Trivia is indeed trivial

Sir explains how the respect for memorizing trivia is connected with India’s obsession with rote-learning. 

Quiz shows like this glorify the rote-learning culture

Which is the largest living species of tortoise in the world?

Damascus is the capital of which country?

…and so it goes on, questions from a celebrity anchor to the contestant on the hot-seat, aided by four options. Parents of eager schoolchildren allow them a break from their evening study routine to watch the programme. Quiz shows, after all, are educational. Doesn’t the school also have a subject called GK?

Quiz shows are everywhere. From the highly popular KBC to the highly rarefied Mastermind — they have invaded and conquered our living rooms and schools. With high-stakes prize money and prime-time visibility, the masters of trivia are now celebrated like never before. And so it should be, as the argument goes, because we are living in the information age. Knowledge is supreme. The bearers of knowledge must be feted.

But isn’t there something fallacious with this argument?

In this information age, chances are that Google will know more than the champion of a quiz show. And with the proliferation of smartphones and tablets, the power of internet is always with you. If you want to know the weight of the earth in kilograms, you don’t need to memorize it. If you want the capital of Angola, you can have it at your fingertips. Though you might ask yourself, why would you want such information in the first place?

In schools, in popular media, and in the minds of the parents of our schoolgoing children — there seems to be a strange respect for trivia. Schools want the kids to memorize capitals of all countries. Parents gift their child ‘The best of Bournvita Quiz Contest’ on their birthday. On the web, a website containing a collection of various quiz show questions is called IQ Garage. Aren’t we more than a little misguided here, equating intelligence with the ability to collect random facts?

Facts themselves are less useful compared to what we do with them. Making sense of the facts is more important. Instead of memorizing capitals of countries, we can try to discuss with our children why a capital city is needed, and why capital cities sometimes change. Instead of talking about dates of battles, we can explain why battles happen between countries. Instead of asking kids the weight of the fattest tortoise, we can teach them why some animal species grow very big, and some are very small. Instead of asking them to memorize the minimum age requirement of an MP (Member of Parliament), why don’t we discuss with them why some countries of the world have democracy, and why some others veer towards military dictatorship?

The respect for memorizing trivia is connected with India’s obsession with rote-learning. No wonder some of our top quiz-masters are also revered educationists! We score towards the bottom in international tests which evaluates reading skills or problem solving. We do not teach our kids the ability to communicate well. We do not instil in them the curiosity to explain the world around. We do not want them to analyse current affairs and have opinions. However, we celebrate acquisition of useless facts and unconnected trivia.

Coming back to the weight of the earth, I once met a child who knew the exact figure. I asked him, ‘So, the weight that you are talking about, is it with all the people on the earth, or without them?’ He was a little confused, but he replied that it must be with all the people in it. Then I asked him ‘When a person is born, does the weight increase, then?’ He was thoroughly annoyed with me by then.

But those were not really funny questions, and my objective was not to irritate the child. I only wanted to check if he blindly memorizes facts, or he applies his mind as well. Obviously, the weight of the earth has to be with all the animals and trees in it, because they grew out of the absorbing food materials from earth itself. They did not fall from the sky. And by the same logic, the weight cannot increase when somebody is born — because a baby grows by absorbing food materials which come from earth anyway.

In the information age, trivia is indeed trivial. In the information age, there is no point competing with Google. We must do what we can do better than Google — making sense of the information.