Quiz : quizzical :: test : ___?

The other day, we talked about the legacy of Ray Bradbury’s most famous work Fahrenheit 451, especially as it relates to books, education and book learnin’.

Your homework assignment, faithful column readers, was to go online to the OA Education Facebook page and participate in the daily “Are you smarter than a..?” STAAR questions.

For those of you who did, I hope you had fun. I certainly do. One showed I was not, in fact, smarter than a freshman biology student.

Question: Like complex carbohydrates, proteins are biomolecules that serve many functions and can be chemically broken down and restructured. Both proteins and complex carbohydrates are which of the following?

A Polymers of smaller subunits

B Sequences of sugars

C Lipids of large molecules

D Nucleotides of DNA

I was stumped. Ninth grade is a decade ago, and biology is not something I can claim to have a penetrating interest in now. So I admitted I didn’t know the answer, and went to “the Google” to find out.

The answer is “A,” and some people got that right without needing even to guess (the trouble with multiple choice is it tests you on method of answering as much as what you know).

Eventually, I read a lot more about polymers than I intended, and it was all quite interesting.

Coincidentally, one of the most popular shows on the BBC is the Stephen Fry-hosted program “QI,” or “Quite Interesting.” Essentially, Fry hosts a group of comedians and asks them trivia questions, penalizing them when they give an apparently obvious, “common sense” answer which is actually incorrect.

“Which mountain’s peak is farthest from the center of the earth?” The answer is Chimborazo in the Andes because the Earth has a bulge at the equator, putting it farther way than Mount Everest in the Himalayas.

Or, “When you shoot a bullet from a gun and drop a bullet from your hand at the same height, which hits the ground first?” The answer is that they’ll hit at the same time, acted upon equally by gravity. The fired bullet just goes a really long way as it drops to the ground at 9.8 meters per second, per second.

Some you’ll know, and some you won’t. But the point is, that’s how trivia works. They’re little points of information, not necessarily worth knowing in the hunter-gatherer sense of practicality, but they are pretty darn fun. Exciting. Enlightening. They give you things to talk about over coffee when you’ve not been tested in a standardized way for 20 years.

No one can know everything, but that feeling you had in first grade learning about snakes and subtraction wasn’t an aberration. Schools just beat it out of you over the next 12 years and made you think you learned stuff to pass tests, get a good job and make money. Which is the dumbest thing I can think of to teach people.

And the reason books are so important, the reason they provide something nothing else does, is because they’re organized to make it sort of difficult to find out what you want to know. Wikipedia is a thousand times more efficient (and equally trustworthy, but let’s not get into that).

But books tell you the thing you want to know in a sea of things you never cared even to wonder about. In doing so, you learn a lot of things you find out retroactively you really did want to know. And after the fact, more of it sticks in your head because great clumps of memory are all devoted to the War of 1812 or Algebra II or biology, rather than just one desolate, stranded fact.

Knowing that Francis Scott Key wrote “The Star-Spangled Banner” is in fact a lot less satisfying than knowing where he was when he wrote it, why he did and what aspects of warfare in the early 19th Century the lyrics describe.

When all the tests are done, it doesn’t matter so much that you remember something, but how and why you do. With smart phones and the Internet making our memory increasingly external, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The printing press meant people stopped memorizing books in whole, after all. But learning things is a joy, not a chore.

As Bradbury said, his college was the library. And somehow he managed to be smart, happy and successful without a No. 2 pencil.

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