Warden: Tell me exactly what you saw.
Captain: Well, sir, it looked like a flying bison.
Warden: A what?
Guard: It was a giant flying buffalo, sir, with an empty saddle.
Warden: Which was it? A buffalo or a bison?
Captain: Uh, I’m not sure what the difference is, but that’s not really the point is it, sir?
Warden: [angry] I’ll decide what the point is, fool!
My parents bought a house in about 1981. I don’t remember the exact year. But I do remember, quite clearly, sitting on my bed in my new bedroom, reading an Electric Company magazine. There was a Spider-Man comic in it as always. Peter and MJ were spelunking—a word the comic may have used, but I don’t remember—and he taught her that stalactites have a “c” in them, like “ceiling,” and hang down, and stalagmites have a “g” in them, like “ground,” and stick up. I have remembered this detail for approximately forty years now, which I’m sure is longer than even the people insisting on educational content in Spider-Man comics expected.
I tell that story a lot, but it’s a prime example of the human tendency to acquire information. It doesn’t matter where a fact comes from; what matters is that it’s been presented in some way that sticks in our heads. That’s probably part of the drive to get educational content into children’s programming. (The other is guilt about how much TV kids watch.) But of course it doesn’t have to be deliberate education. If I thought about it, I could probably tell you words I’d learned from various shows or movies or what have you. Heck, recently, Spider-Man probably taught some kids a bit of European geography.
I won’t say Avatar has now taught my kids the difference between a buffalo and a bison, not least because that difference is never actually explained on the episode I’ve taken today’s epigraph from. Also, neither one has six legs, so there’s that, too. But I’m pretty sure that’s how my three-year-old has learned of the existence of lemurs. Certainly my seven-year-old can tell you quite a lot that he learned from Minecraft, some of which is even relevant to the real world and not just Minecraft.
There is so much knowledge out there. I know one of my biggest failings is assuming that everyone is as fascinated by it as I am and that everyone wants to know everything I know; a friend of a friend really doesn’t like me because she thinks I’m constantly showing off what I know. Which is not my intention. I’m much more of a “gee, this is fascinating!” type than a “I know this and you don’t.” Because after all, if I tell you, you know, right? And now we both know and that’s even better! Not everyone thinks this way, and you’d think I’d someday remember that.
I suppose it helps to be predisposed to finding information interesting to then find it everywhere. However, this is one of those things that I’m pretty sure isn’t just me. I’m pretty sure everyone has at least one story of “and that’s how I learned this thing,” where the how isn’t just “they taught it to me in school” or “I read a nonfiction book with that piece of information relevant to what the book was conveying.” I mean, maybe it is—another of my failings is that I’m a little too inclined to see the most basic workings of my personality as universal. But this feels like one of those things that everyone does. It also feels like a great thing.