What We Oughta Know

Not long ago, at a beach house, I chanced upon a 1956 edition of the board game Go to the Head of the Class, and discovered that American children of the 1950s–themselves objects of scorn–had it all over their descendants. Players of the game must answer questions correctly in order to advance. “Who was the ‘Napoleon of the stump’- President Tyler, Polk, or Pierce?” “Was Lillie Langtry or Lillian Russell known as ‘Jersey Lily’?” “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?” “Simone Simon was born where?” The game, advertised as being for people “8 to Adult,” is now virtually unplayable.

The United States will never have a true national curriculum (besides Jeopardy!), and there will never again be a generation capable of replying “Polk,” “Lillie Langtry,” “2,005,” “Rutherford B. Hayes’s,” and “Marseilles” to those questions from Go to the Head of the Class. But it probably makes sense to designate a dozen or so things that every American should know. I’m hardly an expert, but my short list would include: the difference between Theodore and Franklin, and between Joe and Eugene; the significance of Booth, Guiteau, Czolgosz, and Oswald; the meaning of the term “tax event”; the price of gasoline in other industrialized countries; the infield-fly rule; how to tell time on a nondigital watch; the custom that people be allowed off an elevator before others get on; the convention that when walking you keep to the right; the fact that a dozen specimens of a single species don’t count as one item for Express Lane purposes; and the fact that the now universal linguistic trope “No problem” is not synonymous with “You’re welcome.”

From The Atlantic Monthly (Feb. 2001). Subscriptions: $12.95/yr. (12 issues) from Box 37584, Boone, IA 50037-2584.

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