March 22, 2009
It isn't cool to be ignorant
By Fiona Chan
All my life, I've thought of myself as a bit of a nerd.
Just to be clear, this is not the same thing as a geek. The definition of a geek is someone who is obsessed about a really uncool hobby such as, for instance, assembling plastic model robots and painting details on them with toothpicks.
It is also not the same as a dweeb or a dork, who are socially inept, awkward people likely to take their model robots and put them in their office cubicles so they can have someone to talk to for a change.
Nerds, in contrast, are simply people who think they are smart and like to show it by making pedantic and hair-splitting distinctions between very similar words.
I think I've proved my point.
Anyway, so I was ambling along happily in my assumed nerdiness when I was ambushed on Facebook last week and forced to rethink my claim to nerddom.
The weapon: a list of the top 100 books as ranked by British newspaper The Guardian. The attacker: one of my bookish friends, who said the aim was to judge how well-read I was by counting the number of those 'classics' that I had under my belt.
My score was a dismal 38 (actually 46, if you count the eight books I'd 'read' in abridged comic form as a child. Yes, more evidence of my pedantry).
But what astonished me more than the clear evidence of my own literary inadequacies was the number of people who were even more deficient.
It turns out that most of the people I know actually do not read books. Fiction, non-fiction, poems, anthologies, chick lit - it's all a closed book to them, literally.
In fact, almost everyone I spoke to about the list said that, if not for literature classes in school, the only books they would have read in the top 100 list are Harry Potter.
There are many reasons why people have stopped reading. Some say they have no time. Others blame their short attention span.
But one thing they all have in common: They're not ashamed of it.
'Cool people never read books, you don't know meh?' said one of my friends, when asked to explain why her grand total of books read in the Guardian's list was six.
'I donch read,' said another friend in a comment on the list, thereby demonstrating that not only is he too cool to read, he's also too cool to spell.
At least the Brits bother to pretend that they're well-read. Two out of three have lied about what books they have read in order to look more intelligent, according to a recent survey.
In Singapore, however, people don't seem to be concerned about using Borders as a convenient meeting point rather than a bookstore. Reading - and learning in general - appears to have gone out of fashion in this age of instant gratification and flashy entertainment.
It is a disturbing trend. Why is it that while Singapore's literacy rate has risen from 88.6 per cent in 2000 to 96 per cent last year, so many people have stopped reading books - and are so proud of it?
I attempted to discuss this phenomenon with two other friends whom I (used to) consider fairly intelligent. The conversation didn't last long:
Me: Hey, do you read books?
Friend No. 1: Uh? No, I guess not. Wah, can you believe what happened on American Idol the other day?
Friend No. 2: Yah man, and did you watch that other brainless American show last week?
Friend No. 1: I know, isn't it great? I love all these TV shows. They're so funny and they make you really dumb.
Okay, so that's not exactly how it went, but that's how it sounded in my brain.
And it's not just books. For some reason, people appear to be really happy to suck at certain things.
Like when pumping petrol, for instance, I keep overhearing these conversations at gas stations where women drivers proclaim to their friends: 'I've been driving for years and I never learnt how to pump my own petrol. Haha! Can you believe it?'
No, I always want to say. You're an idiot. But I keep quiet because, well, that's what nerds do.
Another thing people like to boast about is being bad at their second language, usually Mandarin.
'I almost failed in school, you know?' they like to say. And then they will proceed to spout something deliberately ungrammatical in an Americanised accent to make their friends laugh.
But what's so funny about being ignorant?
We go to such lengths to reward merit in the academic system, praising students who top their exams or who do well des- pite personal difficulties.
Why, then, does our society appear to tolerate - and in some cases even celebrate - mediocrity in other areas?
Just look around your office. I bet there is that one person who always jams the printer, or ends up photocopying A4 documents on A3 paper, or doesn't understand why the Internet cable won't fit into his telephone jack.
Most of the time they can't, for the life of them, figure out how to work this strange thing called technology. And the weird thing is, they think it's okay not to know - because there'll always be someone else who will be able to fix it.
It seems ironic that, in this era of Google and Wikipedia, 'I don't know' is becoming an increasingly acceptable answer to any question. I guess it's because people would rather spend their online time untagging themselves from unflattering photos on Facebook - or taking quizzes about the number of books they've read - rather than actually read anything.
I'm not saying you have to read hundreds of books, or build your own car, or be able to speak five languages and repair printers in order to be an intelligent or useful human being.
But while ignorance may be bliss, it's certainly not something to be proud of. So the next time you catch yourself saying 'I don't know', perhaps the next step should be trying to find out the answer.
It's not quite nerdism, but it's a start.