Last summer, my manfriend and I challenged each other to read the BBC’s Top 100 books list, The Big Read. The list is from 2003, but we’d seen the meme that was all over Facebook and decided to see who could get to one hundred first. I think we’re currently tied, but I’m reading Little Women in the hopes of sneakily overtaking him this summer. What I noticed looking over the list, though, was how many of the books I ‘knew’ – books whose plot lines and characters I could describe with reasonable precision and could speak about intelligently in conversation, despite never having read them.
To my embarrassment, it wasn’t the bunch of English Lit classes during my undergrad, general mad knowledges, or familial propensity to pick up random facts that could be of use should one find oneself playing Trivial Pursuit that resulted in my comfort with the material, but the fact that I watched Wishbone as a young person. I’ve since realized that PBS cleaned a lot of the stories up for a young audience – Sherlock isn’t a drug addict in the Wishbone version, for instance, but the general gist of the storyline has remained deeply embedded in my psyche years later.
In a similar vein, despite having spent a semester as a History and Geography major, and holding a B.Sc. that was roughly 25% Geography cases, most of my geographic and historical fun facts come from Where in the World and Where in Time is Carmen Sandiego. My familiarity with Yuri Gagarin is owed 100% to it being the last level of the Where in Time game I played – the only PC game I ever finished, I think… Any American History related to the Civil War? Wishbone. Marco Polo and the Silk Road? Carmen. Don’t even get me started on Miss Frizzle and the Magic School bus!
As tools for teaching – and for disseminating both information and knowledge, these TV shows and video games were extremely effective. Recently, my friend Justin directed me to the games that the Wellcome Collection has put out to accompany their exhibits. My European History prof alluded to the Opium Wars, but as a tool for teaching a lesser-known historical event, High Tea is both fun, informative, and compelling. As a tool for teaching history, commerce, economics, and forecasting, it is excellent, and could be a great departure point for interesting conversations for groups of all ages.
I think there’s something to be learned here: topics become more accessible when they are stimulating and interactive. Lots of cool people are studying gamification as ways to make people more environmentally friendly… or to make dull repetitive jobs less dull, but maybe there are other features we can take away to enhance communication at all levels, be it a boring government website, or a dynamic presentation in a classroom.