As a schoolgirl in Sixties India, I had to make it my business to be able to match countries around the world with their capital cities; be familiar with the freedom fighters of India’s struggle for Independence from British colonial rule; know the names of the Prime Minister, President, and key cabinet ministers, not only of India, but of several other countries as well; and hold in my mind numerous other facts pertaining to a wide range of fields, including economics (principal exports), history (dates of wars and important treaties), and geography (topography and climate). For example:
Q. What is the place with the world’s highest rainfall in a single month?
A. Cherrapunji, in the East Khasi hills of Meghalaya (then Assam), India, with 366 inches.
We called this continually-updated armory of facts, General Knowledge, or “GK,” as Indians with their penchant for acronyms prefer to call it. Every so often we would have a quiz, as schoolchildren in the U.S. have geography bees, and have to spend weeks beforehand mugging up on lists of questions and answers in numerous different subject areas. I never questioned the value of harboring these ever-increasing flotillas of facts, simply assumed that they were essential to a well-rounded education. Although many have long since flown, some of these facts, such as U Thant, the name of the Secretary-General of the United Nations (1961-1971), and the aforementioned Cherrapunji, have lodged themselves inextricably in my brain.
During our late-sixties sojourn in England, I found that the British shared this passion for GK, as reflected in popular television quiz programs such as Top of the Form and University Challenge (and a number of such shows that have followed since, such as Mastermind, The Weakest Link, and QI, the comedy quiz show hosted by the brilliant Stephen Fry). But soon after arriving in the U.S. at the dawn of the Seventies, I found that rote memorization of disconnected facts was not only unheard of, but positively frowned upon as outdated and retrograde educational policy, cramming a child’s head full of useless information and preventing him or her (it was also the dawn of the Women’s Movement) from thinking for him/herself.
This admirable pedagogical policy (at least, in principle) has had the unfortunate side-effect of producing a couple of generations of woefully ignorant Americans, who do not know the names of their own leaders, let alone those of the rest of the world. A recent article from Smithsonian Magazine, entitled, No, You’re Probably Not Smarter than a 1912-Era 8th Grader, reproduces a century-old eighth-grade examination from Kentucky, “a mix of math and science and reading and writing and questions on oddly specific factoids,” that looks a good deal like the GK tests of my Indian childhood and reveals how dramatically U.S. education has changed.
Visiting family in Delhi a few years ago, I happened to repeat a factoid to illustrate some point of conversation (that I no longer remember). My cousin’s young son, soon to be facing the dreaded 10th-Standard exams, murmured, “Good for GK,” and I realized that despite having long fallen out of favor in the U.S., the General Knowledge industry was still alive and well in India. Doing a little online research, I have found that Indian entrance exams for all manner of fields still feature a General Knowledge component, and several websites, such as Jagran Josh and GK Duniya, cater to candidates preparing for these tests. You can take sample tests on these sites and test your own GK in a variety of subjects on others, such as India GK Time, World General Knowledge and Competition Master.
Is it retrograde of me to retain the urge to perform well on these online tests, and to feel a little nostalgic for the days when I could rattle off the name of the current Defense Minister of India, the Home Minister of Britain, and the Secretary of State of the United States? (Well, to be honest, not the last of these; more likely the Soviet Minister of Foreign Affairs—then Andrei Gromyko.) Can the inability of most U.S. students to rattle off such facts today be put down to a more enlightened education, a pandemic of early-onset Alzheimer’s, or a reprehensible and wholly irresponsible lack of global literacy?
N.B. For all you GK enthusiasts, Cherrapunji is no longer the town with the highest annual rainfall in the world; it has been edged out by the nearby village of Mawsynram. However, Cherrapunji still holds the world record for the highest rainfall in a particular month and year, back in the mid-nineteenth century.