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What in the World?

From 1957 through 1974, a Hartford, CT television station aired a most extraordinary weekly program called What in the World. The broadcast superficially resembled an ordinary quiz show, where a host peppered panelists with questions about global history and culture, but the show occupied an unusually sophisticated artistic space. For starters, the host made his real living as an English professor at a highly regarded local liberal arts college. What’s more, the rotating cast of panelists comprised what we today might call “public intellectuals,” i.e., accomplished local figures in education, the arts, and even law and government, all known for their breadth of knowledge and experience. Any given week might feature the headmaster of a private preparatory school, the co-founder of the Hartford Stage Company, the director of the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, a congresswoman and future Connecticut Secretary of State, a nationally known art and architecture critic, and a colorful Hartford lawyer who with his brother had previously (and legitimately) come up big on The $64,000 Question. This was indeed an ensemble cast of Renaissance men and women.

Each week’s program would focus on a single theme, usually one specific country or era, for which the panelists would all prepare in advance, i.e., reinforcing and augmenting what they already knew with days of study and review. The show took place on a minimalist set and followed a simple question-and-answer format, where correct responses earned five or ten dollars at a time, leading up to a single jackpot question at the end. At times, the show resembled a travelogue, or even a history lesson. Panelists often shared their own anecdotal knowledge of the subject matter, and engaged in occasional lighthearted banter, but never condescended to the material, the audience, the host, or one another. At the show’s conclusion, the evening’s victor would designate a specific local charity, which would receive the combined winnings of all the contestants. And then Professor Dando would announce the following week’s topic, as the scene faded into the show’s classical music theme song.

What in the World was an extraordinary piece of television, not simply because it provided something for eggheads to watch once a week, but because it implicitly extolled a clear set of civic values: education, literacy, aesthetic appreciation, collaboration, cosmopolitanism, charity. And in so doing, it mirrored what at the time was a broader national cultural narrative that these were all, in fact, aspirational qualities, i.e., social and intellectual virtues that should be displayed and championed. The public intellectuals sitting on the panels served as modest exemplars of these qualities, and their recurring appearances helped transform John F. Schereschewsky, Marcia Alcorn, James N. Egan, and others into improbable household names (well, at least in some households). For a tiny local program operating with a shoestring budget, What in the World confidently communicated the message that a community, or nation, could benefit from having a literate, worldly, educated citizenry, and it recruited its rotating intellectual vanguard to help propagate that message. If today’s non-PBS television news programs are really entertainment masquerading as journalism, What in the World was really humanistic education masquerading as entertainment.

Sadly, it’s hard to imagine a program like What in the World prospering in our United States of 2023. According to recent research, anti-intellectualism is not only rampant in the country, but is regularly employed as a weapon to politicize fundamentally non-political matters, like public health, transportation and infrastructure, and even the postal service. The majority of Americans have doubts about the state of higher education in the country, and a substantial majority of republicans do not trust university professors and believe that a college education hurts students more than it helps them. And as the Toteboard has mentioned repeatedly in the past, even many on the left don’t have much appreciation for the arts-and-letters aspect of learning. With the neo-liberal “teaching-to-the-test” mentality continuing to poison the system with its deluge of “rubrics” and “metrics” and “measurable learning outcomes,” most students now regard education as little more than a hazing they have to endure and a system they have to game on their path to a middle-class salary. This partially explains why Millennials and Gen Z-ers would probably find it baffling that public intellectuals were once held in high esteem, and that they could even become minor celebrities. Then again, the Toteboard would bet that the majority of people in the country can’t wrap their heads around the idea that a journalist was once “the most trusted man in America.” Expertise is out of fashion.

Now if you are getting the impression that this post is heading toward a reactionary nostalgia for the good old days, the Toteboard will candidly acknowledge that What in the World is by no means impervious to various retroactive critiques. While the show may have been somewhat ahead of its time in the near-equal representation of men and women participants, the panelists were still overwhelmingly white – in fact, the archived promotional materials and the few preserved recordings of the show have not turned up a single instance of a person of color appearing on the panel. And this is not really surprising, as the program did exude a bit of that old-money, country-clubby, “best of the best” elitism, with several panelists having been legacy students at Ivy League or other prestigious private schools. By contrast, many of the working families in Connecticut probably couldn’t even afford season tickets to Marcia Alcorn’s Hartford Stage, let alone a semester at John F. Schereschewsky’s Rumsey Hall School (boarding student fees there are currently over $70,000 per year) or a family vacation at any of the exotic places the show visited each week. And while the show studiously steered clear of any “ugly American” syndrome, it did occasionally exhibit a faint whiff of colonialist cluelessness, like when Dando had to acknowledge that the Hawaiian king Kamehameha’s name wasn’t really pronounced “cammy-ham-a-ha,” as he had mangled it the previous week.

