Trivia, or the Artes Liberales

College has nearly run its full course for me and only today did I learn that the word trivia comes from Medieval Latin, in which it referred to the Artes Liberales, or grammar, rhetoric, and logic (the word itself derives from tri-, three, and via, way).  It was only in the 20th century that it was appropriated to refer to arcane, obscure, or relatively unimportant bits of knowledge.  I found it funny that I’ve spent the last three-plus years engaged in trivia of the Medieval sort, yet despite all my studies I didn’t know the rather useless trivia that surrounds the word itself.

A few days ago, I took part in a dive-bar trivia night in Brooklyn (at the lovely Last Exit) with my girlfriend.  We entered the bar just as the portly emcee was reading the rules and had barely time to add our names to the team list and sit down before the first questions were read.  Very quickly we found that a college education and trivia night do not necessarily jibe.  After enduring a mountainously difficult fifty questions and picking our brains for things like the name of Bella and Edward’s baby in Twilight (Renesmee, if you didn’t know) or the TV show featuring Muno, Foofa, and DJ Lance (Yo Gabba Gabba, and not The Wiggles, which we courageously guessed), we wandered home, exhausted.  I lay in bed and wondered about what I knew, and what I learned, and what it meant to know trivia.

I am relatively knowledgable when it comes to trivia, having spent altogether too many hours with Schott’s Miscellany and Popular Science, but I also have trivial knowledge about things I probably should know more about.  I know, for example, what someone means when he compares a person to the Philistines, or what primogeniture is, but it’s nothing more than superficial knowledge.  At a bookstore the other day, I picked up Ed Hirsch’s book, Cultural Literacy (published pre-Internet boom in 1988!), and flipped through its pages. His theory is that Americans are slowly losing their ‘cultural literacy’ – a knowledge and understanding of historical, literary, and cultural elements that provide most, if not all, of the background for anything produced today. Without these elements in mind, a person can only read, watch, or listen to the topmost level of something.  After I read the Bible in my high school English class (Old and New Testament!), I was astounded by the number of allusions I could find in something as ‘literary’ as Harry Potter, not to mention Dickens or Shakespeare.  Literature and film have multiple levels but only with a complete body of knowledge can each level be reached.  But Hirsch’s book, as much as I agreed with his thesis, failed to solve the problem because it ‘trivialized’ what he called cultural literacy.  In the appendix was a list of terms everyone needs to know – but I could look each one up on Wikipedia and be done with it.  Wikipedia gives me a cursory ‘knowledge’ of many things, but it’s no better than a trivia generator unless used properly, as a stepping-stone to greater, more detailed discoveries.  What I had hoped Hirsch would get at was how to get American children to take an interest in learning – in reading, in watching old movies, and actively thinking about every devoured tidbit.  (I am not intending prejudice toward technology, recently published books, or ‘modernity’ – I am just trying to stress how important it is to understand ‘what came before’).

The first Google Image result for 'learning in class'.

Even at Amherst, one of the top-tier liberal arts schools in the country, most of us are largely culturally illiterate.  Professors make references to things that often fly by the entire class unnoticed, and they are forced to recover with a grim smile and a “Let’s move on.”  Crossword puzzles are harder and harder – and full of ‘trivia’ as they are, remain locked up with ‘old-people’ knowledge.  What, then, is going to happen when we become ‘old people’? – being old doesn’t automatically ensure that you know things about fine art, literary history, or foreign languages.  Unless you seriously learn – no CliffsNotes here – you will be as stuck on clues about Hemingway when you are sixty.  Still, though, even in this article, I haven’t really said anything at all.  What do I mean by ‘seriously learn’?

I think people should return to the Medieval Latin trivia – grammar, rhetoric, and logic – as the basis for an education.  Treating the brain like a tool belt, these three things are like a hammer, T-square, and level.  With them, you can understand languages, work out complex problems, and speak clearly and carefully.  Once these tools are in hand, you can add more specialized tools to your belt – a screwdriver, an allen wrench, a plumb line, and so on.  You can turn to reading the Bible, or Shakespeare, or Shelley.  You can watch every single one of Martin Scorcese’s films.  We have fallen perilously into a world of modern trivia where everyone is an expert and nobody is an expert.  I’m only just feeling incredibly grateful for my college education and my summer job, both of which have provided me with special interests – reading, watching movies, cooking, and hiking – to which I can wholly apply myself.  Technology has spread us thin – we can’t possibly learn everything, and the wisest man is the man who realizes he knows nothing at all.

So for all the value of trivia (the pot was over $100, after all), I think students (and everyone else) should think about what they know, and what they know, and maybe make a resolution to pick one thing this year and dig deeply, bury themselves in it, and really learn.  At least for the sake of crosswording.