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A wikipedic knowledge

There’s a quiz show on Radio 4 called The Third Degree. It’s kind of University Challenge lite. The one I heard, the students were asked to name as many rivers over 2,000km long as they could in 15 seconds. The ensuing conversation went like this:

“Nile, Colorado, Mississippi…

“The Thames, the Ouse… the Severn.”

“What about Russia?”

“Is there a river in Russia?”

“There are no rivers in Russia, it’s all ice.” (Nervous laughs from the rest of the team – could he be right?)

These were intelligent, well-nurtured young people prepared to pay £27,000 for a degree-level education. But I got the impression that none of them had looked at an atlas and noted, however subconsciously, the relatively small size of Britain. Or had read an encyclopedia. Or a history book. Or any Russian literature.

Is this the wikipedia generation? When your sources of knowledge are virtual, it’s hard to get a sense of progression or order. You’re not confined by the physical extent of a book, or the structure imposed by its authors, or the alphabet.

That’s great if you’re looking for a particular grain of knowledge. And if you want, you can fly from that grain to another, in another information galaxy. Is that how people piece the world together these days?

 The argument for slow learning

What wikipedia doesn’t give you is a sense of knowledge being revealed gradually, to help you form a coherent picture of the whole. As a small child I was fascinated by the pictures of gemstones at the back of my auntie’s Times atlas. Later I looked at the maps, starting with familiar ones like Britain. As I grew older, I’d look at countries I’d seen and read and heard about. The book was always there, waiting for me to make new discoveries and understand a little more.

It was the same with music. In the good old days (!) you’d buy an album, love some songs, find some a bit boring and hate others. After a few listens your response would change. You’d get bored of the songs that you’d loved immediately, and find new depths in the ones you’d dismissed. But when the main way of obtaining music is to download your favourite songs, you miss out on the pleasures of having your mind and tastes broadened.

Maybe our young people aren’t bored enough to be driven to pore over reference tomes. And why spend money on tracks you don’t want to listen to?

Instead they have choice, which is supposed to give freedom. But sometimes, the limitations of paper and vinyl are more liberating to the imagination than a whole universe of bits.