Saint Ignatius High School

A Lot in Common with Charles Van Doren

In the film "Quiz Show," Charles Van Doren is the darling of the television world as he shows his intellectual prowess week after week on the show "21." But he is harboring a dirty little secret: He has been given the answers by the show’s producers. As Mr. Healey and his classes learn, we have more in common with Mr. Van Doren than we might think.

One of the key elements of the Christian Manhood course that I inherited from Jim Skerl ’74 was the film Quiz Show.  Based on the television quiz show scandals of the 1950s and the memoir of Richard Goodwin who investigated the deception perpetrated by the producers of the show 21, the movie is a great example of how a work of art can help bring people to a better understanding of how they should, and how they should not, live.

Because of the unique schedule of this semester, students watched the film on their own time – what is now called “asynchronous learning” rather than homework.  As we concluded the section of the course dedicated to virtue ethics I chose several clips to look at in class – now called “synchronous learning” – as a way of tying together various themes that have been discussed over the past several weeks.

The focus on prudential judgments has dominated our recent classwork, most specifically because it is the source for all of the other virtues.  Its role as an intellectual rather than a moral virtue – like justice, courage, or temperance – is to bring the individual to the right decision so that it can be acted out through the other virtues.

What students learn through both the book we are reading, The Christian Idea of Man, as well as through classroom examples, is that prudence as a virtue is different from the commonly accepted notion of minding your own business and being cautious in areas like investments and purchases.  Prudence as a virtue should lead to, when necessary, courageous actions that challenge the accepted notion of prudence as something that gives in to, rather than overcomes, fear.

In the film Quiz Show Charles Van Doren, son and nephew of two Pulitzer Prize winning authors, is the darling of the television world as he shows his intellectual prowess week after week on the show 21.  But he is harboring a dirty little secret: He has been given the answers by the show’s producers.  In his mind he has justified his actions (“I’ve earned this…I’ve worked hard”) as we all do, but in the cold light of day all he has done is place himself above those who live by the rules.  Considering the fact that he was, as they say, “born on third base” this is an easy place for him to land.

As Richard Goodwin, counsel for a committee of the U.S. Congress, investigates alleged cheating on television game shows he comes to know and befriend Charles Van Doren.  He, like everyone else, wants to think the best of Van Doren.  The whole nation wants to believe that other contestants may have been cheating, but not Charlie.

In the end Van Doren, in front of Congress, admits to his role in the cheating scandal and does so with such eloquence that several congressmen laud him for his honesty.  Even after – and possibly because of – his admission everyone wants to like Charles Van Doren.  Everyone, that is, except for Congressman Steven Derounian who states: “Mr. Van Doren, I am happy that you made the statement, but I cannot agree with most of my colleagues who commended you for telling the truth, because I don't think an adult of your intelligence ought to be commended for, at long last, telling the truth.”  The gallery breaks out in applause and Charles Van Doren is face-to-face with a crowd that no longer wants to like him.

As we bring our classroom discussion of the film to a conclusion I point out to my seniors that this film is a warning to us all.  Students – and alumni – of Saint Ignatius have a lot in common with Charles Van Doren.  Besides all of the intellectual gifts and educational advantages, our students are almost universally respected – people generally want to like them.  And that’s why it is so important, especially in a course called Christian Manhood, that we never lose sight of Jim Skerl’s wise and prudent words: “We are called not to be better than others, but to be better for others.”


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