Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Charles Van Doren

Happy Birthday to Charles Van Doren, best known for the Quiz Show Scandal, but more impressively, author of the "how to read a book" book. (Which I believe is the book where Robin Williams tears out the introduction in the movie Dead Poets Society).
Charles Lincoln Van Doren (born February 12, 1926, New York City), a noted American intellectual, writer, and editor, is still remembered best for his involvement in television's quiz show scandals of the 1950s. He confessed in a public forum before the United States Congress that he had been given the right answers by the producers of the hit show Twenty One, whose producers used his on-screen appeal successfully to attract more viewers.

The son of Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and literary critic/teacher Mark Van Doren and novelist and writer Dorothy Van Doren, Charles Van Doren was a committed academic with an unusually broad range of interests. He earned a B.A. degree in Liberal Arts from St. John's College in Annapolis, Maryland, as well as a master's degree in astrophysics and a doctorate in English, both at Columbia University.

Twenty One actually was not Van Doren's first interest. As several histories of the quiz scandals since have attested, and as Van Doren himself acknowledged when he eventually testified to the United States Congress after the rigging scandal had been exposed, he approached producers Dan Enright and Albert Freedman to appear on another game they produced, Tic-Tac-Dough. But Enright and Freedman were impressed by Van Doren's polite style and telegenic appearance, thinking the youthful Columbia teacher might be just the man to defeat their incumbent Twenty One champion, Herb Stempel, and boost the show's slowing ratings as Stempel's reign continued.

In January 1957, Van Doren entered a winning streak that ultimately earned him more than $129,000 and made him famous in his own right, including an appearance on the cover of TIME on February 11, 1957. His Twenty One run ended on March 11, when he lost to Vivienne Nearing, a lawyer whose husband Van Doren had previously beaten. But he was offered a three-year contract with NBC News as a special "cultural correspondent" for Today, as well as to make guest appearances on other NBC programs. He even served as Today's substitute host when regular host Dave Garroway took a brief vacation.

The story of the quiz show scandal and Van Doren's role in it is depicted in the film Quiz Show (1994; he was portrayed by British actor Ralph Fiennes), produced and directed by Robert Redford and written by Paul Attanasio. A box-office hit, the film also earned several critiques questioning its use of dramatic license, its accuracy, and even the motivation behind its making.

The critics have included Joseph Stone, the New York prosecutor who began the investigations in the first place; and, Jeffrey Hart, a Dartmouth College scholar, senior editor of National Review, and old friend of Van Doren, who saw the film as falsely implying tension between Van Doren and his accomplished father, while suggesting also that Van Doren was a different kind of innocent.

Van Doren was dropped from NBC and resigned from his post of assistant professor at Columbia University. But his life after the scandal proved anything but broken; as television historian Robert Metz wrote (in CBS: Reflections in a Bloodshot Eye), "Fortunately, ours is a forgiving society, and Van Doren proved strong in the face of adversity." He became an editor at Praeger Books and a pseudonymous (at first) writer, before becoming an editor of the Encyclopædia Britannica and the author of several books, of which the simplified text, A History of Knowledge may be his best known. He also co-authored How to Read a Book, with philosopher Mortimer J. Adler.

Currently, Van Doren is an adjunct professor at the University of Connecticut, Torrington branch.

Van Doren still refuses interviews or public comment when the subject is the quiz show scandals. But in a 1985 interview on The Today Show---his only appearance on the program since his dismissal in 1959, plugging his book The Joy Of Reading---he answered a general question on how the scandal changed his life. He has revisited Columbia University only twice in the 40 years that followed his resignation: in 1984, when his son graduated; and, in 1999, at a reunion of Columbia's Class of 1959, which entered the university when Van Doren first became a teacher there in 1955.

1 comment:

Max Weismann said...

We have recently made an exciting discovery--three years after writing the wonderfully expanded third edition of How to Read a Book, Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren made a series of thirteen 14-minute videos on the art of reading. The videos were produced by Encyclopaedia Britannica. For reasons unknown, sometime after their original publication, these videos were lost.

When we discovered them and how intrinsically edifying they are, we negotiated an agreement with Encyclopaedia Britannica to be the exclusive worldwide agent to make them available.

For those of you who teach, this is great for the classroom.

I cannot over exaggerate how instructive these programs are--we are so sure that you will agree, if you are not completely satisfied, we will refund your donation.

Please go here to see a clip and learn more: