On the occasion of India’s Republic day, CNN-IBN sent out a reporter to check out how much India’s younger generation knew about our country’s history – and a few other peripheral topics. The results, perhaps filtered to reflect only the most howl-arious answers, made for quirky television viewing.
(Watch the video here.)
Thus, for instance, we came to know that there are young folks out there who believe 26 January is observed as America’s Independence Day or that Pratibha Patil is India’s Prime Minister or that – and this is a surreal response – India’s national sport is Mumbai!
A new ad campaign from The Hindu, one of India’s most respected newspapers, focusses on a similar failing among a slice of Young India to be curious about the world beyond just mind-numbing celebrity trivia. It’s hard to say if the interviews with some youthful folks for the television ad (which you can watch here) were for real or simulated, but it seems plausible that they were real-life situations.
The ad campaign targets the rival Times of India, but the larger point it subtly makes is that we are what we read, and our worldview is shaped, for better or for worse, by the kind of information we seek out.
The list of people who have been made fools of by “gotcha” questions that tested their general knowledge is long, and is not confined to youngsters. Recently BJP leaders themselves flunked a quiz about their party leader AB Vajpayee that they were administering to school students. Campaigning in 1999, George W Bush famously revealed the limits of his worldview, a limitation for which the world paid a heavy price after he became president.
More recently, another US presidential candidate, Herman Cain, declared with borderline pride that he didn’t know who the president of “Uzbeki-beki-beki-stan” was and said he thought it hardly mattered because it had nothing to do with creating jobs in the US.
In this day of information overload, there are of course limitations to how much information each of us can process, so we filter out much of what falls outside our area of interest. And if that only extends to knowing that actor Hritik Roshan’s nickname is ‘Duggu’ – and not that Dhyan Chand was one of the world’s most prodigious hockey players – well, that’s who we are, right?
And in this day of Google and Wikipedia, when all the information in the world (or in the World Wide Web) is available on tap, and when our smartphones are in some cases ‘smarter’ than we are, does it matter that we don’t know in which year India secured independence?
“It’s not what you know, it’s what you can find out,” says Marissa Mayer, one of the public faces of Google. The Internet, she reasons, has obviated the need for rote memorisation of facts and has created the sense that “anything is knowable or findable – as long as you can construct the right search, find the right tool, or connect to the right people.”
That may well be. But “general knowledge” – by which I mean an understanding of many things, from history to politics to philosophy – fosters a better understanding of our place in the universe in a way that encyclopaedic knowledge about celebrities doesn’t.
As Dr Peter McLaughlin, Headmaster of The Doon School, told me in an interview a while ago, rote learning isn’t all bad.
“What’s been lost in the West is the value of mastering a body of knowledge. The idea is that all knowledge is available through a search engine, therefore you don’t need to master a book or a body of knowledge. But genuine creativity and originality comes from internalising a body of knowledge and having it whizzing around in your head. India shouldn’t lose that strength; any education reform should maintain that rigour.”
The claim that the truckloads of information available on the Internet obviates the need for us to learn more – or to memorise basic information – shows up an inadequate understanding of what constitutes knowledge, or of the manner in which the human mind processes such information and connects the dots in a way that defines our personalities. There is no substitute for nuanced understanding of topics that goes beyond just Wikipedia references or Googled information.
Indian companies looking to hire frequently complain of the skillsets available in the market. Whereas nerds – with a heightened proficiency in their areas of expertise – come a dime a dozen, there aren’t enough youngsters with well-rounded personalities and a curiosity about the wider world, with the soft skills to match.
What’s worse is that even Google or Wikipedia, the Masters of the Information Universe, can’t help them find the right talent. We now know why.