Well, here we are, America: Stupid again.
As if the national handwringing over the state of Britney’s hair and Anna Nicole’s rigor mortis weren’t proof enough of our priorities, here comes "Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?", a countrywide celebration of the fact that a functioning adult American can stand before the world and vacillate over what color results when yellow and red collide.
Sponsoring network Fox openly touts it as “The Most Embarrassing Game Show On the Planet.” Rome had the Visigoths to herald its decline; we have genial redneck host Jeff Foxworthy.
Premiering in the immediate wake of "American Idol," the show boasted the highest premiere ratings in nearly a decade. Surely it’s the lead-in. We’re too busy picking Dorito bits out of our folds of stomach fat to press the “off” button on the remote after Randy Jackson has issued his final “dawg” for the evening.
Or maybe it’s something else.
Why do we enjoy finding ourselves humbled by … ourselves?
Notice that I’ve boiled the issue down to a single question. Perhaps voter turnout might increase in 2008 if we framed the Presidential election as "Who Wants To Be the Target Of a Multibillion Dollar Congressional Probe?" or " Are You Smarter Than an Asbestos Study Group Lobbyist?"
Nine-year-olds know allReality television and the MySpace cult of the self has reached a state in which we are so fascinated by our very selves, and fame seems so easily obtained, that even game show focus has shifted entirely from the contestant to wonderful, glorious meeeeeee. Shows such as "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" "Deal or No Deal," and " Fifth Grader" are propelled by the concept of inviting the viewer to mentally place him or herself on the stage.
The slow pace, the help options, the “gimme” questions: The whole genre is an open-ended Eisenhower-era morality filmstrip which we are meant to discuss when the lights come up. And so it’s not "Is This One Guy You Totally Don’t Even Know Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?"; it’s "Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?"
Casting aside the “Wheels On the Bus” obnoxiousness of the theme song and the suspicious SAG membership cards in the backpacks of the too-precious children who compose the show’s “class,” "Fifth Grader" is fascinating in its this-should-be-easy construction.
The game is a Disneyfied hybrid of " Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" (Certainly nobody I know!) and "Deal or No Deal" (I’ll take the suitcase from the second stripper on the left, Howie! I can tell she likes me!)
One adult contestant answers questions with content from “grades” one through five. He or she chooses from a crop of pre-selected, actual fifth graders to help. There are three, one-use-only cheats: “Peek” (contestant can look at the fifth grader’s answer, but does not have to take it), “Copy” (contestant must take the child’s answer) and “Save” (if the contestant got the answer wrong and the child got it right, the adult stays in the game.) Eleven correct answers garners a million dollars.
The five children who can help the contestant remain on the show from episode to episode; the adults roll through with staggering rapidity, despite laconic Foxworthy’s attempts to slow the action to a tension-headache crawl.
This leaves the viewer at home with plenty of time to screech “The closest star to Earth is the SUN, you moron, how do you think we got Maui?” And it also leaves adequate opportunity to sink into the couch, discontent in the knowledge that one can think on it from now through infinity and never properly calculate how many cups are in five and a half gallons. That’s why God put the little numbers on the measuring cups from Linens ‘n’ Things.
I’m sitting here with a master’s degree, and fat lot of good it does me when discerning which geologic time period we’re currently in. Nine-year-olds know these things, apparently. Why doesn’t a thirty-year-old college professor?
Well, for one thing, unlike the fifth-graders, I don’t have a “workbook that cover(s) grade school level material in a variety of subjects,” as Fox’s disclaimer by-the-ways during the closing credits. For another, when I was in fifth grade, I was surviving, man. I was living in perfect horror that I would be chosen last once again for the kickball teams, and praying for a burst appendix before times-table tests, and wondering why I could never seem to sit still when ordered to do so.
Reading quizzes were easy. Finding a socially acceptable table in the cafeteria was hard. Make a game show about that.
This doesn’t dilute, however, the potent cocktail of sadistic glee and patriotic dismay that comes from watching a person with voting rights struggle with information which parents and teachers — and I include myself in this statement — constantly pour into young people’s heads with the admonition, “You’re going to need this Out There.”
Well, if you do, then what’s this well-dressed college graduate doing up there whining to our national redneck that she can’t manage the fourth-grade question without scratch paper?
Maybe the kids are coached. Maybe only truly dim adults are chosen as contestants. But perhaps we exhale slightly as we behold child after child ringing up the correct answer while the grown-ups flail.
There are certain slabs of knowledge that we ought to digest, although they may have pulled a fast one on you when you were informed that Pluto is a planet. Even if we don’t know this stuff anymore, somebody does. And maybe these fifth-graders will actually retain it.
Maybe the Visigoths aren’t on their way after all.
Mary Beth Ellis is a writer in central Florida and writes for .