Feel Smarter Now? Don’t.

There’s been a lot of gratuitous Harvard-bashing lately, lately being defined as, oh, the last two hundred years or so. The latest plot to embarrass Harvard, my alma mater, came from the campus newspaper, the Harvard Crimson. This also isn’t a new development: I often found the Crimson embarrassing to Harvard back when I was student, when its staff was as often as not on a picket line chanting “Hey, Hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?

It’s latest effort was to send a roving reporter out with a video camera to show how ignorant Harvard students are. The question featured: “What is the capital of Canada?”  Here is the video:

Sure enough, none of the students shown could answer the question, except a Canadian. How humiliating! I can only imagine how many people will be flush with pride because they know that the capital city is Ottawa, and Harvard students don’t.

Of course, the video is meaningless. One Crimson reader, a student, wrote in to point out that he was interviewed for the stunt, gave the right answer, and turned up on the cutting room floor. He theorizes that there were others like him, and I wouldn’t be surprised: “Only six out of 19 Harvard students know the capital of Canada” isn’t much of a headline, is it? “Lame” was this student’s verdict for the Crimson’s rigged version of “Jaywalking.” I agree.

Nor do we know what other questions may have been asked that some of the students did know. Who invented the safety pin? What was the so-called “curse” that afflicted U.S. Presidents from 1840 to 1963? What is the final verse of “The Highwayman”? What was Grover Cleveland’s real name? When did the Alamo fall? Who invented baseball? When was the last murder committed by Jack the Ripper, and what was the victim’s name? How did Rick get the letters of transit? What was Kristallnacht?  Whose vote kept President Andrew Johnson from being impeached by the Senate? Who was the model for the character of Reginald Bunthorne in Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Patience”? What was “Hellzapoppin,” why was it unusual, and what famous TV show was inspired by it? ..and so on. As it happens, as an undergrad I knew the answers to all of those questions, and every single one of them proved useful to me in college or later, whereas the identity of Canada’s capital, which I did not know, would not have, and isn’t likely to, either.

Frankly, I don’t care what the capital city of Canada is, and there is no special reason for a Harvard student to care either. If he or she pays attention, she’ll pick up that factoid along the way to senility, as I did. In college? Knowing that information is not the mark of literacy, a good mind, intellectual curiosity or worldliness. Why don’t you know that Bunthorne was based on James Whistler and Oscar Wilde, that they were both key figures in the Aesthetic movement in 19th Century England, and that Wilde’s famous tour of the U.S. was set up by Gilbert and Sullivan’s producer explicitly to make sure that Americans would understand what the operetta was spoofing when he sent a touring company to the states? I knew that in college. I bet those student mocked in the video knew a lot of things neither you nor I know too. How is it fair to make them out to be dolts because they aren’t up on the Canadian government—not that it wouldn’t be more pleasant to consider than ours. (Except in Toronto, of course.)

I don’t blame William Jacobson, the astute political commentator who is also a Cornell law professor for publicizing the Crimson video on one of his blogs. After all, Cornell has always had this Ivy League inferiority complex—I get it, Professor. But other, mostly conservative blogs are posting the video as one more example of the worthlessness of higher education in 2013. It may indeed be worthless, but the video doesn’t prove it, or even faintly indicate it. The video shows that out of the millions of things a college student might have learned to that early point in life, the capital of a nearby foreign country missed the cut.

So what?

35 thoughts on “Feel Smarter Now? Don’t.

  1. Nearly every time and place has myths that are hard to dislodge with the factual truth, which is worse than simply not knowing because it is often a case of “It isn’t what you don’t know that’ll hurt you, it’s what you do know that ain’t so”. For instance, here are questions about a few such false beliefs widely held in the U.S.A.:-

    – What are the two longest rivers in North America? (Hint: the Mississippi isn’t one of them.)

    – Who invented the first practical light bulb? (Hint: it wasn’t Edison.)

    – Who invented the first practical steam boat, and where? (Hint: it wasn’t Fulton in New York.)

    – Who first said the quotation above? (Hint: it wasn’t Mark Twain.)

    I’m not trying to knock U/S.A.ians here, just trying to use them in an example that is more likely to connect to a wider audience. I myself am not 100% sure about the answer to that last one.

  2. Canada has a capital?

    The suppressed premise there is Canadites have developed complex societal structures. Until we have a study or team of anthropologists determine otherwise, its probably best to continue using terminology relevant to hunter-gatherers. ‘Capital’ is not one of them.

  3. I’ve always had a head for trivia and enjoyed learning, and ever since I can remember my classmates loved asking me questions and making fun if I didn’t know the answer. At what point do people think that you must know everything to be considered smart, and what’s up with the Catch-22 where if you do know the answers you’re just an ivory tower nerd anyway?

