There is a very funny moment in one of the shows by Ali G (a.k.a. the comedian Sacha Baron Cohen) where he interviews an American military officer. He asks him whether he has met General Schwarzkopf, or General Colin Powell – and in each case the officer affirms that he has. Ali G then wants to know whether he has met General Motors, at which point the officer doesn’t know how to respond and is obviously desperately trying to work out whether this is a prank or whether he has simply stumbled upon an imbecile. Well, perhaps Ali G could ask on a future occasion whether his target had met General Knowledge. The truthful answer would probably have had to be that, no, he had not.
In my job I am surrounded by people of all ages who are extraordinarily intelligent and are often either working on or studying something at the very cutting edge of knowledge. But when it comes to declaring whether Baku is in Mongolia or Azerbaijan they have no idea; and when someone asks them to calculate 6 times 8, they take out a calculator.
It is possible that a product of specialisation is increasing unfamiliarity with anything outside of the chosen specialism. Or maybe it is just that general knowledge no longer has a platform except maybe on reality TV; but no matter how often you watch Who Wants to be a Millionaire, it will never fill the gap.
I think it is important that we educate and train people so that they will have the specific skills they need, but it is also vital that young people in particular acquire a working knowledge more generally of the world in which they live and in which they will want to be active. Surveys (such as this one) regularly reveal some really broad gaps in popular knowledge; but rather than throw up our arms in mock despair, we should look at how we educate people and what materials we give them in order to improve their general knowledge. When I was a young boy there were plenty of supports, from magazines like Look and Learn (which probably now sounds impossibly nerdy) to the whole series of Ladybird books. There is no real modern equivalent of such didactic materials, and where today entertainment does focus on general knowledge it treats it like a lottery proposition: your knowing the answer to some question is the occurrence of a statistical near-impossibility and thus entertaining.
I don’t really know what the answer is to my complaint, but I am firmly of the view that we must try to recover some of that general knowledge and make it common property again. That way we can laugh at Ali G because we actually know why it’s funny.