Time to go back to school?
June 4, 2012
by Ivan Raconteur

I realize most people are thinking about getting done with school at this time of year, but I have been wondering if it’s time for me to go back to school.

I don’t mean the kind of zany, obnoxious going back to school modeled by Rodney Dangerfield in the 1986 movie of that name. I mean seriously going back to school to learn things.

I have always enjoyed school. I wasn’t always a good student, but I enjoyed the learning part.

Recently, however, I have been wondering if I am due for an update on my education.

It started when I watched the National Geographic Bee on PBS. I didn’t set out to watch it. I just happened to have the television on while I was doing some chores around the bachelor pad, and the National Geographic Bee was one of the programs that came on between loads of laundry.

I listened to Alex Trebek read the first few questions, and I sort of got sucked in.

It was an interesting, albeit humbling experience. I was amazed at how much those young people knew. I was equally amazed at how much I didn’t know.

When I mention that there was a lot I didn’t know, I don’t mean to give my readers the impression that there was an occasional question to which I did not know the answer. I mean there were long stretches of the program during which I hadn’t the faintest idea what Alex was talking about.

At one point, I wondered if the show had morphed into some sort of experiment in cultural equality, because I was convinced that they had stopped speaking English.

Another thing that caught my attention was the fact that these weren’t adults with wide life experience who were performing so well. They were kids, most of them about 14 years old, and the only way they could have learned all this stuff was by studying.

It made me feel like an ignoramus.

Now, I am used to people knowing more than I do about certain things. I encounter people every day who are smarter than I am, and better educated. There is nothing unusual about that at all. I was, however, surprised by how much of the geography I didn’t know.

I thought about this for awhile, the way one does, and then I devised a sort of test for myself to see how bad things really are.

I opened a notebook and made a list of 10 countries. There was nothing special about the countries I chose. I just picked countries that have reasonably close relationships with the US. These are countries with which any reasonably well-informed American should be familiar.

My list included our neighbors, Canada and Mexico, as well as England, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Russia, Japan, and China.

Next to the list of countries, I made three columns. The header of the first column was “capital city.” The second column was for the current leader of the country. The third column was for the currency. I figured this is the kind of basic information that we should know about our neighbors.

Then, I started filling in the blanks.

I was on fairly solid ground with the capital cities. I knew just about all of those.

However, in some cases I had trouble because the world has changed since I was in school.

I stumbled when I came to Germany. I wrote down Bonn, which it was the capital of West Germany from 1949 to 1990 (during which time I was in school). It was the official seat of government of united Germany from 1990 to 1999. What I hadn’t remembered is that in 1998, many national government institutions were moved from Bonn to Berlin. Both houses of the German national parliament, the Bundestag and the Bundesrat, were moved.

I did not award myself any points for knowing what used to be the capital.

My age let me down again in the currency category.

I thought I was doing well, remembering the names of the currency in each country. I concentrated so hard on remembering that I forgot about the European Union, which was established in its current form in 1993, long after I was out of school. I also forgot about the euro, which was introduced in 2002, decades after I graduated.

This oversight cost me dearly, and, while francs, marks, pesetas, and lira sound much more exotic than euros, they didn’t earn me any points in my little quiz.

I really found myself out of my depth when it came to national leaders.

Apparently, my knowledge of political leaders is rooted in history, not current events. I really struggled with some of these names, and in some cases could only remember men and women from three or four administrations back.

I read newspapers and listen to the news, but when it came to naming current leaders in some countries, I found I was lost. I would have been able to pick several of them out correctly if it had been a multiple-choice quiz, but it wasn’t.

Exercises like this, and watching the National Geographic Bee make one realize a bunch of things one doesn’t know, and this, in turn, makes one wonder what else one doesn’t know.

I’m a little old to be accepted as a new elementary student, but one way or another, I am going to need to hit the books hard.

The world is changing quickly, and some of the facts in my head just don’t fit anymore, even when I am able to remember what I learned years ago.

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