Tuesday, September 04, 2007

5th grade bullies

I have enjoyed watching a few episodes of Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader. I like the implication that a typical fifth grader can answer all the questions asked. I know I couldn't have answered them all at that age. And I can't answer all of them at this age. Sure I know that there are 13 stripes on the flag. And I can name all 5 Great Lakes. But I don't know the national dog of France. I would guess it's a Poodle. But I'm not sure.

And should I know for sure? Should I be embarrassed that I don't? Am I not smarter than a 5th grader? There's a split claim being made by the show. Everyone is familiar with the concern that Americans are stupid. We hear that 20% of the country can't find the country on a map and we think hmmm...Our schools are a mess so 1/5 sounds about right. Even though the actual number is probably closer to 1/15. Then we turn on the claim that Americans are stupid and we look to the 5th graders as a group that puts us to shame. American 5th graders. So maybe schools are getting better?

Well of course this show has made no overt claims that Americans are dumb. It might in fact be more intent on simply calling attention to a lot of kids that are representing us very well. But there's no entertainment without a patsy and what's better than an adult being made to look foolish by a kid. It's a great reversal. Have they had a 5th grade teacher compete on the show yet?

So the kids have the ɵ-role of THEME: the producers hired them. Or they are a GOAL if they receive the praise. They might be in the role of EXPERIENCER if they are personally encouraged by the praise. The kids can also be AGENT if they answer the questions or deliberately tease the contestants. They might be a SOURCE if the contestant gets an answer from the kids. The LOCATIVE role isn't as obvious. But there are opportunities for the contestant to sit next to a student.

That leaves INSTRUMENT as an unfilled role. If we consider the role of the contestant we find that the students are often used to make the EXPERIENCER grown-ups feel ashamed. If we make the producers the AGENTS we then make the kids the INSTRUMENTS.

But this can get out of hand. I read a sentence the other day that unwittingly put a brutish sense out there.

  • "I feel like seriously I could be beaten with a fifth grader!"

That puts the producers or some other AGENT in a pretty violent role. And it puts the kids into a very non-human INSTRUMENT role. It also called to my attention the way that prepositions can propel some very textured readings when they occur in an unexpected phrase. If the sentence simply changed "with" to "by" we wouldn't just assume that the kid is clobbering the writer. We would assume the pummeling was in some sort of a non-violent skills competition.

And of course a kind reading using with allows us to see the producers as nefarious agents of destruction and ridicule. And isn't that the safest bet when it comes to the suits at FOX?


  1. I'm taking this - with attribution of course! - for my class. Thanks!


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