    • All knowledge should be respected, and there is some knowledge that literate, civicly responsible,educated people should know. I wouldn’t put the capital of Canada high on that list, as I wouldn’t expect any of my pet factoids to be high on anyone else’s list. I guarantee, however, that the trivia (to some) that I listed has objectively more practical value than the answer “Ottawa.”

      • Oh I have a damn high respect for trivia. I got a college scholarship based on a test that came billed as one of the “hardest standardized tests in the country,” and a head for factoid retention gave me a leg up. I think I missed the grand prize because in the finalist interview I admitted my favorite book was “The Hobbit” instead of “Gravity’s Rainbow” or something.

  4. I’m reminded of this excerpt from Arthur Conan Doyle’s “A Study in Scarlet” in which Watson, narrating, is surprised that Sherlock Holmes is ignorant of the fact that the earth orbits the sun:

    “You appear to be astonished,” [Holmes] said, smiling at my expression of surprise. “Now that I do know it I shall do my best to forget it.”

    “To forget it!”

    “You see,” he explained, “I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skilful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones.”

    “But the Solar System!” I protested.

    “What the deuce is it to me?” he interrupted impatiently; “you say that we go round the sun. If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work.”

    • The parallel exchange in the BBC Holmes update, “Sherlock,” caused me to have similar reflections recently. My wife constantly tells me that I recall too much junk, and that my hard-drive is going to crash because of too much information stored that has minimal utility. The fact that Sherlock agreed with her theory has me worried, to be honest.

    • If you’re talking about the not Mark Twain quotation, I’ve heard it attributed to the even earlier Josh Billings, whose real surname was Shaw. The trouble is, I don’t know for sure if it originated with him, either.

  5. In my country of origin, you learn world capitals both in middle AND high school. (Whether that’s a good use of time and resources is debatable) Getting to college without knowledge of the capitals of North America and Europe at least would label you as lazy or at the very least careless. I pride myself in still knowing all capital cities in Europe, except for that bunch of new countries that separated from the Soviet Union (and now I’m dating myself).

    This long preamble is to ask: are U.S. students required to learn world capitals in any grade of K-12?

    • No. College and grad classes often require it however — depending on the course. This piece probably was rigged, but OF COURSE it is important for Americans to know the capital of Canada. It shares our northern border and is our major trading partner.

      One of my daughters in pre-K currently is studying all of the countries in South America. They aren’t doing capitals, but I’m proud that her school is teaching them about being world citizens at such an early age.

      On the whole, I think trivia is overrated — and I say that even as a former quiz bowl team member — but knowing basic facts about your neighboring countries is important.

      • Why is it important, in the case of Canada? In college I knew the capitals of both Vietnams, because that mattered. The USSR, China, GB, France, Germany…India, Israel. Egypt. Cuba. Japan. Italy. But Canada has never, in my lifetime, driven world events—it’s a bystander. What of major importance has ever occurred in Ottawa? I learn history, not places. Why is it important?

        Yes—as matter of basic respect and courtesy to our friend neighbor and ally to the North, we should be literate about Canada. But why is it important, beyond that?

          • Why does a non-trade involved college student need to know the Capital of our biggest trade partner? I think he or she should know…

            1. The name of the country and where it is.
            2. Something about its government.
            3. The identity of its PM.
            4. What language(s) are spoken there.
            5. That is IS our biggest trade partner.
            6. That it fought on the side of the US in WWII
            7. That many prominent actors and athletes in thsi country are Canadian.
            8. That this is where expatriots tend to go, since it is “US lite”
            9. That its national game is hockey, and
            10. That its major cities include Montreal and Toronto.

            Knowing that the capital of Canada is Ottawa is somewhat less essential than knowing that the capital of NY is Albany, and I could easily function without that info. It’s important if you’re in the NY legislature, I grant you.

        • Why it is important?

          Because I’ve heard educated people make fools of themselves by stating – incorrectly, but I think naturally – that it was Toronto. 🙂

            • Except knowing basic facts about our largest neighbor, treaty and trade partner is a bit more relevant than a film made in the 30’s that most people don’t watch anymore.

  6. “I recall too much junk, and…my hard-drive [has] too much information stored that has minimal utility.”

    Similarly cursed here. My condolences.

    Here is a piece of hell on earth: being a misanthrope, yet also being your family’s most coveted teammate when the family plays Trivial Pursuit.

    Jack, I am actually GRATEFUL that I know only a few of the answers to the questions you wrote in italics above. (But I especially like the baseball question.)

  7. A more important question is “What is the capital of Mexico”. 😉 Ottawa would not be in my top ten of cities in the world to visit. I think I’d rather visit Boise or Abilene, Kansas.

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