One of my favourite movies was Robert Redford’s 1994 film Quiz Show. The film, which is based on true events, concerns two people. One of them, Charles Van Doren, was the scion of one of America’s great intellectual families. He held a doctorate in English literature and taught at Columbia. His father, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Mark Van Doren, was also a Columbia professor. His mother, Dorothy Van Doren, was an accomplished novelist. His uncle, Carl Van Doren, was a Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of Benjamin Franklin.
He had a very promising career ahead of him. He later came to appear on the game show Twenty-one, where he defeated the reigning champion Herb Stempel. He remained on the show for a time, but was ultimately defeating by a lawyer, Vivienne Nearing. After leaving the game show, he was a cultural correspondent for NBC. Unbeknownst to the audience, both Stempel and Van Doren were fed the answers to the questions prior to the show. In 1959, Charles Van Doren appeared before the House Committee on Legislative Oversight and admitted that he had been fed the answers. Needless to say, it lead to the end of his academic career.
Fortunately for Van Doren, a family friend, the philosopher Mortimer J. Adler rescued him. Adler, who was then an editor with the Encyclopædia Britannica, put him to work. Despite not teaching in the traditional sense, Van Doren came out with three very valuable books while working at Brittanica. One of them, which he wrote with Adler, is entitled How to Read a Book. The sooner this book is put in the hands of high school students, the better. Critical thinking is so important, yet so few seem to know how to do it. This book won’t teach you how to read quickly, but it will teach you how to seriously engage with an author. Another book of his is The History of Knowledge, basically a rather succint summarization of the accomplishments of human knowledge over the past couple of millenia. Finally, there is his book The Joy of Reading.
The film, of course, takes license with its subject material. Charles Van Doren’s father isn’t fairly portrayed. He was a great figure in American education and played a very important role in the Great Books approach to education. Jeffrey Hart, a former English professor at Dartmouth and one of those who wrote for the National Review in its early years, knew the Van Doren family well. He was scathing in his criticisms of the movie. On the other hand, as a parable for the seductions of fame and fortune, the film can teach some important lessons.
In 2008, Charles Van Doren broke his silence on the matter. He wrote a piece for The New Yorker in which he gives his side of the story. One of the best things I saw in this piece is that he started teaching again, this time at the University of Connecticut. Anyhow, I think the film is worth watching, but as with everything, it’s best to think critically and examine it from all angles. Van Doren’s essay, which you may read by clicking here, gives a critically important angle to the story. His own.