Note to British youth: Columbus did not defeat the Armada

Reply Sat 14 Aug, 2004 02:34 pm
World > Europe
from the August 12, 2004 edition

Note to British youth: Columbus did not defeat the Armada

By Mark Rice-Oxley | Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

LONDON – He led British sailors to a stunning victory over the powerful Spanish Armada in 1588. He is renowned for his naval cunning. He is a true British hero.
He is Gandalf.
Well, not really. But in the minds of one out of every 20 British young adults, J.R.R. Tolkien's white-robed wizard has replaced Sir Francis Drake.

This and other wildly wrong answers in a recent survey here about British history (half of 16- to 34-year-olds did not know that the Battle of Britain took place during World War II), point to a staggeringly poor grasp of cultural heritage.

The survey is prompting noisy accusations about the dumbing down of the nation that gave the world such luminaries as William Shakespeare, Charles Babbage, and Stephen Hawking.

Hand-wringing educators assert that such historical ignorance is hardly surprising given the proliferation of vulgar reality TV shows, media fascination with pop culture, shortcut teaching methods, and ever-easier university entrance exams.

Others say this explanation is based on stereotyped perceptions. Despite the learned sound of a British accent to American ears, Britons are not uniquely erudite. On the contrary, British culture is not enamored of cleverness.

England, observers claim, has long been a society of doers rather than thinkers - "a nation of shopkeepers," according to the 18th-century phrase. More recently, it has become a country where "intellectual" is a dirty word, where speaking proper English is ridiculed, where the school "swot" (geek) is mocked, while the sporting hero is lauded.

"We have a paradoxical relationship with intellectuals," says John Adamson, professor of history at Cambridge University. On the one hand, he says, some academics and eggheads enjoy a prominence and influence way beyond their financial status. "But in the broader culture," he adds, "we have a certain disdain for clever-cleverness."

That disdain may be partly to blame for some of the latest charges of "dumbing down." TV is usually cited as the biggest offender for having replaced rich programming from a generation ago in favor of a thin diet of soap operas, makeover shows, and reality TV.

Many blame the BBC for abandoning public-service broadcasts in order to schedule vacuous programs that assure perky ratings. Even "Mastermind," a once- cerebral quiz show, has replaced some questions of high culture with pop trivia to win a wider audience.

"The BBC helped to shape the taste of the nation," says John Beyer, director of the Mediawatch-UK standards watchdog. "What has happened is that today the taste is being shaped by what is available - low-budget, low-quality, low-intellectual programs."

The media and the arts stand accused of similar tendencies. The intimate secrets of soccer stars are common currency here; yet few people could name the last British Nobel Prize winner.

But television and the media are clearly not entirely to blame.

'Will this be on the exam?'

Educators point to failings in the school system. History courses, for example, focus too heavily on the 20th century, they say, neglecting earlier periods. Shakespeare students often do not have to read the full play - they just watch a video and read a few scenes that may come up in examination questions.

Exams are a pale imitation of the tests set 20 or 30 years ago, according to teacher Chris Brotherton.

"Exams are getting easier," he says, anticipating another set of inflated results when marks are awarded for 16- and 18-year-olds later this month. "Because we have 45 percent going on to university now, compared to 15 percent a generation ago, it has to be easier to get an 'A' grade."

But he claims that at the same time, teaching has improved. "When we were at school it was 'chalk and talk.' There was no thinking - it was all about memorizing."

A surge in university admissions suggests that youth see value in acquiring knowledge. But Nick Seaton, chairman of the Campaign for Real Education, says professors complain that the academic standard of incoming students "is nothing like what it was 10 or 15 years ago."

"Undoubtedly, traditional standards in this country have dropped markedly over the last 20 or 30 years and a lot of it we would put down to the cultural change in the education system where content has been thrown out in order to allow more young people to achieve success," Mr. Seaton says.

Not just a British problem

The problem is hardly Britain's alone. Across the pond, the US Department of Education reported in 2001 that more than half of high-schoolers thought the US fought World War II in partnership with Germany, Japan, or Italy. Sixty-five percent couldn't link the Boston Tea Party to the American Revolution.

