Not knowing anything about anything: not just for Yanks anymore

EducationGuardian.co.uk | News crumb | Youth find place for Gandalf in British history

I've always rejected the notion that Americans are some how dumber than other people. Granted it's fun to make fun of them, but while they may know next to nothing about the rest of the world, they tend to know quite a bit about their own history in a way that Canadians do not.

When I was working a shift at the Uptown Theatre I had a revealing conversation about just how much the average Canadian knows when two of my co-workers among other things could not name the Prime Minister and thought that Canada had fought against the Jews in World War II.

This Guardian article I found however shows that things aren't only bad this side of the Atlantic.

A sizeable slice of younger Britons think Gandalf, Horatio Hornblower or Christopher Columbus was the hero of the English fleet's defeat of the Spanish Armada, a survey showed today.

Less than half identified Sir Francis Drake as a key figure in one of the most famous sea battles in British history, the poll for the BBC showed.

A third of 16 to 34-year-olds did not know that William the Conqueror won the Battle of Hastings, while more than a fifth of 16 to 24-year-olds thought Britain had been conquered by the Germans, the Americans or the Spanish.


The figures, released to mark the start of BBC Two's Battlefield Britain series on landmark conflicts in British history, left education traditionalists aghast at young people's lack of knowledge of their nation's past.

Ignorance, however, was not just confined to the young - 22% of pensioners failed to remember that the Romans conquered Britain, with one in 20 over-65s stating it was the Germans instead.

Of the 1,006 adults aged 16 and upward who took part, only half of all age groups knew that it was the Battle of the Boyne, in which Catholic King James II's troops were defeated by Protestant William III in 1690, that was celebrated each year on July 12 by Orangemen in Northern Ireland.

While 71% of over-65s got that question right, only 18% of 16 to 24-year-olds did so.

And 15% of 16 to 24-year-olds thought the Orangemen were actually celebrating victory at Helms Deep, the fictional battle that marked the climax of The Two Towers, the second novel in JRR Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy.

This year saw saturation coverage of the 60th anniversary of the D-Day landings, one of the decisive battles of World War Two.

But again, the survey showed widespread ignorance about when another key episode from that war took place.

Pollsters TNS found that 31% of all age groups were unable to say that the Battle of Britain happened during the second world war.

One in 10 over-65s got that one wrong, while only 51% of 16 to 24-year-olds got the answer right.

A fifth of 16 to 24-year-olds thought it occurred during the First World War and 12% said it happened 600 years earlier, during the Hundred Years War fought by England and France.

When it came to identifying who helped destroy the Spanish Armada in 1588, 13% of 16 to 24-year-olds credited Horatio Hornblower, CS Forester's fictional Royal Navy hero from the Napoleonic wars.

And a fifth said it Christopher Columbus, the Genoa-born adventurer who discovered the New World in 1492, while 6% thought it was Gandalf, the wizard from Tolkien's fantasy novels.

Nick Seaton, chairman of the Campaign for Real Education, said of the survey: "It clearly shows that our state education system has got a lot to answer for.

"A grounding in national history is essential for all young people in order to understand the present. This is extremely shocking."

Last month, education watchdog Ofsted said that secondary schools spent too little time teaching teenagers about the British Empire and too much on Nazi Germany.

Time spent on the Empire as a topic could amount to one lesson a year for 11 to 14-year-olds - and almost nothing for GCSE pupils.

Battlefield Britain presenter Peter Snow said: "It's at once a shock and a challenge that so many people can be so wrong about some of the key moments in Britain's past.

"Battlefield Britain can put this right by giving viewers some of the most striking and vivid images yet seen of the violent events that shaped our history."