Practical ways to gain a little more knowledge about a range of things.
July 7, 2006 10:24 AM   Subscribe

What are these kinds of "smarts" called, and how can I help my friend get more of it?

Despite a high degree of "book smarts," my friend is a little out of touch with other things and would like to improve on that. The lack of knowledge doesn't pertain to any one subject, but something will come up in conversation and he hasn't heard of it, at all. Examples: organic foods, Bugs Bunny.

He hasn't lived a particularly sheltered life, and has always lived in a metropolitan area of the U.S., if that's relevant. Although it's certainly not expected for everyone to know everything, he would like to be a little more saavy about things in general.

So, the question: short of locking him in a basement with encylopaedias, what are some simple ways in which someone gain a little more knowledge about a range of things? Bonus points if it's something that can be done regularly / on a casual basis.
posted by pricklypear to Society & Culture (26 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Watch endless amount of TV. Read the newspaper every day. Listen to the CBC as much as humanly possible.

I seem to have the kind of smarts you describe, though to be honest, outside of trivia games and subway smalltalk, it hasn't taken me that far in life. He'd be better off spending the time acquiring a real skill.
posted by GuyZero at 10:26 AM on July 7, 2006

At least skim a reputable newspaper every day, back to front. This means read at least the headline and first paragraph of every article.
posted by orange swan at 10:26 AM on July 7, 2006

Read the style/entertainment sections of the newspaper?
posted by unknowncommand at 10:26 AM on July 7, 2006

TV is the obvious solution. I suggest VH1, which seems dedicated almost entirely to retreading every aspect of pop culture from the past 30 years.
posted by Espy Gillespie at 10:28 AM on July 7, 2006

One handy book is "An Incomplete Education," though this may be too oriented on book-larnin'

Or go to Wikipedia and just hit control-X repeatedly.
posted by adamrice at 10:32 AM on July 7, 2006

have him read askmi for a couple of days or weeks.
posted by lester at 10:34 AM on July 7, 2006

wikipedia can be a very fast literary - oriented solution to a pop culture void. If I were an alien trying to integrate into the culture and wanted to read, that'd be the silver bullet.
posted by dong_resin at 10:35 AM on July 7, 2006

Dittoing the newspaper.
posted by occhiblu at 10:36 AM on July 7, 2006

Espy Gillespie writes "I suggest VH1, which seems dedicated almost entirely to retreading every aspect of pop culture from the past 30 years."

Not to mention the past week.
posted by youarenothere at 10:42 AM on July 7, 2006

Best answer: The term you are looking for is cultural literacy.
posted by junkbox at 10:46 AM on July 7, 2006

I watch almost no TV or movies. What you said about your friend sounds almost exactly like me. I used to think that there was nothing good on TV, and that watching a movie was about the worst way I could think of to blow 2 hours of my time. But I've found that so much in society at least makes a passing reference to things on TV / in movies.

I second TV (and movies!) as the solution. I'm trying to watch a little more of it myself so I'm not as out of touch. It's slow-going, but I'm starting to occasionally know what people are talking about.

BTW, I'm big into Wikipedia. I consider it a 'book smart' product. The OP's friend (and myself) don't need to know the detailed history of, say, Bugs Bunny. We need to hear it in a conversation and know what's being talked about. Wikipedia's only good after the fact. You need something like TV to be able to know what's going on in a conversation about popular culture.
posted by fogster at 10:46 AM on July 7, 2006

Reading the New Yorker every week keeps me fairly in the know-- plus I end up with tidbits of obscure knowledge with which I dazzle my friends. Or, those friends who don't also read the New Yorker every week.
posted by miss tea at 10:58 AM on July 7, 2006

Best answer: Great suggestions, above (especially Wikipedia). A good friend (you?) might also be helpful. You know those Word A Day calendars? Why not send him a Pop Reference A Day email? (Paris Hilton: heiress to the Hilton Hotel fortune, model and relatity-TV star.) I bet this would be great fun for you. Oh, and please put me on your mailing list!

I'm very much like your friend. My parents were both professors, and I grew up in a house filled with Great Literature, classical music and Fine Art. We had a TV, but it was used pretty exclusively for movie watching (usully old movies). And I've never enjoyed reading newspapers.

How did this affect me? Well, I often get called a snob. People don't believe I could have made it through 40 years without ever watching Gilligan's Island (or whatever), so they assume I'm faking ignorance. I've also discovered that if someone asks you what your favorite book is and you say, "King Lear," they will often assume you're judging them. This isn't the case with me. I don't believe art is rankable (other than subjectively). I don't believe "Lear" is somehow better than "Clueless." But I happen to like "Lear."

