Sunday, March 9, 2014

Homework Assignment

As published in The County Times ( in March 2014

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

Former Tonight Show host Jay Leno, the man with the prodigious chin and elite car collection, used to do occasional street-side “Jaywalking” bits where he’d pepper unsuspecting folks with basic history or general knowledge questions.  It produced some of his best work. There was the Thanksgiving edition where a lady answered “Benjamin Franklin” when asked which president made Turkey Day a national holiday and a guy declared that the Pilgrims landed in “Virginia.”  Some of my other favorites include the guy who couldn’t name the author of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, the lady who blanked on the number of stars on the American flag, a young man who didn’t know the home country of the Panama Canal and a high school student who went to Florida to take a dip in…the Pacific Ocean.  Of course how could I forget the lady who, in an apparent ode to Sarah Palin, thought “Africa” was the largest country in South America or the young lady who quipped “the restaurant?” when asked where the Outback was located.  Sigh…

This is all quite funny, of course, until you are overwhelmed with example…after example…after flighty example.  At some point the smile fades and irritation takes over.  Could some of these folks have been so brilliant that they created fictional idiocy to ensure their 15 seconds of fame escaped the editor’s scissors and landed on the small screen?  I suppose, but I fear most of these folks – flunkies of fundamental knowledge - legitimately walk among us.  They probably even exert influence over others.

I understand the world is different now.  I am also acutely aware of my advancing age. I’m tucked into the middle generation.  I realize that kids today are far more concerned with Facebook, smartphones and the latest reality T.V. show than they are about the Constitution, geography and The History Channel.  I probably would have been the same way, but “my generation”, with the exception of Atari, lacked all the fancy and frivolous distractions of the electronic world – an age that produces instantaneous information and can aide learning when the crap doesn’t overwhelm the good stuff.

But that’s no excuse.  Individuals have a responsibility to build a knowledge base about our country’s history and the world. You don’t have to be a Jeopardy champion, but you do have to be smarter than a fifth grader (assuming of course you’re older than fifth graders). We owe it to our forbearers – a term I’m applying loosely – to understand the contributions they made to our species, our world and our nation.  Knowledge of the past and how the world fits together provides a sense of self and belonging, inspires patriotism, promotes understanding and tolerance and diffuses our innate human tendency to obsess over petty differences at the expense of substantial similarities.  Colonial Williamsburg’s succinct motto captures the point best: “That the future may learn from the past.”

Which brings me, latently, to sports. Baltimore Orioles manger Buck Showalter was “Jaywalking” with prospect Josh Hart recently and learned the young man didn’t know Orioles legend Frank Robinson.  Instead of getting a good chuckle from the naiveté of his nineteen-year-old ball player, Showalter gave Hart a homework assignment: write a one-page paper on Mr. Robinson. To Hart’s credit, he recognized his knowledge gap and completed the assignment.

Baseball isn’t reading, arithmetic or science, but if you are going to play professional baseball, and especially if you are going to play for the Orioles, you need to know Frank Robinson.  While Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947, a slew of stud African American players riding his coattails - a group that included Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Ernie Banks and, yes, Frank Robinson - forever solidified the MLB diamond as an equal-opportunity workplace.

During his career, Frank Robinson hit 586 homeruns, won the triple crown in 1966, won a MVP award in both the American and National League (the only player to do so…ever), was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1982 and was the first African American manager in MLB.  Buck Showalter was right. Frank Robinson is worth knowing…and now Josh Hart does.

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