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Why in the world should I frame my response in the form of a question?

Updated: Apr 14, 2019

Because of Charles Van Doren, that's why.

There's an intriguing op-ed piece from Bret Stephens in today's New York Times, a lament and obituary for Mr. Van Doren, and a lament and obituary for shame.

Who was Charles Van Doren? He was a Columbia University English instructor and a member of a distinguished literary family, son of the renowned American poet Mark Van Doren. During the hey-day of quiz shows in the 1950s, when nerdy misfits seemed the only contestants with the brains to win, Van Doren offered an alternative. He was handsome, personable, and young...and he seemingly knew everything.

A sample question: “The Black Sea is connected to the Aegean Sea via two straits and a smaller sea. Name (1) the two straits, (2) the smaller sea, and (3) the four countries that border the Black Sea.”*

Van Doren would listen, then appear to be undergoing acute mental strain as he struggled for the answers, which always came, and were always followed by applause, relief, adulation, and of course, money. His take? $129,000, easily a million in 2019 spending power. (He was earning $4,400 a year teaching at Columbia.)

But when murmurs grew into rumblings that grew into suspicions, a Congressional committee exposed what had been rumored for a while: the quiz shows had been rigged; the contestants given answers or clues in advance. In 1959 Van Doren told congressional investigators that Twenty-One—the show where he had excelled—was a hoax. They had all been hoaxes. Afterwards, in short order, he lost his job at Columbia, pleaded guilty to second-degree perjury, and received a suspended sentence. Many other contestants shared the guilt, but Van Doren—from a prominent family—suffered the greatest ignominy.

The stain on quiz shows lasted for less than a decade: in 1964 Jeopardy aired for the first time, evading the old stigma of dishonesty by requiring questions instead of answers. It was a ruse that worked: aside from one short hiatus in the 70s, it has worked for 55 years.

Charles Van Doren was unfortunate enough to live at a time when shame and humiliation were the end result of immorality—before someone like Donald Trump could tell baldfaced lies without apology, or muse about dating his daughter without regret, or lie about bone spurs, or make payoffs to porn stars, or pardon lawbreakers on a whim. On the political seismograph of 2019, Van Doren's little indiscretion would hardly register.

“I would give almost anything I have to reverse the course of my life in the last three years,” said Donald Trump never. No, those words belong to Van Doren—and probably to anyone whose shame and mortification have haunted him. Van Doren, who died at 95, went on to lead a quiet and meaningful life as a writer and editor, but always lamented his lapse of morality—not because he had been caught, but because he had always expected more from himself.

Even today, if his name were to turn up on Jeopardy, Alex Trebek would probably intone "Columbia professor involved in quiz show scandal," and the willing contestant, signaling device in hand, would respond, "Who was Charles Van Doren."


*That answer Van Doren gave? Straits of Bosporus and Dardanelles. The Sea of Marmara. Russia, Turkey, Romania and Bulgaria—as if you didn't know.

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