University Challenge is a national treasure, but its popularity makes no sense

This article asks the question why University Challenge is still so popular after 56 years. How many of us can still remember the plummy, oxbridge accent of Bamber Gascoine as he opened the very first of 913 (to date) episodes?

Bamber had a permanent smile on his face, the proper face of the BBC in those days. His successor,

Jeremy Paxman seems the polar opposite, ready with a scowl or a cutting remark about the stupidity of modern youth these days.

But are university graduates and undergraduates less well educated, more ‘stupid’? I think not. Certainly they appear more unusual, more quirky and laughably less knowledgable about everyday events. But less well educated? No.

University entrance – to those universities capable of fielding a winning team for University Challenge – is harder and more demanding. Exam grades need to be higher and competition fiercer.  Even simple maths can be confusing…

Perhaps there is another factor.  Pressure to succeed academically means little time for the ‘finer’ things in life such as music or literature. Okay, if you are studying music then you are supremely knowledgeable about one aspect of music such as classical or baroque music but generally all other forms of music are either beneath you or a distraction.

The same for literature. If you study Shakespeare then Mills & Boon is a foreign language. And yet how many of us know the million small facts we know because of our avid uptake of pulp fiction. So many authors meticulously research their novels and the facts behind that research seeped insidiously into our brains ready to be recalled at a later date.

And the continuing popularity of University Challenge? Why, getting a personal score of more than Reading University of course.

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