An organic model of knowledge

Samanth Subramanian | Updated on January 17, 2018 Published on July 15, 2016
Drained of colour: John F Kennedy was a fascinating and colourful man, by all accounts. And yet, an American quiz could only summon up the most uninspiring facts about him.

Drained of colour: John F Kennedy was a fascinating and colourful man, by all accounts. And yet, an American quiz could only summon up the most uninspiring facts about him.   -  The Hindu Archives

India, despite having a dry and uninventive education system, has a much more creative and enjoyable quizzing culture than the US

A month into my undergraduate degree, when I was still somewhat unmoored in my strange new habitat — a small, white college town in the middle of an enormous US state — I discovered the university’s Quiz Bowl Club. The club convened at 8 pm every Monday and Thursday, in a classroom reserved for the purpose. You brought along dinner — your sandwich or your $2 slice of pizza — and made an evening of it. The first time I went, I was immediately at home. Here were my people, the geeks and the social misfits and the inordinately curious, the lovers of bad puns and obscure allusions, the devotees of minutiae. I felt like a Jew of the Diaspora who had finally made aliyah.

Within the first 15 minutes, I realised how different American quizzing was. Here, a question was simply an absence of a fact, a sheaf of data points that ended in a bald query for information. “This politician, from a prominent New England family, served in World War II and became a Senator in 1952. He participated in the first televised presidential debate in 1960, appearing opposite Richard Nixon. For 10 points, name America’s only Roman Catholic president.” The questions might have been drawn from textbooks. Indeed, I often had to recall the physics or chemistry lessons I’d crunched into my head by rote only the previous year, when I was finishing school in Chennai. What was going on? I wondered. Why was American quizzing — and even European quizzing, as I later found — such a dust-dry, uninventive affair, so different from quizzing in India?

The paradox still intrigues me. In India, it is the education that is dry and uninventive, a dense and endless parade of facts that must be memorised and redelivered during examinations. Recall is everything. Yet our quizzing has evolved, over the last couple of decades, to be playful, and rich and creative. No Indian quizmaster (outside, I will cheekily say, of Kolkata) will set questions that rely purely upon recall. (What is the capital of Ghana? Who founded Nike?) Instead, each question is a miniature puzzle, to be approached and unlocked in myriad ways. Even the best quizzers do not know cold most of the correct answers they give; instead, they work these answers out, applying knowledge but also logic, teamwork and instinct. Clues are scattered, like breadcrumbs, all over a question, just enough to lead you home but insufficient to give the game away altogether. There is often some sly wordplay. Quizzes routinely feature audio, visuals and video; the Son of Lumiere movie quiz, conducted every year by the Karnataka Quiz Association and including nearly 120 minutes of expertly clipped video embedded into a PowerPoint deck, is arguably the most slickly produced quiz on Earth.

An illustration of an Indian quiz question: The font Bell Centennial was commissioned in the late 1970s, with the objective of fitting more characters into a line without loss of legibility, reducing the need for abbreviations and two-line entries. It replaced an earlier font, which was plagued by the problem of spreading ink, made worse by the quality of the paper. Where would we have seen Bell Centennial in the 1980s and 1990s, and increasingly less since then? Now, a graphic designer might well know the name of the font, but it takes much less specialised wisdom to recall that AT&T was once part of the Bell phone network, or to think about where we might encounter crunched text on poor paper, or to recognise that phone directories are much rarer than they were a few decades ago. The Bell Centennial, we may deduce with logic and a tiny spark of inspiration, was the default font in the telephone book.

In a way, quizzing in India is a minor triumph of intellectual culture, a small but stubborn efflorescence in a largely arid landscape. It is not difficult to suppose that quizzing evolved in this manner as a clear rejection of the banality of rote learning that schools and universities require. Quizzing was steered in this direction by, and now regularly absorbs, people hungering for a different, more capacious form of learning. The best quizzes reward lateral and imaginative thinking; they treat, with noble seriousness, pursuits that India considers frivolous: movies, or science fiction, or heavy metal; they like to ask “how” or “why”, rather than “what” or “when”; they encourage wide and eccentric reading, reading that is its own joy. Not coincidentally, these are all attributes that have been stripped right out of our system of education.

I like to believe that Indian quizzing has somehow found its way to a truly organic model of knowledge. Recall is artificial, almost mechanical, in its dredging-out of half-forgotten items of information. How much more natural it feels to connect disparate facts from disparate fields, to rely on a combination of intuition and memory, and to be part of a team’s cooperative thinking. And how much more exciting! Few people, I suspect, walk out of our country’s board exams — or, for that matter, out of the average European quiz — burning with the desire to go right back home and hit the books. A good Indian quiz, though, inspires and invigorates. It leaves us humming with anticipation — about new things to read or watch or listen to, unfamiliar subjects to learn, and fresh waters to explore.

Samanth Subramanian is the India correspondent for The National and the author of This Divided Island: Stories from the Sri Lankan War

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Published on July 15, 2016
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