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


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.)


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.


* 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

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

  1. Well stated. This came up in a conversation recently. I was researching Groucho Marx’s show You Bet Your Life. One thing that was very obvious was how intelligent and knowledgeable these contestants were. They weren’t studying line Jeopardy champs but they knew so much. They were average citizens—homemakers, insurance agents, grocers.

    I think there is a strong correlation with the fall of newspapers and the rise of entertainment tv. Viewers can give you a myriad of facts about the Kardashians but can’t name their governor or senator.

    You know I love Jeopardy too but it’s sad to see the knowledge of most contestants is considered highly intelligent when it used to be just what you learned at school.

    If people devoted just 25% of the time they spend on their phones to reading current events or history podcasts, it would have to lead to better informed voters and more responsible politicians.

    • So true. I think we’re close to the same age, so thanks for confirming what I’ve thought for a while, particularly about the fall of newspapers (hard news) and explosion of entertainment-based information. The little bit of news that my kids got as teenagers seemed to be from Jon Stewart or Sat. Night Live. Nothing against them, but I used to read newspapers or flip through Newsweek or Time. People these days seem to require a spoonful of sugar with everything. (And a lot of folks make lots of $$ supplying the sugar.)

  2. Pete old buddy, I think this is your best post ever. I couldn’t agree more with your assessment of our education system, and I’m a HUGE Jeopardy fan. I think we’ve reached ‘peak college’ now, and I believe the university-industrial-complex is starting to wobble. As much as I hated Kiski at the time, I’m grateful for the academic discipline and foundation. Szylagi’s European History was the best. And where’s Vermont? Are you kidding me? Excellent essay. JAP and Peckin’ Joe would be proud.

    • I really appreciate the high praise, Tad. First time I’ve heard “university-industrial complex,” but I do see some validity there. I guess Szylagi is about the only one still hanging around Kiski (retired, though). I didn’t have him, but he was one of the most popular teachers at that school. Not bad with a soccer ball, either!

      And as ole Alex always says, “Thank you, Johnny!”

  3. A couple of thoughts here. Firstly, Jeopardy. A lifelong fan myself, I’m ancient enough to remember when Art Fleming was host. I love playing trivia and so Jeopardy is in a sense that ultimate game. You may find it interesting (if not endlessly amusing) that I have been trying to become a contestant on that show since 1990!

    I first auditioned at the Sony studios in Calif. (Pre-Internet). Then they sent buses around and I tried out in Boston. In recent years they have been holding it online and as it happens, I just signed up for my yearly soul-crushing experience last week. It’s in April. So if you (or yours) happen to want to take the online test, get thee to the Jeopardy site. You register, then take the test on one of three nights of your choice.

    There are several other elements other than the egghead-ness you indicate. Many contestants practice at home with a fake buzzer. Also, there is an art to wagering. As to yours truly, alas I am not nearly egghead enough it would seem. But like Charlie Brown, Lucy, and football, I keep hoping.

    As to Americans’ knowledge of their own history, one need only go back to the days of Jay Leno, the Tonight show and his “Jaywalking” bit. He would randomly go out on the street in LA and ask passersby things like “Who did we fight in the Revolutionary War?” and get answers like Canada or Germany. I am not making this up. He would then take some of these dunderhead future Trump voters, put them on TV and have them compete in a Jeopardy-like fashion to see, I guess, who was the stupidest. (The lure of 15 minutes of fame apparently overwhelming revealing their stupidity for all the world to see.

    If you, like me, weep for our country, start there.

    • Been weeping a long while now, Jim. I knew about Leno’s street interviews, but not his Jeopardy-style contests. Like “American Idol”… it’s shocking what some people will do just to get in front of a camera.

      I had no idea you were such a Jeopardy buff. Our son Nick did the online test once, but didn’t make the cut. I think he’s in the process of a second try. There’s definitely a lot of skill (wagering, buzzer speed) as well as knowledge. I keep telling Nick, who lives in L.A., to get together with Buzzy Cohen (also L.A.) for some tips. If he does one day make it, I anticipate some money lost on the history questions, unfortunately.

      • Oh, yeah, big-time trivia player like a lot of people who are into Jeopardy. I used to kick ass in Trivial Pursuit and I still do at those games you find sometimes at restaurants. But that audition you have to do to get on the show is damned hard. 50 questions, 15 seconds/question to type in an answer. Every category you can think of and my understanding is they pull the Q’s from the toughest pool. Ken Jennings says your odds of getting on Jeopardy are less than of going to Harvard.

      • I really like history. So much of it interests me. I find I get on different jags.
        As far as “Canadians” I wouldn’t be a good gauge for that question.
        You know CB tries to keep his limited opinions to music/film but I do know that like south of the border, people up here are bombarded by information I have no interest in. How educators and others compete with that stuff I have no idea. They are fighting the good fight. You help keep me a bit current Pete.

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