University Challenge: A Win for Johns, and Society Too?

By Emily Griffiths, Second Year Law Student

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Round, Yule, Toynbee and Murray. It’s fair to say this year’s University Challenge team has got Durham talking. And the recognition is well-deserved – the team recently triumphed over Keble College, Oxford to reach the quarter-finals of the long-standing quiz show, where they have already faced Glasgow and won. The icing on the cake, however, is the presence of two Johnians within the line-up – hardly a bad achievement for Durham’s second smallest college. But why does a show originating from the 1970s continue to hold such a presence and, indeed, momentum, which shows no signs of slowing down?

We have very good reason to be proud of the team’s achievements. In a society where there seems to a general trend of ‘dumbing down’ content (particularly on media platforms such as TV), many popular television quiz shows have been accused of making questions easier so as not to leave out the all-important viewers at home. An example can be found in the BBC quiz show Mastermind, which has seen a shift towards popular culture. The specialist topics within recent years have included, for example, Only Fools and Horses, Star Trek and the history of Manchester United Football Club.

This is in stark contrast to the types of questions that can be found on University Challenge, for instance:

  1. The ancient kingdom of Colchis and Kartli-Iberie are part of the territory of which present-day country?
  2. If the integers from one to 100 are written in Roman numerals and then placed in alphabetical order, which comes last?
  3. Which 1969 novel begins with the words: “She was so deeply imbedded in my consciousness that for the first year of school I seem to have believed that each of my teachers was my mother in disguise”?

For the quizzers amongst you, the answers are Georgia, 38 and Portnoy’s Complaint.

So, it’s clear that University Challenge doesn’t follow the trend led by many television producers. Its continued existence is indeed in direct defiance of the argument that if the questions are too hard, viewers will feel left out and reject the show. But this isn’t to say that this view isn’t well-founded. Anyone who has taken part in a quiz is familiar with the great feeling of satisfaction of knowing the answer to a question (particularly, it may be added, if no-one else on your team has the faintest idea). This, in turn, only further begs the question as to why University Challenge has survived over the years. It’s fair to say that many of the viewers (although of course, not all) will be able to answer very few of the questions correctly. This suggest that viewers watch the show for something other than a feeling of inclusion.

The answer may be found in the root of the show’s identity: its sheer intelligence. It isn’t frustrating and infuriating to watch. For many, the show instead causes feelings of great respect (and when watching two Johnians, pride) that there are people out there who do have this knowledge. And, when those special questions come along where you do know the answer, the feeling of satisfaction is only greater.

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University Challenge therefore continues to contradict the view that society has become ‘dumber’ in its tastes, and we should all hope that it continues to do so for years to come. Quizzes encourage intellectual curiosity, a respect for knowledge and no small amount of healthy competition. This is something we should all celebrate.

If you’re interested in getting involved in some trivia fun, here are some ways you can do so!

  •  ‘Quizzy Mondays’ in the Bowes Room, 8-9pm (Only Connect and University Challenge viewing)
  • Check Facebook for ‘Johns v Cranmer Hall’ University Challenge events in the future
  • Quiz at the SU bar every Sunday, 8pm (conveniently sponsored by Dominoes to help feed the brain)

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