Common Stock: Knowing Something About Everything

Common Stock: Knowing Something About
Cullen Murphy, Atlantic Monthly
In an entertaining yet admonishing essay, Cullen Murphy bemoans the
growing lack of common knowledge among Americans, pointing to a
growing specialization of knowledge. Writing in the Atlantic
he claims ‘the dwindling amount of knowledge that
Americans hold in common seems to be outweighed by an expanding
amount of particularized knowledge held by groups of individuals.’
Murphy relays several anecdotes which prove today’s Americans fall
behind not only other countries, but American children of
yesteryear. Happening upon a 1956 edition of the board game Go
to the Head of the Class,
for example, he realized that
‘American children of the 1950s–themselves objects of scorn–had
it all over their descendants.’ In order to advance, players had to
answer questions that are virtually unanswerable today: ‘Who was
the ‘Napoleon of the Stump’–President Tyler, Polk or Pierce?’ ‘How
many seedless apple trees were there in the world in 1905–5, 25,
205, 2,005, or 2,505?’ ‘Birchard was which President’s middle
name?’ Although Murphy realizes that the trend away from ‘common
stock’ towards ‘private expertise’ is a logical and efficient step
in the evolution of knowledge, he does ask ominously, ‘How far
should the balance be allowed to tip?’
–Anjula Razdan
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