The Known Unknown

My math teacher, Mr. Pseudonym, gave us some fatherly advice back in 1984. He accessed the collective intelligence of the assembled hopeless in his classroom and said, “The older you get the more you realize how stupid you are.”

Thinking this might be on the test, I wrote it down next to my ballpoint drawings of exploding robots, in a notebook otherwise devoid of scholarship, and went back to my sketching. I’m sure he felt compelled to give this advice to us because we were in summer school, which, for the uninitiated, was required of students who had flunked a class or three the previous year so they and their lazy, drug-addled brains might advance to the next grade. It wasn’t exactly a think tank.

I gave what he said careful consideration (before becoming distracted by thoughts of how cool Batman is), but weighing the prospect of embarrassing stupidity against the effort to acquire and retain knowledge, I concluded, at the age of fifteen, that  I was exactly as stupid as I wanted to be. It wasn’t that I was incapable of learning; I was just steadfastly opposed to it. I was maintaining a strict regimen of drawing, naps and playing my Pink Floyd albums backwards. These constant requests that I study up on ancient Mayan long division or the Founding Fathers’ voting records had long since become a nuisance. Mr. Pseudonym, whose real name I can’t remember any more than I can recall his mathematic teachings, was wrong: I knew exactly how stupid I was. And I was cool with it.

Today, the results of my war against knowledge are clear: I am a pure product of the U.S. educational system. I don’t know the state capitals, the square root of 37 or what year the Huns invaded New Mexico. I can’t explain why water boils, describe the Treaty of Versailles or calculate change for a twenty without severe mental aggravation. I have a very short grasp of the human reproductive system (maybe that’s why I don’t have any children), basic physics or any history prior to the first Three Stooges short. You name it, I don’t know it.

I am absolutely hopeless in matters of geography. I have the basic sense of direction to find my way to the liquor store without a GPS (which I’m too stupid to operate), but I cannot locate large land masses such as Ecuador or South Dakota on a map. I’ve got the global basics – North Pole, South Pole, Equator, Atlantic Ocean and that other ocean – but that’s where my cartography skills start to falter. I know Spain is the country with the bullfights and the siestas and the Antonio Bandaras, but I have no idea if it’s located south of Romania or just outside of Pittsburg.

It’s a vast expanse of know-nothingness I’ve lived with all these years. One wonders how I’ve managed to operate basic household appliances or simple footwear with the low wattage cranium I’m toting around. And yet, despite my ignorance of basic math and science, I have managed to absorb detailed information on a myriad of unimportant topics: Gilligan’s Island trivia, the B-sides of various disco hits, the varieties of Captain Crunch past and present, Billy Barty’s screen credits – a wealth of candy-coated knowledge. Like most Americans, I have retained volumes of pop culture tidbits in place of useful intelligence. I can’t replace a timing belt or explain gravitational pull to a schoolchild, but I know who did the voice of what Muppet.

This means that, in order to preserve my reputation as a thinking adult, I not only have to hide my ignorance of worthwhile information, but also pretend NOT to know the unbelievably stupid things I can actually recall. I could tell you the name of the planet where Chewbacca was born, for example, but instead I will deny that I’ve ever heard of Star Wars (that was the movie with Dr. Spock in it, right?). I will feign ignorance of KISS videos or Justice League members so as not to appear immersed in childish claptrap, but since I’m neither displaying knowledge of foreign trade policy or local zoning regulations, I now seem to know nothing at all.

I will defend myself as a “big picture” sort of thinker, untainted by the petty details of a given topic and only concerned with the larger ramifications. In reality, what this means is that, while some scholars discuss the abdication of the Neapolitan and Sicilian thrones by Charles III of Spain in 1759, I am more likely to speculate about the effects of time travel. I mean, if you had Lasik surgery in 2015, wouldn’t your eyesight go bad again when you traveled back to a time before modern ophthalmological technology was invented? And what if you could take a Game Boy back in time and let King Charles play Super Mario Land? He’d totally freak, right?

Let’s face it. Pop culture wins over useful knowledge. But I like to think that I’m at least dedicated to the idea of higher learning in principal. That is, unlike so many in our modern culture who belittle intellectuals, from geological scientists to know-it-all Popes, I like the idea that someone out there is smarter than me, and that these wise teachers and talk show hosts might be able to slip some words of wisdom my way when I am momentarily distracted from Duck Dynasty.
When I time travel back to 1984, I can see that I at least gave the general appearance of a bright-eyed student, eagerly scratching away in my composition book, so as not to hurt Mr. Pseudonym’s feelings. In fact, on the last day of class, I was the only student to show up. He and I killed the final hours by wheeling in a television and watching a rerun of Cannon, starring William Conrad.

I explained that William Conrad was the voice of Marshal Dillon on radio’s Gunsmoke, and that he once owned the original Maltese Falcon statue. Mr. Pseudonym gave me extra credit.

(I am pleased to report that, upon conferring with a Star Wars expert, I discovered that I didn't actually know the name of the Wookie planet after all.)

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