Still, it hurts to be thought a snob. And it's not fun to be left out of all sorts of conversations.
posted by grumblebee at 11:01 AM on July 7, 2006

Watch a lot of Simpsons and ask people what the hell those references are to.
posted by sonofsamiam at 11:04 AM on July 7, 2006

He should go backpacking (not the cushy European kind), or go on an extended exchange program. Nothing makes you grow up quicker than being immersed in a completely different culture. Mind you he needs to go through adequate preparation with people who are familiar with how to deal with culture shock, because there is the risk that the experience, if it goes badly, who just reinforce his preconceived notions about the world.
posted by randomstriker at 11:08 AM on July 7, 2006

I strongly recommend reading, or at least skimming, a good newspaper everyday (eg. the NY Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune) for getting a sense of what's going on in the world. I think reading metafilter, wikipedia, a couple of magazines (Time/Newsweek, the New Yorker) and a newspaper works well enough that I don't think I'm missing too much without TV.
posted by scalespace at 11:11 AM on July 7, 2006

Definitely randomly watching TV or movies. I have had a lot of success getting random documentaries off bittorrent that provide hour long info sessions from engineering history to biographies of wrestlers. Why not use an encyclopedia? If he hears about something he can read the light description that is available off of Wikipedia (the not entirely accurate or exaustive version of-course).
posted by Napierzaza at 11:27 AM on July 7, 2006

I grew up in a house kinda like grumblebee's, and was very self-conscious about all the references I didn't get during high school & college. I started getting more into pop culture in the college/early 20s years, partly because pop culture got more interesting (to me) as the gen x culture became dominant & the internet started taking off. I crept back under a rock (the rock called "grad school") in my late 20's, and now keep up to a limited extent via NPR, the New Yorker, and metafilter/aldaily/daily show clips online.

The main thing that's changed for me is that I don't feel bad if I don't catch every reference. I went through a period of pop-culture literacy and realized a)how easy it is and b)how superficial it can be (ie, you can get lots of references without ever having really being engaged in the culture in a meaningful way - which is not to say you can't have meaningful thoughts about pop culture, but just that pop culture for its own sake is not worthwhile; culture should be pursued because it interests you for some reason.)

In other words, it's really not worth stressing about. If he feels out of touch, then yeah, websites, periodicals, teevee shows, movies, etc, are all part of our culture - but he should choose the ones that are actually interesting to him, rather than feeling like he's gotta catch up on the 'homework' of watching crappy sitcoms so he can share a silly joke at a party. If he spent that time reading shakespeare instead of page 6, he is probably the winner in this scenario, in the end. Time is limited, your capacity for knowledge is limited - not saying one shouldn't choose vh1 over virgil, but just choose it for yourself, not to fit someone else's standards.
posted by mdn at 11:37 AM on July 7, 2006

If your friend wants to improve on this kind of thing, he just has to make himself a little more curious.

I don't think it's possible to have lived a not-especially-sheltered life in a city without ever seeing a picture of Bugs Bunny or a sign for organic foods. Instead of going "Hmm, 'organic foods,' whatever," or even not noticing the sign at all, he's got to be willing to nudge a friend and go, "Hey, do you know what 'organic foods' means?" -- without being afraid of looking stupid.
posted by booksandlibretti at 12:15 PM on July 7, 2006

A subscription to People magazine (or similar) to keep in the bathroom should do wonders for his cultural literacy. Isn't that how most people keep up to date with the latest on Jessica Simpson and JonBenet?
posted by TedW at 12:24 PM on July 7, 2006

MetaFilter is my window on the world no, Matt did not pay me to say that and with all the links plus Google I can figure out what everybody's talking about. Plus, things often show up on the blue before everybody else has read their newspaper or watched the evening news, so I can get up to speed ahead of time.

For cultural institutions, as opposed to breaking news, the same applies. Read MeFi long enough and you'll be exposed to just about everything.
posted by Quietgal at 1:28 PM on July 7, 2006

National Public Radio. Listen on the way too and from work. Be sure to catch "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me" on a weekly basis. NPR has many talk shows that include topics on current news, cooking, cars, ethnic/culture, history, science, technology, economics, music, books, and almost everything else. Consider this a one stop, ongoing way to get up to date on just about everything.

I am actually surprised that no one else has mentioned it.

wife of 445supermag
posted by 445supermag at 2:43 PM on July 7, 2006

Response by poster: Wow, lots of great advice! I am passing this link on to him.

He has never been much of a TV or movie watcher, and after reading the comments here, I suspect that has a lot to do with it. His upbringing was similar to what grumblebee described -- not so much a sheltering, just a lack of exposure.
posted by pricklypear at 3:13 PM on July 7, 2006

Read Metafilter.
posted by klangklangston at 5:12 PM on July 7, 2006

Have him read blogs about subjects that interest him. Gawker blogs are really funny, easy to read, and full of pop culture references, and there are a ton of them. And if he doesn't get something, Google is only a window away.
posted by apple scruff at 6:02 PM on July 7, 2006

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