I Am Not Smarter Than a Fifth Grader

therapy.jpg I am continually horrified by the amount of things I don’t know. I’m not talking about not being able to pass a basic physics test (something I couldn’t do) but things like “name ten presidents.” Again and again when they’re doing that thing they do on TV, where they ask a group of people some truly common knowledge type thing, something any child would know, invariably I don’t know the answer.

This happened last night while watching my recording of America’s Princess (a reality TV show where a bunch of girls compete to become a “princess”). They gave the girls a pop culture quiz and I couldn’t answer some of the questions. Yes, I do appreciate the irony here. Maybe I should stop watching shows like America’s Princess, but that isn’t going to happen. They are too much fun! Oh, and I’m probably using the word irony incorrectly.

I never know the answers on Jeopardy. Okay, I do know some of them, but not as many as I should. I do worse on the new show Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader. Really worse. Horrifyingly worse.

The thing is, I read a lot. If something is interesting to me I make an effort to learn about it, and as it happens, pretty much everything is interesting to me. I am always looking up something. Seriously, always. If I meet someone who knows about something I don’t, I ask them about it. When channel surfing I stop on Nova and shows like it as much as reality TV. I’ve been absorbing information like this for I’m not saying how many years. Not as much as some people I know, it’s true. I have friends who just go at it harder than I do, and are extremely knowledgeable about a vast array of subjects. But I should at least be able to get through Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader and I can’t.

The only explanation I can think of is, I retain little. Sadly. For instance, I remember a couple of years ago I realized it was important to understand how our economy is tied to China, and how we’ve been borrowing and are now in a vulnerable position. I read up on it, asked questions, argued with my brother Douglas about it at a backyard party (he works for Merrill Lynch, economics is his thing) and I came to understand it somewhat. Since then I have forgotten every single thing I picked up. Oh god, the stuff I don’t know or don’t remember about basic American history, world history, ugh.

Sigh. What are you going to do? I read this blog called 3 Quarks Daily. I don’t read every entry, I scroll through and read one here and there, but man. These people are not only members of the “go at it harder” club, but they are phenomenal retainers. Heavy sigh. Maybe I should just read the Times more thoroughly each day. Maybe keeping up with current events is the only recourse with my retension issues.

(The picture is of my friend Marianne, somewhere in Massachusetts, taking her dog Schlomo for a therapeutic swim. I find pictures of Marianne taking care of her dog incredibly touching.)

Stacy Horn

I've written six non-fiction books, the most recent is Damnation Island: Poor, Sick, Mad, and Criminal in 19th-Century New York.

View all posts by Stacy Horn →

6 thoughts on “I Am Not Smarter Than a Fifth Grader

  1. Stacy, I just think our mental hard drives reach a point where info we don’t need or continually use gets deep vaulted in some remote sector of our brains.

    I’d like to think that emotional intelligence and wisdom replace the knack of summoning up facts at will, but my own experience doesn’t always verify that theory……..

    David Yamada

  2. I suspect that if a subject that interests you– let’s say, totally at random, NYPD procedures on the cold-case squad– then you could probably deliver a fascinating 30 minute talk without once referring to notes.

    How many fifth graders could do that? Even if the subject was Naruto.

    There is just too much readily available information on too many subjects to do more than graze on the leafy underbrush. If you were passionate about cultivating a fluid understanding of subjects like macroeconomics, the history of the middle east, or string theory, then I’m sure you have the intellectual capacity to live that dream.

    Einstein said the true sign of intelligence isn’t knowledge, but imagination.

    I think I’m gonna go with Al’s take on life over some fifth grader who tests well.

  3. Uh, I’m going to take a probably unpopular position here — I don’t think people are equally intelligent or equally smart. Even if you completely democratized education, people just have different capacities.

    Memory may not be intelligence, but it’s part of it, and I am sure there are many fifth graders who have better mnemonic skills than I or you do.

    Intelligence is also not just a factor of how much you know. I do not doubt that people who are less knowledgeable than I or much younger than I can also be much more intelligent than I. I don’t know how much smarter you get as you age, you just know more things. But your capacity to THINK about those things may not increase.

    Reading everything on one subject doesn’t guarrantee that you will master it — you have to understand what you read about the middle east or string theory, and you have to process that understanding in a dynamic and analytic way.

    It isn’t just “passion”. There are a lot of passionate and knowledgeable morons out there. Even if you were to get passionate about something and read all about it and interview other experts, you still may find people out there more intelligent in that area than you are.

    That you could live your intellectual dream if only you wanted to is wishful thinking (and kind of an easy out for people who want to rationalize their own perceived failures).

    You sound like you usually are among the smartest people in the room, and it doesn’t seem like it’s because you surround yourself with passionate morons. So, what’s wrong with accepting the fact that there probably are fifth graders who are “smarter” than you in some ways?

  4. The competent, talented, intelligent people I know always seem to be the ones who report the nagging feeling that they know increasingly less with every passing year.

    This is the singular point I was making to Stacy– in response to the post she made about herself.

    Obviously, there are brilliant fifth graders. Let’s see how many hard facts they’ll have at their fingertips in, say, 2037.

  5. I love the picture of Marianne & Schlomo.

    And I’m with those who think we forget due to overload. Our computers tell us we have unused icons on our tabletop and we should discard them. I think our brains do the same.

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