- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 8, 2006

The first man walked on the moon in 1934. Thomas Edison invented the light bulb by flying a kite with a key on the string. The Boston Tea Party happened because the boat had run out of room.

Such answers from Jay Leno’s “Jaywalking” segments on “The Tonight Show” suggest the “man on the street” might need to brush up his intellect. David S. Kidder and Noah D. Oppenheim offer the solution in “The Intellectual Devotional.”

Formatted like devotionals that provide daily doses of religious meditation, Mr. Kidder and Mr. Oppenheim’s book offers 365 one-page lessons in seven intellectual disciplines: history, literature, visual arts, science, music, philosophy and religion. The book, which hit shelves last month, covers a different subject every day of the week, with entries contributed by authors with terminal degrees.

Mr. Kidder said the devotional format allows readers to feel a sense of accomplishment when they complete each day’s entry.

“In a way, it’s sort of an intellectual triumph,” he said.

The authors wrote the book to help readers fill in gaps in their learning, Mr. Kidder said. He said the entries unify the knowledge readers gain each day.

“As you kind of navigate between daily conversations, you’re kind of connecting these with the larger story,” he said. In addition, he said, the book gives background information to current events.

“It gives you context just slightly under the surface of the things you’re reading and experiencing on a daily basis,” he said. “It allows you to build intellectual bridges between subjects that you’ve never really thought of before or didn’t really understand.”

The authors especially recommended the entries on vaccines (the church originally opposed them) and the difference between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims (they split after a disagreement about whom Muhammad wanted as his successor). Mr. Oppenheim said he benefited most from the literature entries and Mr. Kidder from the entry on the Milgram experiments (“people just off the street could be put in a room and then straight up forced to torture someone”).

Mr. Oppenheim said those who want to read the book fall into three categories: “People just want to refresh their education. People who want to carve out five minutes a day to get out of the daily grind,” he said. “Then there’s a third category, which is the people who are starting to experience those senior moments.”

He said people’s busy lives and the “world of information overload” contribute to the need for a book like “The Intellectual Devotional.”

“There’s definitely a competition for attention,” Mr. Kidder said. “Although a Google search gets you the information faster, it also makes information more perishable.”

John Rakestraw, director of faculty programming at Georgetown University’s Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship, echoed the authors’ assessments. “We do live in a world where more and more information is available to us,” he said. “We’re trying to find ways to make sense of that information.”

Mr. Rakestraw, who works in a department that researches teaching methods and supports instructional improvement, said the market for an “intellectual devotional” has existed for at least 100 years. He inherited from his grandparents a seven-volume set published in the early 20th century with daily entries.

“There’s been a market for it, which is slightly different than saying we’ve needed it,” he said. University faculty began complaining about the knowledge levels of their students back in the 1920s, he said.

“I suspect that I had faculty complaining about how little that I knew as a student,” he said.

Mr. Kidder and Mr. Oppenheim’s book reached No. 3 in its category on the New York Times best-seller list, also making a showing at No. 7 on the Wall Street Journal’s hardcover nonfiction list.

Mr. Rakestraw said the book’s success might stem from its structured approach to learning. “This offers some of the structure of a class by designing a reading program… that offers small doses,” he said.

The authors are discussing another version of the book. Ideas include a devotional that focuses on pop-culture literacy or a book with entries suggested by readers who could post on an online message board.

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