What's the Capital of...?

It seemed a simple enough question. Six words requiring a one-word answer. But the inability of Harvard students to answer it correctly, or to answer it at all, would become a global spectacle and among Flyby’s most popular features of 2013. The clip of the stumbling attempts lasted only 56 seconds. And yet it left us all wondering what we would have said had we been asked, “What is the capital of Canada?”

The reaction to the video around campus and among the general population was predictably frenzied. Some basked in the schadenfreude of seeing the Icarean fall. The Huffington Post ran with the headline, “Harvard Students Don’t Know the Capital of Canada and They Can’t Stand It.” The original video has over a million views.


Others were indignant in their defense of the students filmed. I heard some shout across the dining hall, “Who cares about the capital of Canada?” stopping just short of bursting into a chorus of “USA, USA, USA.” More tactful defenders pointed out that Ottawa is “just the administrative capital, anyway,” thereby emphasizing their own knowledge of the correct answer but also allowing that it might be permissible for others to miss that bit of trivia.

Before proceeding further, I should make two quick clarifications. First, I do not believe that the majority of Harvard students do not know the capital of Canada. The Harvard Crimson is not above a cheeky bit of clever editing. Second, I do not believe that the ambushed students featured in the video are necessarily parochial and unworldly. No doubt many of them took Gov 20 as freshmen and, as the Program on General Education recommends, are continuing to live “beyond the ivied walls.”

But the video debacle raises a more complex question: How is it that some Harvard students study the role of women in Korean art or Mesoamerican writing systems without knowing the capital city of a country right next door?

Back when neighboring tribes and nations constantly lived in fear of war, such woeful ignorance of one’s surroundings would be a sure sign of doom. Today, we can afford to be complacent. We trade in greater volumes and study with wider reach. Our leaders talk of peace in the tired tone of assuredness. In short, globalization has bought us a permissive proximity that has allowed us to remain relatively ignorant of the rest of world—to know of our neighbors rather than to know them.

The caricature of the brash American tourist abroad becomes more alarming when one considers that Americans with a passport are in the minority. Former Mayor of New York Michael Bloomberg has said of United States Congressmen and women, “I’ll bet you a bunch of these people don’t have passports.” He may be right: According to CNN, only 30 percent of over 308 million citizens of the United States have passports.