A video is making the rounds showing students at Harvard University struggling to answer a simple question of world geography: what is the capital of Canada? Canadians love this game. We congratulate ourselves for knowing plenty about the US while looking down our nose at Americans who know nothing about us. And the fact that even the best and brightest Americans—Harvard students no less—are so ignorant, well that’s just the whipped cream on the ice cream isn’t it?
But it’s a silly game and we should stop playing it.
For one thing, in videos like this there is no way of telling how many students came up with Ottawa but weren’t shown in the final edit. For another, we should acknowledge that at least most of the students seemed embarrassed by the fact that they didn’t know. And besides, Canada, unlike the UK or France or Japan, is one of those cases where the capital city is not the largest or most prominent city—so it’s a tricky question. I bet most Canadian students think the capital of Australia is Sydney.
But the main reason we should stop finding ways to feel superior to Americans when it comes to a world knowledge, is that, if we faced facts, we would have to admit that we are not much better. Sure we know a fair bit about the US because we are awash in American media, but what about the rest of the world?
Indeed, if you are a Canadian university student, why not take a little test right now? Consider, for example, the world’s ten most populous countries. Can you list all of them? And if you can, can you name the capital cities of each of them? I’m going to assume that you know the capital of China is Beijing, but what about India? Mumbai? Guess again.
Put your hand up if you know the capital of Brazil. Now put it down if you thought it was Rio de Janeiro—it’s actually Brasilia. Do you know the capital of Pakistan, the world’s sixth most populous country? How about Nigeria, the seventh? Can you name any cities in Nigeria?
Don’t get me wrong: I think world knowledge is important. But there is a lot more to knowing about the world than knowing game-show style trivia. It’s more important to me that people know more about efforts to reduce poverty in Bangladesh than the fact that its capital is Dhaka.
Let’s hope they are studying that at Harvard. And everywhere else.
Todd Pettigrew is an associate professor of English at Cape Breton University.