Jeopardy!: Anti-Intellectualism and the Canon

We are so embedded in our culture, we often miss that which, once realized, is seemingly very obvious. Moments ago I had another such awakening.

Headlines about Melissa Harris-Perry’s appearance on Jeopardy! as part of a week-long marathon of various celebrities playing for their favorite charities caught my attention. While I haven’t see this popular answer-and-question show in a really long time, I watched two episodes to relive old memories and to investigate two new suspicious I had upon just thinking about the show.

Jeopardy! presents itself as a celebration of “smart” and “intelligent” people. Those appearing on the show must go through several practice tests and auditions, both online and face-to-face. Certainly, those appearing on the show know a great deal, but what do they actually know? Potential and actual contestants know the name of recent movies, state and country capitals, and the main characters of major literary works, for example. But, and this goes to my passionately-held I’m-a-historian/philosopher-not-a-history-buff belief, can those appearing on Jeopardy! discuss these topics? Do they understand why World War I was transformative? Do they appreciate that most questions are derived from an entire spectrum of diverse, sometimes conflicting questions and answers?

Jeopardy! rewards instantly knowing the one correct answer question from a selection of (not-so-random) factoids. Such shows allow us to seemingly reward “smart” people and celebrate the achievements of “smart” people, in perfect neoliberal fashion. Potentially too Alex Trebek and his players allow us to reassure ourselves that education isn’t really in trouble and that people just need to “study harder.” The frequently-everydayness of contestants suggests that everyone has an opportunity to showcase their knowledge to millions of viewers. Additionally, Jeopardy! presents itself as being educational: By watching the show you can learn about History, politics, science, and much more. 

And yet, we’re still left with the problem that Jeopardy! only asks for, only allows, only celebrates the most basic, lowest levels of knowledge that do not even particularly have room for even the possibility of discussion. Jeopardy! never even nears discussions about how e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g in our world is a social construction. 

Knowledge is not nearly as meaningful without understanding the big pictures and diverse philosophies involved.

More problematic, Jeopardy! essentially only tests knowledge belonging to what we could call a White United States Canon. There are few if any answers about the diversity we (sometimes) (pretend) to truly celebrate in the United States. Answers about Black, Latinx, Queer, Asian, Native American culture, history, science, and politics are absent. Answers focus not just on White people and ideas but on those that reflect that which has been arbitrarily deemed at-least somewhat famous, “proper,” “moral,” and “wealthy,” for instance.

I wonder how much more difficult and interesting Jeopardy! would be even if it just reflected the true spectrum of factoid answers-and-questions available in the U.S.? How many more people would have an opportunity to appear on this show? And who would judge whether or not the participant spelled and pronounced the question “correctly”?

What are your thoughts?

Andrew Joseph Pegoda