Such ignorance is not new, either. In 1987, educator E.D. Hirsch created a storm with the publication of "Cultural Literacy," outlining essential facts that he thought educated Americans should - and by his estimate, didn't - know.

In Britain, not everyone subscribes to this view of a dumb and dumber country.

Professor Adamson says the students passing through his classes are more intelligent and articulate than their predecessors 10 years ago. Plenty of them know that Gandalf never got close to the Spanish Armada.

David Goodhart, editor of "Prospect," a high brow monthly, says intellectualism is alive and well in Britain.

"In Britain, we have always despised the idea of the preening expert who is not understood by the ordinary man," he says, "But we actually have a more thriving media, university, theater culture than Germany and other
countries in continental Europe where there is a more formal respect for the intellectual.
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Rick d Israeli
Reply Sat 14 Aug, 2004 02:54 pm
It's not only the UK youth who knows little about their country's history. Same goes for here, and I bet a lot of other European countries.
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Reply Thu 19 Aug, 2004 07:46 am
I read an article in a Norwegian paper the other day (I am not sure whether it is true or just an Urban Legend) about a US couple who had come to the North Cape from Texas in order to see the Midnight sun.

When they were told that it was in fact the same sun as the one that shone every day in Texas, they demanded their money back from the travel organisation stating they had been falsely led to believe that the sun in Norway was different from the one in Texas.

The dry comments from Norway included: "It is not illegal to be ignorant" and "God help us when they find out there is also only one moon!" Laughing
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Reply Thu 19 Aug, 2004 08:32 am
Someone should get copies of 1066 and All That for those boys and girls, so they can learn the true history of England . . .
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Reply Thu 19 Aug, 2004 08:34 am
should be interesting ^_^
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Reply Fri 20 Aug, 2004 12:42 am
Setanta wrote:
Someone should get copies of 1066 and All That for those boys and girls, so they can learn the true history of England . . .

That booklet is hilarious, I recommend it Very Happy
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Reply Wed 8 Sep, 2004 04:29 am
Columbus defeated THE SPANISH ARMADA!
I am amazed!


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Reply Wed 8 Sep, 2004 07:08 am
Actually, the armada was defeated not so much by any naval hero, as it was by: (a) the weather in the Channel, (b) superior British naval doctrine, (c) mismanagement by the Spanish. British seamanship certainly played a role, but Drake was no Nelson.
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Reply Wed 8 Sep, 2004 07:31 am
So, is 1066 and all that history or spoof? Sounds interesting.
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Reply Wed 8 Sep, 2004 07:33 am
British seamanship was greatly aided, as well, by the use of frigates and snows on the Dutch design, which could turn across the wind, unlike the galleons of the Spanish. Additionally, the long guns on the Spanish ships were dual-purpose, and designed to be unshipped and mounted on gun carriages for use on land. The Royal Navy showed this very graphically by filming a ship of this type attempting to come about across the wind, and enter the Solent--which it was almost unable to do, and explains how the English were able to escape the initial contact with the Armada by running into the Solent and taking shelter behind the Isle of Wight. They then sortied, and hung on the rear of the Spanish fleet. The guns were just as bad as the quality of the vessel, the same Royal Navy film shows how extremely difficult it was to serve such a gun, it not being mounted on a dedicated ship's deck carriage. Technology was a powerful advantage for the English, and much of it came from the Dutch Sea Beggars.
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Reply Wed 8 Sep, 2004 07:34 am
1066 is spoof, and quite entertaining.
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Reply Wed 8 Sep, 2004 08:44 am
roger wrote:
So, is 1066 and all that history or spoof? Sounds interesting.

It is both. The book purports to simplify the learning of British history by decreasing the number of dates that really matter and finally ends up with only one date that matters: 1066 (The Norman Conquest). All along in the process of discarding dates the connected historical events are portrayed in a very funny way, that is, if you appreciate British humour. Laughing
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