While reading the newspaper at a café on a recent Saturday morning a conversation between four young men at the table behind me caught my ear.
“…that’s right. George Lucas made a Star Wars Christmas special in the late 1970s,” one of them was explaining.
“It’s about a celebration called “Life Day” being held on Chewbacca’s home planet. It’s notoriously terrible and George Lucas has tried to destroy all evidence of it.”
“There are other things he should be worried about,” another guy at the table chimed in. “Parsecs are referred to as speeds instead of distances in Star Wars, to begin with.”
“What is a parsec, anyhow?” another asked.
“I don’t remember the exact value,” was the reply.
This was an opportunity that I resisted with some difficulty. From somewhere within the jumbled warehouse of my brain I knew that a parsec is 3.26 light years. “How far is that?” they might ask. I also know that light travels at approximately 300,000 kilometres a second through the vacuum of space, and was ready to pull out the calculator on my cell phone to turn that light-second distance into minutes, minutes into hours, hours into days, and days into 3.26 years in order to present a truly impressive and incomprehensible number.
I didn’t say anything, to be sure, and continued to eavesdrop until the conversation shifted to something less interesting. Rather than impressing them I probably would have come across as irritating and condescending. And desperate. Why should I be so proud of myself for having this tidbit on recall? Surely a great benefit of having books and computers at our disposal is that we needn’t waste our time memorizing facts and figures and can instead focus our attention on more creative tasks.
The night before I had been tending bar at a party at the Cegep where I work as a geography teacher. I mentioned my department to a recent hiree in the humanities as I handed her a drink. This prompted a pop quiz that I wasn’t prepared for:
“Can you tell me which countries border Djibouti?”
A few moments searching yielded nothing too specific, only the vague sense that Djibouti was somewhere in northern Africa. Or was it central Africa?
“I can name most of the countries on the map, but I’m a bit fuzzy on Eastern Europe and Central Africa,” began my embarrassed reply. “It’s a small country, anyhow. I know that much.” This was probably a less impressive response than a simple “no” would have been, all the more so to someone with a background in the humanities. If you were to compile a list of nations that are most readily forgotten (or ignored) by narrow-minded westerners, surely Djibouti would rank near the top of the list. It does not improve one’s situation to also admit a deficit of understanding of the embattled nations of the Eastern Bloc. Thankfully, my audience was willing to be generous.
“I suppose it’s less a matter of knowing where things are than knowing where things are,” she said with a knowing wink.
Yes, of course. When I was studying geography in university we never had to memorize the locations of countries or capitals. When I have students explore the potential effects of climate change they need not be familiar with the locations of any nations beforehand. We begin with questions. Which countries and regions will be most heavily impacted by rising sea levels? Open a topographic map and look for low-lying areas. Where and who would be most affected by the increased severity and frequency of tropical storms? Open a climate-hazard map and see that the answer to question 2 is quite similar to the answer to question 1. And so on. Countries are named, but ideas are attached to them, bringing life and meaning to places that are more easily forgotten if they exist in name only.
It is a well-worn cliché in academic circles to say that the more a person learns the more they appreciate just how little they know. I’ve probably said something like this to several of my classes – it’s worth reminding people that the universe is much larger than the space occupied by our brains. It is also a truism in modern academic circles to state that it is more important to know how to think critically than to memorize information.
However, for sensitive characters like me these pithy aphorisms may not satisfy the burn of being caught empty handed (or minded). While I think that it is much more important to hone our critical and creative faculties than to indulge in rote memorization, there are certain things that are staples of the smart-ass repertoire. The list of Canadian prime ministers and American presidents. The names and big ideas of the most important thinkers. Major works of art and music. Historical periods and the relevant events and figures therein. To this bucket list I will add the geologic time scale, the periodic table from hydrogen through calcium (as well as the radioactive elements of great scientific and social consequence further down the list), and the Greek alphabet. And the locations and names of the world’s countries, damnit.
This type of obsessive mindset won’t get me anywhere, I know, and I should probably relax a little. I don’t look down on students when they miss the mark on (what seem to me) quite obvious things about our world. That would discourage them from asking questions and make me come across as the awful stereotype of a geography teacher that most people seem to hold. Besides, intellectual skill and wisdom can take many different forms, and the disappearance of the persnickety scholar stereotype is probably a welcome thing in the minds of most people. As the final student left my final class last week, for example, she said to me “don’t worry – you’re not going to hell.” Not that I thought that I was going to hell, but it was reassuring to hear this. How did she know this? I decided to consider it a matter of faith.
One thing is for certain: I will be spending a significant portion of the winter break staring at the world map. Not that I plan on using my knowledge of it as a party trick, or anything of that nature. But I’ll be ready in case anyone asks. And I’ll certainly never forget that Djibouti is bordered by Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, and the frickin’ Gulf of Aden. That is, of course, until my mind is inevitably destroyed and I lose everything.