Josna Rege

220. How’s Your GK?

In 1960s, 1970s, 2010s, Britain, Education, India, Inter/Transnational, places, Politics, United States, Words & phrases on July 31, 2013 at 3:44 pm
(from wikimedia commons)

(from wikimedia commons)

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Seventies, I found that rote memorization of disconnected facts was not only unheard of, but positively frowned upon as outdated and retrograde educational policy, cramming a child’s head full of useless information and preventing him or her (it was also the dawn of the Women’s Movement)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 Duniyacater 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.

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  1. I hope this doesn’t sound arrogant, Josna, but I’m sometimes absolutely stunned by the meagre GK people display nowadays. It’s rather sad. So enjoyed your post, as always..

    • Yes, it is sad. But thanks to “infotainment,” people have a lot of soundbites on celebrity and entertainment gossip and on the latest scandals.

  2. Part of the problem in the USA, at least, is that we get so very little news from the rest of the world that this very deficit gives all of us, especially our young students, the impression that the rest of the world just isn’t relevant or important. Another American tragedy.

    • Totally agreed. There’s the arrogance on the part of people in the US, who, being from the most powerful nation on earth, are taught to feel that they don’t need to know about the rest of the world, that “they” are the ones who have to learn all about “us.” The British used to feel that way about English, that they didn’t need to learn anyone else’s language. Hope that attitude has been changing a bit with the European Union.

  3. Ah, quizzing was serious sport! The Bournvita Quiz Contest (for which I just missed selection on the school team) successfully migrated from radio to TV. Binny’s Double-O-Quits was another radio quiz show on which I appeared and won….. nothing!

    The quiz circuit still exists in Calcutta to this day. Jeopardy is still one of my favorite shows.

    • I’d forgotten about the Bournvita Quiz! Wow–you must have been a quiz maven to actually get on one of those shows. And I bet the competition was stiff. When one is a spectator can feel as if one could easily have done a better job than the contestants, but I’m sure that when one is an actual participant and put on the spot it must feel totally different. I would be petrified.
      All there is in our region of Massachusetts is a high-school quiz show called “As School Match Wits,” but the questions are rather uninspired and old-school. Lately I’ve been enjoying watching back episodes of QI, Stephen Fry’s comedy quiz show, on YouTube, which is hilarious because not only is it extremely erudite, but points are awarded for interesting answers rather than necessarily the “right” one.

  4. Great points, Jojo! I was just remembering picnics with my family in those most rainy of spots both Cherra and Mawsynram. There are, or used to be, some wonderful picnic spots next to lovely babbling brooks and beautiful, huge, rounded rocks to clamber over when we were small and unafraid. When the rain came, as it often did, we would pick up our picnic and head for the nearest “dak bungalow” to dry off and enjoy our tea and cookies before driving that beautiful misty road back to Shillong singing all the way home.
    Thanks for conjuring up those wonderful memories for me!

    • Of course, Marianne! Cherrapunjee is just a name to me, albeit an evocative one and much repeated, but you grew up nearby and actually experience both it and Mawsynram in all their gushing, trickling, soaking glory! No wonder you are such a fan of mists and rain! I must admit that I am too, although we didn’t have as much rain either in the plains or in Darjeeling. I love warm, rainy days and somehow feel more alive on those misty, moisty mornings! You would love Monhegan island–it was misty almost all the time. I would have loved to sing with you while walking along its little unpaved roads, with stunning flowers (they clearly love the mists too) around every cottage and all the dogs snoozing lazily among them (I never heard a dog bark the whole time I was there, though they were everywhere). What a great comments! Thank you for bringing those names to life for me as the real places they are.

  5. […] <This memory was jogged by reading this post> […]

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