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Trivial Pursuits

Roy Esaki

So much for exclusive prime tickets to The Producers, a lifetime patronage to the MFA so I could schmooze at those fancy cocktail receptions for big donors, and taxi rides to and from classes every day. They asked, and I answered with an emphatic yes, but all I got from the collegiate tryout for “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” was a pen and a T-shirt. Guess I wasn’t “Millionaire” material. But it was a nice T-shirt, worth a couple bucks, I’m sure. That, and the reminder of how much there is in the human experience that I’m completely ignoring in lieu of mundane trifles, is probably worth a lot more.

It was common in ancient Greece to find statues of Hermes or Hecate on street corners, where people would often banter and exchange trifling tidbits, presumably to increase the exposure of the statues to passersby. The latter goddess was eventually known as Trioditis -- or Trivia in Latin -- for being worshiped where three roads meet. Either that, or she guarded the three-fold gates of the Underworld. Or possibly something else. I don’t know, but that’s all right-that’s trivial.

Depending on one’s perspective, all sorts of things can be reduced to trivia-the current home-run record, David Duchovny’s alma mater, the creator of The Birth of Venus, the past three Secretaries General of the United Nation (who, together with Kofi Annan, most justly earned this year’s Nobel Peace Prize). The potpourri of sundry facts and information about our culture, world, and history, while fragrant and pretty, don’t do much aside from perfuming the bathroom. What OK stands for, the authentic origin of P’s and Q’s, what the words are to the second verse of the US anthem -- it seems that one is none the worse not knowing such (aside from looking silly on Leno’s Jay Walking for not knowing which United States president presided during the Civil War), and none the better for knowing-aside from possibly winning a million dollars.

But what’s trivia-cultural literacy, by another broader name, really worth for those who aren’t to appear on national TV to showcase their knowledge? It’s a trite argument that well-educated, broad-horizoned voters are necessary for an effective participatory democracy, but it’s a valid one. People should know who Daschle and Lott are, the gist of the history and geopolitics of the Middle East, and be familiar with the basic geography of the world. We can’t all be the President.

Another reason, perhaps less dire but no less significant, is to be socially well-adjusted. It’s important not to just to have small-talk fodder at cocktail parties, but to be able to relate with any member of society at any time with conversations about topics other than school or work. A worldly cognizance is essential for the proper socialite. Having a common repertoire of knowledge strengthens the bonds between each member of the greater community; the greater the random trivia one knows, the more likely it is that there will be a connection with another person’s passions.

There’s a lot to know out there beyond what we’re comfortable with, or even beyond what we think worthwhile. But while a lot of what’s out there is irrelevant and frivolous (perhaps even some opinion columns), it would be a shame to completely ignore the fascinating range of the triumphs (and gaffes) of millennia of human civilization and evolution. Trivia is by no means trivial.