Who cares if Harvard kids can’t name our capital?

Why Canadians shouldn’t feel so smug about this video


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.


Who cares if Harvard kids can’t name our capital?

  1. All valid points but how can you not know the capital of your geographically closest ally and neighbor. Our countries histories are so intertwined it is like not knowing you have first cousins living next to you. That is just so ignorant! And coming from one of the best university in North America?!

  2. Who cares if Harvard kids can’t name our capital?

    Is this really the title of this article? It’s very important if they can, aren’t they supposed to be emerging WORLD leaders? Its quite possibly the EASIEST question about their close neighbours to the north (and not very far north for that matter). For the prestige of Harvard, this is really embarrassing. Just goes to show how insulated Americans are, and how ignorant they are of matters outside their own country.

    Your analogy of naming capitals of Brazil, and India for that matter aren’t particularly compelling considering we don’t BORDER them. Guaranteed these same Harvard students can’t name them either. Don’t throw Canadian students under the bus by backing privileged American ones.

  3. so… do you know the capital of Greenland?

  4. Don’t get too smug. I am from one of Canada’s territories and went to university in Ontario. A loootttt of people thought Yellowknife was the capital of Yukon.

  5. Up front disclosure. I have an undergrad in Geography and two (yes, 2) subsequent Masters in related subjects.

    I don’t know all the capitals of the world. Don’t care to. That’s what an atlas is for (if you don’t know what an atlas is, look it up if you have to…).

    However, the point really is, Harvard students are, arguably, among the best and brightest in the world. (Matt, this is the reason we should care)

    Knowing the capital of Nigeria isn’t really too important. Knowing some vital details surrounding your major trading partner (esp. for Harvard BUSINESS students), is extremely crucial. Especially given there’s only 3 countries on this continent and Ottawa is what, an 8 or 10 hour drive from Boston? Bet you dimes to Timmy’s donuts they know the capital of Mexico. That related survey would tell you volumes I think.

  6. I am not sure how the article turned the whole issue towards Canadians and Americans when the question was not why Americans don’t know the capital of Canada, rather it was why Harvrd students in particular do not know it. Its funny to me that the author states “…it’s a silly game and we should stop playing it”,when he was the one who came up with the game. Simply the issue at hand is mis-framed and then we are made to feel ashamed for viewing it as such.

  7. Todd, I knew the answers to all your questions except the Nigeria ones-without looking them up and I am not alone. I bet many more Canadians know Canberra is the capital of Australia, than Americans who know the capital of either Canada or Australia. I believe generally canadians and other countries have citizens who are stronger in geography because there is a stronger emphasis on geography in the education system. Americans probably have a stronger background in American history than Canadians have in Canadian history. For me its not about who is smarter, just about what and how much of what we were taught in school.

  8. There is something to be said for knowing basic facts about the world around us, and that includes the capitals and/or major cities of other countries (to say nothing of other provinces). That doesn’t mean we should care that people in Ontario or Quebec don’t know that the capital of Vermont is Montpelier, but I’d be concerned if they thought New York was the capital of the US.

    As for Nigeria, I don’t know if Lagos is the capital, but I’m certainly aware of its existence.

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