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Academic Trivia

Treasuring the Chance for GDS Students to Explore

The sometimes-arcane world of Quiz Bowl, History Bowl, It’s Academic, and other assorted games (including Academic WorldQUEST, a competition that involves very specific knowledge from readings on international issues) is, for some who love the games, a vital part of the GDS High School experience.

The tournaments in which these games are played are all different. Some require obscure knowledge of Japanese authors, formulas for chemistry and physics, or even medieval warfare. At other tournaments, question writers try to ask questions based on their definition of a basic high school curriculum (one problem here is that the curriculum has changed rather more quickly than do their questions. Are there schools that still read Evangeline?)

GDS has a storied history in these games: Over the years that I’ve been coaching (and I go back close to three decades as a sponsor/coach in this area), GDS has won several Superbowl Championships. The trophy case is full of plaques and cups and tributes to an adolescent fantasy of the winged goddess Nike. (And there would be even more had we not misplaced the key to that case, meaning that the most recent trophies are sitting on my colleague Abraham Pachikara’s desk). Such trophies indicate a win, place, or show by GDS in the hundred or so tournaments that we’ve competed in over the years.

But sometimes I think the trophies we don’t win are the most meaningful. Let me explain: At many schools, being on the “A-Team” for Quiz Bowl or History Bowl or other games not only means slogging to endless tournaments near and far, it also means choosing this activity over all others. There are schools that require daily practice and mandatory attendance at meets and tournaments, or for the TV game.

Some years ago, a colleague at a school that wins many championships threw the winner of the Teen Jeopardy! tournament off the team because the student began missing practice sessions. I can appreciate this. When you’re a coach, regardless of the sport or activity, it’s easy to wrap yourself up in the team’s winning. We spend considerable time in practice, and it’s human nature to invest oneself in the outcome. But is it right to demand such total devotion? It is surely meaningful to help students develop into great players, to help them forge a team, to give them a sense of what it takes to win and what a thrill it can be to win. So there is a case for the mandatory practices and the demand for exclusive loyalty to the activity.

But there is another way to look at it, particularly at GDS. What if some of the players want to play soccer, or lacrosse, or run track, or write for the Auger Bit, or attend an affinity group that meets at a conflicting time? What if a salient player wants a role in the musical? (An even more demanding activity, at least in the short term.) Will there be time for that player to practice in the afternoon? The answer is, there won’t, and the result may be a second place instead of win, or maybe finishing pretty far back in the pack.

But, isn’t high school the place for a student to try new things? Acquire a variety of experiences? A chance to develop a range of talents and abilities? Isn’t the goal that a GDS student gets that chance to explore? If we demand attendance at daily practice and at tournaments, don’t we limit the range of experiences a student should have just to put another plaque in the trophy case that we can’t unlock anyway?

I’m not sure, but increasingly I tend to think that if a student has had the thrill of competing and being numbered among the best teams in the area or even the country, the exploration is perhaps more important. (Keep that in mind when you see an important It’s Academic game in June, in which GDS comes in a close second.)

Then there is another question about Quiz/History Bowl/It’s Academic that sometimes gets raised: When students learn lists of Egyptian authors and their works, or British mathematicians and their formulas, or planets and their moons, aren’t they just learning academic trivia? These endless facts certainly don’t comprise wisdom and some would say knowing them is not even real knowledge! But I think that criticism misses the true value of the activity. I remember a college essay by a student in which she spoke of her friends teasing her about the trivial aspect of the activity. Her response was that there is nothing “trivial” about overcoming one’s fears. Holding that buzzer and having the courage to break into the middle of the question with an answer that might well be wrong, she argued, had given her the courage and confidence to undertake many less “trivial” activities. That student today is a lawyer advocating for children’s causes, and I sometimes wonder if it was her experience playing It’s Academic—under those lights, with parents, grandparents and peers, watching—that readied her for the job she loves today and that she does so well.

Also, the teacher in me thinks that there is always the possibility that if a student memorizes a title and author, he or she will see that book sometime, pick it up and read it. Or that when a student memorizes a formula, AP chem will be a little easier if that formula is needed; or that knowing the moons of Saturn will prove useful in some way—even if it’s part of winning a half-million dollars on Jeopardy!, as recent GDS Quiz Bowl alum Matt Jackson managed to do last fall.

I’m inclined to think that the total experience is worth more than the plaques, and that one special thing about GDS is that we don’t just permit, but treasure, the chance for the GDS student to explore.

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