Peter Dyakowski plays offensive guard for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats – but don’t mistake him for a dumb jock.
When he and his older brother Alex were teenagers, their father, a petroleum industry entrepreneur, thought they needed a lesson in humility – so he made them take a Mensa test. To their father’s surprise, both boys not only passed but briefly joined the elite high-IQ club.
Then again, Dyakowski, now 27, says he’s from a family of eggheads; he’s the only one fluent in only one language. And during his football scholarship at Louisiana State University, he took his history degree so seriously his only regret is that the demands of football prevented him from pursing a graduate degree – or his other intellectual loves, applied science and engineering.
That doesn’t mean Dyakowski doesn’t love “butting heads” – in football he’s know for aggressive blocking – but this weekend he’ll get a chance to do it in a more figurative field. He’s one of four contestants on Canada’s Smartest Person, a hybrid reality show/brain-teasing competition that airs this Sunday on CBC.
The show joins a crowded field of intelligence-testing game shows – a venerable genre that includes war horses such as Jeopardy! and the long-running Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. Part of the shows’ appeal is that they combine elitism with populism: the contestants display remarkable mental agility, but they come from all walks of life. Jeopardy! champion Ken Jennings, for example, was a software engineer. Who Wants to Be a Millionare heavyweight John Carpenter was a revenue agent for the IRS.
Unlike these shows, though, Canada’s Smartest Person is based on the idea of multiple intelligence.
“We want to redefine what it means to be smart by moving beyond the clichés of trivia-based problem solving,” says Robert Cohen, the show’s creator and producer. He notes that traditional game shows such as Jeopardy! have the same problem as standardized intelligence tests: Both are based on a “narrow” definition of braininess that focuses on memory and the mastery of logical and mathematical formulas.
By contrast, Canada’s Smartest Person is shaped by the theory of “multiple intelligence” propounded by Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner, who argues that traditional IQ tests need to be supplemented by measures that take into account mental functions such as empathy, musical skill, spirituality and bodily-kinesthetic control.
As someone who can strut his stuff on both the football field and in a classroom, the idea of multiple intelligence is certainly attractive to a contestant like Dyakowski.
“Having a high IQ isn’t necessarily an asset on the football field,” he says, but what some of his teammates and rivals have is something more important – athletic intelligence. It isn’t just a matter of their bodies being able to react with lightning speed to the shifting state of play, he says, it’s also that they have the ability to strategize on the spot and recall the lessons of training at the right moment.
The arts are further evidence of multiple intelligence. “There are musicians who are as dumb as bricks,” Dyakowski says. “Yet they can compose and play beautifully.”
The idea of multiple intelligences comes across in the casting for Canada’s Smartest Person, which features an odd assortment of polymaths. Dyakowski’s competition will be Laura Suen, a double major in physics and cellular and molecular biology who is also a hard-core video gamer; Dr. Marshall Carroll, a high-school science teacher who dabbles in music and stand-up comedy; and spoken word artist Greg Frankson.
To prove their brain-power, contestants will be put through a series of challenges that will include quickly composing a speech to rigorous specifications (a test of their linguistic ability) and trying to persuade someone of an idea (a test of interpersonal skills).
A twist, for sure, on the traditional quiz show. But given other blockbuster reality fare – which includes competitions to lose weight, eat bugs and cut coupons – what’s the appeal watching smartypants duke it out?
Quiz shows have been a staple of broadcasting from the early days of the medium, with programs such as Fighting Words, Front Page Challenge and The $64,000 Question. But University of Toronto historian Paul Rutherford, whose work includes an authoritative study When Television Was Young, notes that Canadians have a particular appetite for skill-testing contests. Canadian networks have devoted more prime-time hours to quiz shows than their American counterparts. And from the early days of television Canadian networks not only aired popular American shows but created home-made versions.
While there’s no ready explanation as to why Canadians are so fond watching intelligence tests, Rutherford suggests there’s a close affinity between these and our other national pastime – professional sports.
In both, he says, “part of the appeal lies in the unpredictability and the excitement of the contest, the fact that it seems unscripted, spontaneous and real.” And just as fans rooting for the home team take each victory and loss as a deeply personal matter, television viewers come to identify their own happiness with the success or failure of the participants of quiz shows.
Whether Dyakowski is playing for the Ti-Cats or competing in an intelligence contest, then, he’s making the same appeal to our competitive spirit. (Viewers can actually play along online; for more information, visit www.cbc.ca/smartestperson.)
Cohen adds that part of the pleasure of shows like Canada’s Smartest Person is that the audience can “play along” and test themselves, while also seeing the participants as “avatars” of hope. Seeing an athlete physically stretch the limits of the human body thrills us because it suggests that the strongest barriers can be overcome; the same principle seems to apply to prodigious displays of memory and reasoning.
The nature of these avatars have varied from period to period. Pioneering quiz shows of the 1940s and 1950s such as The Quiz Kids tended to emphasize scholarly erudition. But there emerged a populist countertendency of programs that tested for knowledge of current events (such as Front Page Challenge) or consumer know-how ( The Price is Right). In 1964, Hughie Green, the emcee of then-popular Double Your Money, said, “We’re not interested in brains or long-hairs and we ask simple, ordinary questions.”
More recently, the series Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader? posed grade-school-level questions to grown-up contestants.
In taking up the theory of multiple intelligence, Canada’s Smartest Person holds up yet another mirror to changing ideas about intelligence. Whoever wins on Sunday will represent what the word “smart” now means.
Follow us on Twitter: