10 Questions: About History We Don't Know

Nancy Ramsey is a contributor to CBSNews.com
Everyone could use a refresher course in American history. And we're not just talking about Dana Perino, the White House press secretary who didn't know what the Cuban Missile Crisis was—and then admitted it publicly.
(Rodale Books)
Last year two friends, David Kidder and Noah Oppenheim, wrote a book called "The Intellectual Devotional: Review Your Mind, Complete Your Education, and Roam Confidently with the Cultured Class"—a collection of 365 cool facts, tidbits and anecdotes certain to make you a more well-rounded person (and get off the computer for a while). One entry per day. Entries such as The Atom, Whistler's Mother, Hypnosis, Sodom and Gomorrah, Claude Monet, Idealism, Pragmatism. The book became a bestseller; they've got a great team of PhDs doing the research, the entries are fun to read, and now they've written another one: "The Intellectual Devotional, American History: Review Your Mind, Complete Your Education, and Converse Confidently about Our Nation's Past".

1. Noah, what's your favorite entry?

My favorite is about Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to ever run for president. She was a colorful character. She was an advocate of free love. It's one of those awesome little barroom trivia topics that form the rich tapestry of American history.

I support that, women running for president, and free love. Hey, don't put that last answer in your 10 Questions.

2. But it's a good answer, and we're on the record. David, your favorite?

Central Park. I spent lots of time in New York City. The city built it because of all the immigration, because they felt public space and light was vital to the psychology of city dwellers. The park was designed with the intent to be classless, which is very American, very melting pot.

3. This is the age of Google and Wikipedia. Anyone with Internet access can get this information in an instant. Why the book?

Noah: Well, first, this information is accurate.
David: We spend our whole day on Google. Think of this as the analog Google, the anti-Google. It's a book with embossed binding, ribbons that hold your place. It's great for unwinding, doing something that's not work- or computer-related.
Noah: Reading in bed, reading in the bathroom.
David: Or barroom trivia, it's a great book to take to the bar.

4. Why the title, "The Intellectual Devotional"?

David: Millions of Americans have meditation and spiritual books, but no one's ever created one that's secular. We've had this notion of quiet time and spiritual stuff embedded in us for millennia. It's a format millions of people have used. It's a New Year's resolution you can keep, an intellectual trophy, if you went through one of these each day of the year.

5. Are your books meant to be similar to the cultural literacy movement of the 1990s? Those big books of facts and ideas every educated person in this country should know?

Noah: We do have the credibility, we have PhD's in every field, many from Ivy League universities. But we're not staking a big social and political claim, we're trying to give people a great tool to use for reflection, learning, accessibility. It's not daunting, some of that stuff that's been done with cultural literacy, you almost need a Master's degree.

6. Speaking of culture, your first book was subtitled "Revive Your Mind, Complete Your Education and Roam Confidently with the Cultured Class?" So are you guys roaming confidently with the cultured class, and what's that like?

David: We bounce along the bottom. We're hangers-on. No actually, we meant the subtitle to be funny, but it's lost on a lot of readers.
Noah: We did it, really, for the alliteration.
David: The cultured class: not really the place we roll, so to speak.

7. Well, you never know what the future holds. Switching gears a little, does this book have any political slant?

Noah: If there is a political slant, it's that facts are important, that people should know history. There are a lot of people who are part of the current political conversation who shout a lot of opinions, but many of these opinions are not necessarily grounded in anything more than gut feelings. It's amazing how the world can open up if you know history.

8. Sounds as if you think some of the candidates should check out your book.

Noah: Here's what I would like. I would like voters to come away from the book with an appreciation for how so many challenges that face this country right now are similar to many we've overcome in the past. For instance, what role religion should play in public life, how to handle immigration, how active or inactive the U.S. should be in world affairs.

Mixing religion and politics is seen as part of the conservative movement, and liberals bristle at the mention of religion. But check out entries on the First and Second Great Awakenings, the role of religious movements in bringing about social change, like the abolition of slavery.

David: The immigration issue, border control, the role of the immigrant in the work force--that's huge. We have second and third generation immigrants who want to build a fence to keep out this current generation of immigrants. If you look at our immigrants, on the whole there's an extremely strong desire to come here and contribute to the society.

Noah: Here's a great example. People should check out our entries on the Transcontinental Railroad and the Chinese Exclusion Act. The railroad was built on the back of Chinese labor, it pulled our country together geographically. After it was completed, Congress passed this act to prevent more Chinese from immigrating here and made it illegal for those who were here to become naturalized citizens. 'Thank you for binding our country together, now get the hell out.'

9. Some thanks. OK, you guys have brought up barroom trivia. So if you were in a bar, and you wanted to impress a young lady, what would you say? What trivia facts would you use?

David: Well, in the circles I hang in, it would probably be, What two universities had the first two Internet connections? Stanford and UCLA, and it was in 1969. That's for the geek class, that would be a funny line for the circle of nerds I hang out with.

10. Noah?

Noah: This is the one I like: Who was the only founding father who signed the Declaration of Independence, the treaty that ended the Revolutionary War and the Constitution?

It was Ben Franklin. Coincidentally, he enjoyed picking up women in bars.