Moreover, in the interest of being historically thorough, though it is not really relevant to this post, it may be worth noting that several of the more familiar and popular faces on the What in the World panels would ultimately collide with disappointment, tragedy, and even scandal. Gloria Shaffer, a democratic party leading light who had been elected to the state senate while in her 20s and then won two terms as secretary of state, suffered a humiliating landslide loss for US senate in 1976 (to republican incumbent Lowell Weicker) and then disappeared into a succession of obscure patronage positions. John F. Schereschewsky suffered a heart attack while filming an episode of What in the World and died a few years later, while still in his 50’s. Eight years after that, his son (who had taken over as Rumsey Hall director) and grandson both drowned in some kind of a freak boating accident.

But it was the larger-than-life attorney James N. Egan who would find himself involved in matters that are still reverberating through Hartford’s history and collective memory to this day. In 1970, Egan took on without charge (as he often did) a case initiated by a woman whose 13-year-old son had been sexually abused by an endocrinologist employed at a major hospital in Hartford. Egan filed a formal complaint with the Hartford County Medical Association's Ethics and Deportment Committee, confronted “that bastard” personally, and ultimately (with the family’s consent) agreed not to file criminal charges, taking the chair of the ethics committee at his word that the doctor would be appropriately disciplined and prevented from engaging in such conduct in the future. Unfortunately, and certainly unbeknownst to Egan and the family, the committee chair, who was a neurosurgeon at the same hospital and invested in protecting the hospital’s reputation, hit the doctor with a mild slap on the wrist and promptly buried the story. And the doctor, who had already been sexually abusing children for years, would continue to abuse hundreds, perhaps thousands, more children over the next two decades, until the scandal finally broke big-time, the lawsuits poured out, and the hospital mustered little more than a “see no evil” defense. For his part, Egan was on the right side of the battle, but people didn’t know much about serial sexual predators five decades ago, and history tells us what a tragic error it was not to continue pursuing the case, loudly and publicly. In any event, the acclaimed lawyer would not live to see all the dirt come to light. In 1975, in an astonishing turn of events, Egan faced charges of embezzling money from his clients, and then apparently committed suicide with a gunshot to the chest. And this turned out to have been a cruel and ironic historical replay: Egan’s father, also a prominent lawyer, had decades earlier been convicted of conspiracy in some kind of stock swindle, began serving a jail sentence, and died in a prison hospital. To give the whole sad story a bizarre incestuous turn, the prosecutor of Egan’s father had been fellow What in the World panelist Marcia Alcorn’s father-in-law. “No, we never spoke about it. No one ever did,” said Alcorn.

OK, so perhaps the Toteboard cannot really hold up What in the World as the finest, most visionary program ever on television. And perhaps it cannot tout every panelist as a flawless role model for aspiring public intellectuals. And yet . . .

And yet, the Toteboard is still immensely saddened that the program’s values -- education, literacy, aesthetic appreciation, collaboration, cosmopolitanism, charity – do not seem to be pervasive foundational values in our culture, that they are not utterly synonymous with what it means to be an American. The Toteboard is saddened that most people, especially young people, probably regard the idea of a genuinely educated citizenry as quaint, naïve, and outdated. Because you know, if American students threw away their fucking SparkNotes and actually read varied works of great literature, and were taught the skills to discuss and debate human conflict in a civilized manner, well then maybe, just maybe, they would as adults (as well as members of Congress) be able to recognize the compelling ethical issues of the day for the complicated, ambiguous matters they often are, rather than dogmatically staking out a single position and demonizing their opponents. If they did more than memorize multiple-choice test factoids about the three branches of government, if they were taught how and why a system of checks and balances operates, how that system depends entirely upon the good-faith participation of those who hold political power, and how the entire system collapses (and with it, the public trust) when officials abuse it, well then maybe, just maybe, the republican senate would not have manufactured precedent out of thin air to scuttle Merrick Garland’s SCOTUS nomination, and ram through Kavanaugh and Barrett’s, or their own constituents would have been palpably outraged with them for playing such games with our governance. And if American citizens actually learned from a young age the subtleties of history, and the simultaneously enlightening and challenging realities of encounters with people from other cultures, religious traditions, socio-economic groups, and standards of living, well then maybe, just maybe, more people would engage one another with a sense of mutuality, rather than a drive to compete for the biggest piece of pie.

Frankly, the Toteboard is appalled that so many people, including many educators, seem utterly blasé about this void in American culture, about how the decline of civics signals the decline of civility, and how the decline of the humanities signals the decline of humanity. What in the world . . . are they thinking?

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