Libresco: A trivial pursuit

Apocalypse Next

My favorite response when I was on the “Jeopardy! College Championship” was to the prompt: “The book of Mark recounts how believers, including Jesus, were baptized in the Jordan River by this man. The second the go-lights came on, I buzzed: ‘Who is John the Baptist?’ I liked the question because I was hoping that correctly answering Biblical questions on television might win me some points with my boyfriend’s Catholic parents and because John the Baptist has been the punch line of a running joke in my family. At my house, while trying to think of what we wanted for dinner, my brother and I, attempting to stall, frequently call out, “Bring me … the head of JOHN THE BAPTIST!”

I made it to “Jeopardy!” because I have a good memory for trivia (as long as it was in no way related to geography, apparently), but, when I was answering questions, I felt connected to more than just the discrete facts I was citing. The experience reminded me of one of my favorite E. L. Konigsburg books: “The View from Saturday.” Each chapter of this novel about a school trivia team begins with a question posed to one of the players during the championship, and the rest of the chapter tells the story of how the player learned the answer. As in the film “Slumdog Millionaire,” the answers are never learned through careful memorization of facts, but through rescuing sea turtles, learning calligraphy or otherwise embracing life.

At a recent Yale Political Union debate on the value of a liberal arts education, one of the speakers criticized Yale for promoting a culture of over-commitment and multitasking. “We take on too much,” he said. “You run down from your chemistry class on Science Hill to your French class in LC and the whole time you’re thinking of the math problem set you have to turn in that afternoon. You never are entirely focused on anything you’re doing.”

The speaker was correct in his description of the typical Yale experience, but this constant pressure to multitask is one of the greatest benefits of our time at Yale. We aren’t here simply to amass a set of facts; in an Internet age, anyone with basic search skills can easily find whatever names, dates and places are required. Our education is focused, but not exclusively so, on acquiring skills, not data. In all of our classes we learn how to design problem-solving algorithms and writing or presentations skills, all of which are valuable tools, wherever we end up.

Yale puts us in a situation where we are surrounded by passionate, intellectual enthusiasts, diverse, interesting facts and powerful methods of reasoning, and then doesn’t ever give us enough time to think about only one thing at a time. I’ve benefited enormously from being forced to amalgamate data and methodologies from different disciplines during periods of academic stress. I’m pretty confident that Michael Frame’s “Fractal Geometry: Concepts and Applications” did more for the structure of my essays than any writing tutor ever has, and I’ll never forget the theological argument I had with another budding topologist who, in an attempt to demonstrate how a god could unify apparent logical contradictions, rolled up a table tent and said, “OK, so imagine God is a cylinder …”

The crossover ideas that we explore while juggling problem sets or arguing with friends are the ones that will engage us long after we have forgotten the particular formulas or reading assignments that led us to them. Learning at Yale — and, one hopes, long after we leave Yale — is an act of synthesis and creation, not mere recitation. And, while being on “Jeopardy!” may seem to be the antithesis of this take on learning, away from the buzzers, the other contestants shared this zeal for exploration and making connections. I’ll remember the contestant writing a senior essay on the influence that Watergate had on horror movies for much longer than I’ll remember the capital of Western Australia (apparently, it’s Perth — I looked it up again for this article).

On “Jeopardy!” John the Baptist netted me $10,000. Maybe he’ll change the way I write about malaria interventions, too. After all, he knew a lot about standing water.

Leah Libresco is a junior in Jonathan Edwards College.