Sunday, October 16, 2016

Royal College grills the country

When I was in Grade Three we had to study a new subject. General Knowledge. We had to learn what the biggest mountains, the longest rivers, the smallest animals and birds, and countless other things were. We had to commit them to memory and we had to know the answer whenever we were questioned. My class teacher, Mrs Manel de Silva (whose son Kumar I knew then as host of “Bonsoir” and met 15 years later as an amiable acquaintance) was very particular about memory. She didn’t privilege by-hearting, but at the same time wanted us to know about our surroundings, and those little, little facts which could help us understand who we were.

That subject was scrapped after we passed out, for reasons I can’t quite explain. From Grade Four what we learnt and collected, we got from the school library. We had a General Knowledge Club but not many joined, perhaps enamoured of other, more alluring Clubs and Societies (especially the Model United Nations or MUN). Sure, we had teachers who’d venture outside their terrain and teach us outside-syllabus topics to instil a love and thirst for knowledge in us. But that was rare.

I joined the Club when I was in Grade 11. I realised soon enough that it was misnamed: “general” implies everything and anything under the sun, but what we were learning was particularised, formalised, and rigid. I remembered what we did in Grade Three and I remembered how ready we were with answers to out of the blue questions. That was the kind of Club I wanted and that was what we soon got, when our team decided to transform it into what it has become today.

It was then that I realised what Quizzing was. I soon realised that far from being the extra-curricular activity it’s usually touted as, it was actually linked to what we were learning for our exams.

Perhaps that is why it never became “fashionable” among students. I wouldn’t know. All I know is that since then I’ve seen Quiz Competitions, and I can say this for them all: they may look generic, bland, and hence useless, but at the end of the day they help us understand this world and this country. They help us, in short, to get out of our wells and stop being the frogs we usually are. More importantly, They yield the ultimate reward: not marks and trophies, but the satisfaction gained from knowing the correct answer.

This is a story of one such Competition. On Friday, October 21, the General Knowledge Club of Royal College will unveil the Blue and Gold Quiz. This will be the 26th time it’s been organised, which makes it the longest running such Competition in Sri Lanka. The Club itself is the oldest in Sri Lanka, with its 40th Anniversary this year. All fine and well and reason for complacency, no doubt.

Quizzes take on various formats and not all of them are the same, so for that reason the Royalists have branded their Competition in their own, indelible way. It’s a fallacy that Quizzes are merely about memorising and parroting out preconceived answers, since ideally, the questions asked are completely random. On the other hand, schools have compartmentalised these Competitions, which is to say that they've been divided into various rounds – history, the arts, science – to ensure variety and interest in its participants. In one sense this is for the better: it ensures a uniform format that participants can move into with ease.

The Blue and Gold Quiz doesn’t operate that way. The President of the Club at Royal, Nimsara Seneviratne, told me why. “Unlike many inter-school quizzes, we don’t have rounds devoted to particular themes. It’s more or less a classical format where you come, listen to the questions, and jot down answers. Moreover, most schools end their competitions with a final oral round. We don’t have that either. It’s not particularised, in other words.” No doubt that makes it more open to contenders, though I have come across past participants who argue that this makes the entire Quiz look like a veritable “malluma.”

And in one sense, this is correct. With a Quiz that’s divided into rounds, it’s easier to assemble a formidable team: take in members who have a penchant for one or more of the themes covered in those rounds and you’re good to go. By doing away with such divisions, you’re basically making it more challenging and therefore, less compartmentalised.

Not surprisingly, most schools don’t opt for this method, which is probably what makes the Blue and Gold Quiz stand out. And to make it all look more challenging (I guess), it’s been opened to every school in the country: “We start at 1 PM and registration will be on a first come, first served basis,” Nimsara explained, “We can accommodate up to 40 teams, so participation must be confirmed as soon as possible.”

When I was small I thought that General Knowledge was about knowing what the biggest airplane was. I realise now that I was wrong. Quizzes aren’t that easy and more importantly, they're not meant to be standardised. You don’t study for them and even if you do, the most you can expect are questions based on Current Affairs (given that they are, after all, based on recent incidents). In all other respects – history, the arts, even science – you can never be sure as to what will be asked.

That’s what makes it fun. What makes it indelible. And what makes it tick. The Royalists seem to have understood well with their format, and with a history going back to 1976, they would doubtless continue with what they’ve shaped for a great many more years and decades to come.

You can confirm your school’s participation at the Blue and Gold Quiz by contacting the following people: Janith at 0773777047 and Ravindu at 0774672331

Written for: The Island YOUth, October 16 2016