“Questions” We Can Learn from Alex Trebek

This commentary supplements a Dec. 22, 2020, podcast called “The Sandwich Generation,” in which host Chris Godfrey interviewed me about the power of group gamesmanship to edify whole families and renew community values. You can listen to the half-hour interview here. It was aired on Redeemer Radio in the Fort Wayne-South Bend area. The text below was updated on January 6, 2021.

“He was our trusted man with the answers, even in times when reality came to us in the form of a question.” New York Times TV critic James Poniewozik wrote that about Alex Trebek, the beloved “Jeopardy!” game show host who died November 8. The writer was referencing the contrarian rule that players on “Jeopardy!” shall be presented with an answer and must reply in the form of a question. He was right that reality poses questions, but it can’t stop there.

My testimonial in honor of Trebek, whose presentations and persona have inspired me ever since he assumed his iconic role in 1985, is this reflection: We have been well educated–and assisted in our continued growth in knowledge (and perhaps wisdom)–by the intelligent, respectful, exciting, and joyful dialogue that can take place every evening. Thank God that will continue, with legendary “Jeopardy” champion Ken Jennings as the interim host.

Thanks to Trebek, who has been called “America’s teacher,” the oddly beautiful, inseparable pairing of A&Q, of insight and inquiry, of gift and response, has helped me to think of truth as resilient, renewable, sustainable power and to see knowledge as something pursued amid both community and friendly “competition,” never held captive or hidden or weaponized.

The motif of learning I absorbed from this game is reconstructionist, not deconstructonist, liberally progressive yet conservative. The contest had to be taken somewhat seriously because two super-powers–understanding and curiosity–had been loosed for a drama of both collaboration and combat. My only response now is to ask a follow-up questions. What is the legacy of this 80-year-old gentleman who embraced both wisdom and mystery, a Yoda-like blend of rigorous dignity and centered humility? And what should we do with that legacy (beyond renewing the game for multiple seasons, of course)?

It seems a national audience has been empowered to move from learning to teaching, to use the same qualities and quests to motivate tomorrow’s contestants. As our collective mass of information and our mash-up of realities grow exponentially, successive generations must advance their questioning at a fast pace–into the next round, as it were. They must avoid being overwhelmed while they focus, shape, and sustain their inquiries, or else the game’s title will take on new, prophetic meaning.

I am grateful and optimistic that this game show–especially when it took on the Trebek-led combination of urgency and happiness, seriousness and light-heartedness, competitiveness and fellowship among respected contestants–is a good influence tucked inside a quagmire of pop-culture toxins. The influence can be summed up by the notion of cultivating wisdom at the intersection of knowledge, experience, good judgment, and continuous, wide-ranging learning. Without imagining that a TV program can be a panacea of transformative wisdom, these are ways in which I saw it influencing the public consciousness amid the entertainment values and celebrations of cash prizes:

  • “Jeopardy!” is a family-friendly game, an invitation for intergenerational dialogue and the sharing of edifying knowledge that endures over time. Grandparents and grandchildren, as well as age groups in-between, can look at each other and admire what the other persons know. All these individuals can see each other’s minds work, drawing upon various functions of reason and intuition, to produce good outcomes. They might spark another person’s curiosity about something from the past or present that deserves to be better understood.
  • The application of the term “jeopardy” to the rules of the game signaled an element of risk entailed in responsibility and accountability. You could win money by giving the right answer–question, I mean–but you could lose money by giving the wrong answer. Ignorance and carelessness can exact a price. The exercise of one’s mind takes place in the context of costs and benefits experienced by oneself and others. One must enter the contest, pursuing excellence, and one must remain aware of certain rules (like that mandate for “questions”) that establish a level playing field. There is a real sense of adventure undertaken and a just victory earned.
  • Producers of the game, probably encouraged by Trebek who accepted the duties of an educator, reach out to young people by holding “teen tournaments” and “college tournaments,” for example. Of course, marketing and ratings drive this outreach in part, as seen in the addition of a “celebrity tournament,” but there is an inclusiveness and democratization in this celebration of knowledge. Besides being open to various age groups, anyone can take the online test for eligibility and participation. This reflects the principle of equal opportunity without equal outcomes, nurturing a sense of meritocracy free of elitism or favoritism. Of course, it’s television, so I’m sure that in some sense a person’s telegenic or otherwise appealing nature might yield an advantage in preliminary selections, but I don’t know how this affects production decisions; in any event, producers offer a sense of the American mosaic, so I applaud this as good TV.
  • There is a personalist element to the show, mastered by Trebek with respectful acceptance of winners and challengers. He did not shy away from occasional friendly scrutiny or inquiry or observations of performance in his interviews and random comments. I believe Ken Jennings will bring his own personality to this touch of intimacy without injecting meanness or a philosophy of “everybody gets a trophy.” Contestants are treated as people with stories, not merely databases crowded with facts, measured by metrics. Wit is encouraged to the degree that it builds camaraderie, so long as it is not a distraction or a display of pride or a dismissal of propriety.
  • The game is a model of the ideal “university,” where the array of categories represents a broad spectrum of knowledge which is connected and constructive. My wife and I always enjoy noticing the questions about religion and the Bible. On most days, I can call out, “there’s the Catholic question!” at least once. It may or may not be specifically Catholic in content, but such a question is an affirmation that faiths and their embrace of transcendentals like truth, beauty, and goodness are desirable parts of a life well lived.

Future hosts of “Jeopardy!” will need to prove themselves as “people persons” who enjoy the context of each individual’s endeavor, which in a sense is every person’s endeavor. The real winners are those who integrate multiple skills, sensibilities, and perspectives, who have engaged with the world in a way that expands themselves and all other “stakeholders” in the program. Alex Trebek was the ultimate stakeholder and steward of the values which allow knowledge to be properly gained, proffered, and assessed in an open marketplace of insights. May future hosts and audiences emulate this champion of education. HIs legacy includes a role in forming many other champions who can sustain and refresh intellectual solidarity, touching society and souls.

About Bill Schmitt

OnWord.net is the home for Bill Schmitt's blog and biographical information. This blog, initiated during Bill's nearly 14 years as a communications professional at Notre Dame, expresses Bill's opinions alone. Go to "About Bill Schmitt" and "I Link, Therefore I Am" to see samples of multimedia content I'm producing now and have produced during my journalism career and my marketing communications career. Like me at facebook.com/wgschmitt, follow me on Twitter @wschmitt, and meet "bill schmitt" on LinkedIn.
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