded education is not only misguided, but also dangerous. I won’t go into the stick-figure political leaders Americans are now electing. I will say, however, that philosopher George Santayana was on the mark with his aphorism “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”map_glasses

Unless America returns to its desk from recess and determines that funding education is more crucial than funding an irresponsible notion like a “Space Force,” and schools return to emphasizing a full and healthy course diet—a diet that includes the dreaded vegetable known as History—we will continue to replicate our historical errors, and creep further into a global village version of Skid Row.

And with the handheld computer now a far more insidious distraction and time-waster than television ever was, even the most qualified and dedicated teacher faces an ominous fortification of apathy and indifference.

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* The Maginot Line was a line of French fortifications constructed after World War I and intended to thwart a possible future invasion by Germany. As we now know, it didn’t work. But at least the French tried.

** To avert charges of hypocrisy, Mister Know-it-all here had two good history teachers who probably discussed the Maginot Line many years ago. But Mister Know-it-all forgot about it, and his Jeopardy! clicker remained inactive. Sorry, Mr. Oswalt and Mr. Kozub. But, like the French, I try.

maginot line

Basking in the Land of the Zombies

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If a group like the Zombies appeared now, they would own the worldTom Petty, 1997

Thanks, Tom, longitudes agrees.

Here’s a list of reasons why the Zombies would own the world, plus some tidbits about a beloved band on the eve of their long-overdue induction into the seriously flawed Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (in the same induction “class” as…wait for it…Janet Jackson):

  • Hailed from the city of St Albans, Hertfordshire, north of London
  • Formed in 1961 when the members were just 15; broke up in 1967
  • Consisted of five schoolmates: Rod Argent (keyboards), Chris White (bass), Colin Blunstone (lead vocals), Hugh Grundy (drums), and Paul Atkinson (guitar)
  • Lineup remained intact, and friends, throughout career
  • Won a song contest in 1964, then signed to Decca Records by infamous Dick Rowe (aka MWTDB, or “Man Who Turned Down Beatles”)
  • Covered American R&B songs in beginning, like most early ’60s Brit bands, but soon concentrated on self-compositions
  • Two U.S. number one singles with “She’s Not There” (1964) and “Time of the Season” (1969)
  • A U.S. number three single with “Tell Her No” (1965)
  • A critically acclaimed album, Odessey and Oracle (1968), released just after they disbanded (U.S.-released only through efforts of Al Kooper)
  • Appeared briefly in Otto Preminger-directed movie starring Laurence Olivier, entitled Bunny Lake is Missing (1965)
  • More popular in America than their homeland (part of the “British Invasion“)
  • The first pop band in which electric piano was the main instrument
  • A lead singer (Blunstone) with a distinctive, smoky voice and movie-star looks
  • Not just one, but two songwriters of exceptional talent (Argent and White)
  • Didn’t do drugs
  • Didn’t destroy hotel rooms
  • Didn’t impregnate groupies
  • Didn’t follow gurus or dabble in occult
  • Did perfect the two-and-a-half-minute pop symphony
  • Did amass a cornucopia of non-charting symphonies that remains undiscovered outside of Zombie enthusiasts.
'Thank Your Lucky Stars' TV Programme, 1961 - 1966

The Zombies.  L to R: Hugh Grundy, Colin Blunstone, Chris White, Rod Argent, Paul Atkinson (Photo: Fremantle Media/REX/Shutterstock)

I’ll confess, though, that I was also a bit late joining the Zombie cavalcade. For years, I’d considered them a three-hit wonder: five middle-class English geeks in matching suits who made a few classic singles…brief candles who flickered momentarily during a whirlwind era.

Thankfully, I evolved.  While vacationing in Florida in 1986 with my brother, Steve, he played a 90-minute cassette of Zombies songs while we basked on the beach. The cassette included their three hits, of course, but it also had a beaucoup of superb songs I’d never heard. It was a eureka moment. “This band is more than meets the ear!” I remarked to the startled bikini strutting nearby, between applications of Panama Jack SPF-15 while scoping the “scenery” with binoculars.

(To this day, I never visit the beach without bringing along the five Zombies…and SPF-30, if not the binoculars.)

The Zombies only recorded for four years, disbanding in December 1967 just when the rock “revolution” was occurring. Thus, their beat-band and media-perpetuated square image—executive outfits and librarian glasses—remained static, while select other British Invasion bands had an opportunity to become “heavy.” This fact undoubtedly hurt their standing with the emerging hard rock crowd and the rock music press that followed.

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Odessey and Oracle album from 1968, with “Time of the Season” (and colorful artwork by Terry Quirk)

They also lacked a distinctive lyricist, right when words were becoming important in rock. After their initial success in 1964-65, the public seemed to turn away, despite their cranking out numerous carefully crafted songs.

Amazingly, “Time of the Season” became a surprise hit over a year after they broke up, reaching #1 on Cashbox 50 years ago this March 29 (coincidentally, the same day as the Hall of Fame induction spectacle). By that time, leader Argent had formed his hard/progressive rock band, Argent, with White along as a co-writer (notably on the Top 5 single “Hold Your Head Up” from 1972). Columbia Records begged him to reunite the Zombies to capitalize on the success of “Time of the Season.” But to his everlasting credit, he refused.

Like Argent, Blunstone continued as a recording artist, finding great solo success in Europe.  Chris White continued writing and producing, and Atkinson and Grundy became music A&R reps.  Atkinson sadly died in 2004, but the other four miraculously reunited in 2008 for the 40th anniversary of Odessey and Oracle, performing the entire record on stage for the first time ever…and, unlike most such reunion affairs, the singing and musicianship was immaculate. Presently, Argent and Blunstone record and tour together under the Zombies name.

Music File Photos - The 1960s - by Chris Walter

(Photo: Chris Walter/WireImage)

If melody and harmony still count for something in popular music, the Zombies earned their PhD, and they’re at the top of the iceberg of 1960s British Invasion bands. Only the Beatles and Hollies achieved their harmonic depth, and only the Beatles managed such caramel-coated melodies and marbled arrangements. While their lyrics were less clever or astute than, say, Lennon-McCartney or Ray Davies (the Kinks), they blossomed on Odessey; one only has to look closely at the words to Rod Argent’s “Care of Cell 44” or “A Rose for Emily,” or Chris White’s plaintive song about a soldier’s emotions during WWI, “Butcher’s Tale (Western Front 1914).”

If you’re unfamiliar with the Zombies beyond their three hits, and you’d like your own eureka moment, I humbly recommend Odessey and Oracle (especially vinyl), one of the great lost jewels of the ‘60s, and the Zombies’ singular contribution to the canon of classic rock albums (despite the misspelled title!). If this tickles your fancy, then proceed to the affectionately compiled CD box set Zombie Heaven, or newly released vinyl set Complete Studio Recordings; pure pop bliss of the like we will never hear again. You’ll be as pleasantly surprised as me when I heard that cassette, on the beach, way back in 1986.

While it may defy logic why it’s taken so long for the Zombies to enter the dubious Hall, and while they disappeared from the rock radar way too early, this is certainly their year, and it took a long time to come.  And below is a link to my favorite Zombies song, the moody 1965 B-side “Don’t Go Away,” written by Chris White. Note the velvety “oohs” and “aahs,” and unusual A-B-C-C-A-B structure.

Mark it on your calendar: March 29, 2019 is worldwide Day of the Zombies.