Posted by: Lisa Pampuch | February 25, 2003

Street smart, maybe; book smart, no way

Last week I worried about our society’s basic lack of civility. This week, there’s another cause for fretting: stupidity.

I awoke in the wee hours of the morning a few months ago, and unable to fall back to sleep, I wandered downstairs to see if the dregs of nowhere-near-prime-time television might lull me into dreamland. Instead, it gave me reason to be afraid, very afraid.

I landed on a comedy game show called “Street Smarts.” The show’s host, a comedian named Frank Nicotero, travels around the country asking everyday people – adults, mind you – simple trivia questions. Tapes of three of the interviews are played to in-studio contestants who have to guess whether the person will answer the question right or wrong.

These are not even moderately difficult questions. Frank’s not asking people to come up with Einstein’s formula for the theory of relativity or to name elements based on their symbols on the periodic table.

I’m not bothered when people miss pop culture queries, such as “What’s Eminem’s real name?” or slang questions, such as “What’s bling-bling?”

But when people don’t know how many states there are in the U.S.A. (I’ve seen people answer 52), what countries are on America’s northern or southern borders, or how to pronounce simple words such as exotic, I shudder.

A person failed to identify Richard Nixon with the following clues: A U.S. president, nicknamed Tricky Dick, real first name Richard, the only president to resign. I don’t remember the interview subject’s answer; I think the shock of her failure to come up with Nixon’s name overloaded my brain and wiped out my memory of the next few minutes.

I recently saw another interview subject say she had voted in the last election. When Frank asked who she voted for, she replied, “Jimmy Carter.” I suppose she might have written in Carter’s name, or perhaps she’s a member of the group who votes for Nobel Peace Prizes, but, somehow, I doubt it. I’d sooner believe she spent the last two decades (Carter last ran for president in 1980 and was trounced by Ronald Reagan) in a coma and miraculously recovered than believe she could figure out how to cast a write-in ballot.

Suffice it to say that the show is filled with simple questions and frequently only one of the three “Street Smarts” interview subjects answers correctly.

I’ve frequently bemoaned the lack of voter turnout in this country. I’ve compared the shamefully low U.S. voter turnout to other nations’ voting rates, I’ve advocated novel ideas for increasing voter turnout, and wondered why the events of Sept. 11 didn’t send voters stampeding to the polls.

But after watching “Street Smarts,” I’ve begun to wonder: If these are the folks who aren’t voting, maybe that’s OK.

Meanwhile, I have an embarrassing confession to make: I added “Street Smarts” to our Tivo season pass list. If my 7-year-old daughter or 11-year-old son happen to be nearby when I replay the show, I especially enjoy pausing it to give them a chance to answer some of the show’s questions – and my kids know their current events, geography and U.S. history better than the interview subjects do, and my grade schoolers’ vocabularies blow them out of the water.

Maybe allowing me to feel superior for 30 minutes is some small compensation for the worry the show inflicts upon me. Or maybe I’ve just damned myself with faint praise. Either way, if you want to see how street smart you are, the show airs weeknights on KTVU Channel 2 at 1:30 a.m., and KCBA Channel 35 at 1 a.m.

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