Commanding knowledge

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 ofLadybird 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.

 

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7 Comments on “Commanding knowledge”

  1. V.H Says:

    I wonder if GK is an active accumulation of data or a process of incidental absorption. I suspect the latter. And further I expect you could design a series of activities and facilities for ones children that would put them in the way of such data. Prime amongst them would be a well stocked library with both the worthy like histories of Persia and the Mughal Empire and Kipling’s Kim.

  2. Gordon Dent Says:

    I see plenty of examples in my daughters’ homework of schools providing opportunities to acquire general knowledge. The problem appears to me to be that most children aren’t curious about the world they live in, possibly because they have a choice of several simpler online worlds. I don’t think producing new Look & Learn-style magazines or stocking school and public libraries more thoughtfully would achieve much.

  3. Anna Notaro Says:

    I am not sure I share the sense of loss at the alleged ‘death of general knowledge’, as portrayed in today’s post, or the narrative of decline from the arcadia of ‘when I was a boy…’ to the present when even extraordinary intelligent young people fail to qualify on the ‘education scale’ if they don’t know the exact location of Baku. Of course in evaluating the present one cannot but refer to the past, to one’s personal experiences so much part of our sense of identity, and yet we should not forget that knowledge is not a stable, indelible entity, there is a contingent element to it, it depends on some temporal/cultural conditions, on what is deemed to be knowledge worthy in the ‘here and now’. The survey mentioned in the post is a case in point, the title reads “College students’ general knowledge has changed over the decades”, it has NOT deteriorated, not surprisingly they are “less likely to know who Popeye is….But they are more aware that Baghdad is the capital of Iraq”.
    On various occasions the argument has been made on this forum that knowledge for its own sake is not worthwhile – a point I agree upon – consequently, I wonder what is the use for today’s young people to know who Popeye is?
    Besides, there is another aspect which needs addressing when it comes to general knowledge, its ‘generality’, in other words WHO decides what piece of knowledge qualifies as being indispensable for an educated individual, why Baku and not, say, Astana (Kazakhstan’s capital). When does general knowledge stop being knowledge and become instead trivia, i.e. unimportant and *useless* knowledge?
    I could not disagree more with Gordon above when he writes that “most children aren’t curious about the world they live in, possibly because they have a choice of several simpler online worlds”, to the contrary the internet has provided young generations with a wealth of knowledge to stimulate their curiosity, the business of educators, and parents, is to provide the critical tools for them to discern the valuable from the useless.
    In the American sitcom Cheers (whose only merit is having provided the spring board for the best sit com of all times Frasier to come along!), Cliff Clavin is a trivia-spouting, quirky, irksome mama’s boy, who even knows the reason why one should drink ice cold drink in freezing weather

    We can laugh at Cliff Clavin, but I am not so sure why..


    • Anna, if you look at the survey for which I included the link, it does indeed show that more people knew about Baghdad – which is hardly surprising given the developments of the past decade. But fewer people knew that Paris was the capital of France; which is much more worrying.

      Your question as to what constitutes desirable knowledge and what is just trivia is a good one. I’m not sure I have a convincing answer; but I suspect that it should include knowledge of Paris. Then again, I am not wholly convinced that any genuine information is ever just trivia; even knowing who Justin Bieber is. Every piece of knowledge has some value, not for its own sake as you rightly remind us, but because it creates some connection between different areas of understanding.

      • V.H Says:

        Is the question not a good bit wider that either of you are addressing.
        A few years ago very few understood the financial markets outside of those directly involved, now that isn’t the case. And that is a case of General Knowledge in the sense that the understanding has dramatically widened from the specialist, but general in a statistical sense.
        All universities operate from a given that people entering have and hold a certain amount of raw information. This could be considered a social General Knowledge since there are certain basic blocks common to all, or enough of the ‘all’ to have a critical mass to hold a conversation.
        At the turn of the 20th century a relative of mine wrote poetry, another played traditional music.Both of these endeavours have largely vanished outside of a rarified group but were common to most parishes back then.
        We have http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Skibbereen_Eagle which is taken as a stupid Irish view on world events. But what it displays is that the readership knew not just the main players but the nuances too.
        Ask yourself how many hold a reasonable grasp of Syrian history today. How many understood the layering of internal hate in Iraq even now and how it came about. But is that general knowledge. Perhaps not, but until we’ve got a media version today of the Skibbereen Eagle that can tease out the tangles then we’ll be lead by the nose.

  4. Niall Says:

    Stamp collecting was a great source of geographical and cultural knowledge and was quite popular, at least among nerdy boys, in the 1960s & 70s. Today those boys are in tehir 50s and 60s and the only people interested! The hobby has died perhaps being replaced with computer games.

  5. cormac Says:

    One important piece of GK in the news this week is the difference between heat and temperature. It is v difficult to explain the threat of climate change because of a widespread belief that there has been a slowdown in global warming – whereas there has in fact been a slowdown in surface temp rise (meanwhile, the oceans warm and the ice melts).
    A lack of GK amongst politicians, the media and decision-makers on this simple point will likely have serious consequences indeed….


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