IS GOOGLE KILLING GENERAL KNOWLEDGE?

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General knowledge, from capital cities to key dates, has long been a marker of an educated mind. But what happens when facts can be Googled? Brian Cathcart confers with educationalists, quiz-show winners and Bamber Gascoigne ...

From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Summer 2009

One day last year a daughter of Earl Spencer (who is therefore a niece of Princess Diana) called a taxi to take her and a friend from her family home at Althorp in Northamptonshire to see Chelsea play Arsenal at football. She told the driver “Stamford Bridge”, the name of Chelsea’s stadium, but he delivered them instead to the village of Stamford Bridge in Yorkshire, nearly 150 miles in the opposite direction. They missed the game.

Such stories are becoming commonplace. A coachload of English schoolchildren bound for the historic royal palace at Hampton Court wasted an entire day battling through congested central London as their sat-nav led them stubbornly to a narrow back street of the same name in Islington. A Syrian lorry driver aiming for Gibraltar, at the southern tip of Spain, turned up 1,600 miles away in the English east-coast town of Skegness, which has a Gibraltar Point nearby.

Two complementary things are happening in these stories. One is that these people are displaying a woeful ignorance of geography. In the case of Stamford Bridge, one driver and two passengers spent well over two hours in a car without noticing that instead of passing Northampton and swiftly entering the built-up sprawl of London, their view continued to be largely of fields and forests, and they were seeing signs for Nottingham, Doncaster and the North. They should have known.

The other is more subtle. Everybody involved in these stories has consciously handed over responsibility for knowing geography to a machine. With the sat-nav on board, they believed that they did not need to know about north or south, Spain or England, leafy Surrey or gridlocked Islington. That was the machine’s job. Like an insurance company with its call centre or a local council with its bin collections, they confidently outsourced the job of knowing this stuff, or of finding it out, to that little computer on the dashboard.

Here is another story. A former winner of the BBC quiz show “Mastermind” recently took part in a pub quiz which came down to a tiebreaker between his team and a group of young people who were relying on BlackBerrys. Anyone familiar with quizzes these days knows that this can happen, whether it is under the table or outside in the smokers’ zone; the combination of wireless internet access and Google searching is simply too powerful for some to resist and for others to prevent. In this case, happily, virtue triumphed and the team led by the Mastermind champion won. Then afterwards a young woman from the losing side came over and asked in baffled tones: “How did you get that?” So attuned was she to the idea that answering quiz questions was a task to be outsourced to the internet that she seemed not to understand the idea of general knowledge that was kept in the head.

Is this where we are heading? A Google search, once you have keyed the words in, takes a broadband user less than a second, and the process will only get quicker. As for those laborious keystrokes, voice-recognition technology will enable us to bypass them. And soon pretty well everybody, from schoolchildren to drinkers in pubs, will be online pretty well all of the time. In that context, perhaps there is no longer any point in keeping facts in our heads. If you want to know who wrote “Skellig”, or whether Norway is a member of the European Union, or what Cary Grant’s real name was, you ask your laptop or your phone.

I teach undergraduates, and I am prepared to bet that many other teachers have found themselves wondering whether they are seeing this force at work. The average student, though better-informed than the earl’s daughter appears to be, seems not to value general knowledge. If asked a factual question, they will usually click on a search engine without a second thought. Actually knowing the fact, committing it to memory, does not seem to be a consideration.

As a reader of Intelligent Life you may well find this depressing. It seems of a piece with Private Eye’s “Dumb Britain” column, which records heroically stupid quiz-show answers. It gave us the contestant who, when asked which jungle-swinging, loincloth-clad character was played on film by Johnny Weissmuller, replied “Jesus”. If anything, the rise of the web seems worse, pointing not just to occasional outrageous ignorance but to the death of general knowledge itself. And we may be powerless to stop it, for no amount of pious complaint will make a difference, any more than the governments of the 1960s could stop the tide of pop radio, or the parents of today can stop their children playing video games. So, before we despair, is it really happening?

Here is a question: should schoolchildren be taught the capital of Colombia? You may well be saying yes, but David Fann, who chairs the primary schools committee of the National Association of Head Teachers, is quite sure the answer is no. “They just don’t need to learn off the capital cities of the world,” he says. “The capital of France, yes, but not the capital of Colombia. They will be much better off learning to use atlases as a skill.” This is an educational version of the old homily about development aid: give a man a fish and he can eat for a day; teach a man to fish and he can eat for a lifetime. Teach children to use an atlas, or some other resource, and they won’t just be able to find the capital of Colombia; they can find the capitals of Vanuatu and Greenland too, and anywhere else besides. “Facts per se aren’t off the agenda, but we need to teach skills,” says Fann. “It’s a matter of balance. For a long time we had a purely knowledge-based curriculum; now we need to develop skills.”

Put like that it seems sensible enough, but it does suggest that schools are encouraging the idea that knowing stuff is less important than being able to look it up. We are a long way here from Dickens’s Thomas Gradgrind: “Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else.”

Anne Ashurst, who won “Mastermind” in 1997 and is now 70, had the kind of schooling that might have pleased Gradgrind. “We were taught—really taught—from an early age, and there wasn’t any playing [at school]. We worked. I used to have to write essays for homework and bring them in. And at my grammar school we had a general-knowledge exam every summer.” She doesn’t see today’s schooling in the same light. “Now I think children are taught what is needed to pass exams. It is very narrowly focused and teachers have to get through it all. It’s a great shame. The children no longer write three sides of paper in an exam; they tick boxes.” Nor is there much rote learning, and there is much less writing down—a process Ashurst sees as helpful in committing information to memory. She isn’t especially nostalgic, and she notes with regret that she was allowed to go through school without learning physics, but she believes something is being lost.

Bamber Gascoigne, the doyen of quizmasters, is inclined to agree: “In many ways modern education is much better, teaching people to think, but there is a disadvantage, which is that time is limited and if you spend time analysing you don’t have time to learn a basic structure or framework of facts.” He cites the example of a 15-year-old boy he met who lamented the narrowness of the history curriculum—all Tudors and Hitler—and who provided vivid proof by suggesting that the famous event that occurred in 1066 was the Great Fire of London. (“I suppose he had three out of four digits...”)

IS GOOGLE KILLING GENERAL KNOWLEDGESo facts are in retreat in our education system. I could find no one to dispute the proposition that young people generally learn fewer of them at school than their parents would have, and those they do learn, they may well learn in ways that mean they do not remain so long in the memory. Facts have certainly not been removed from the curriculum altogether, but they compete with a lot of other stuff and many of that earlier generation’s facts have had to give way. David Fann is representative of many who argue that it is only sensible to rely on easy internet access to make up the difference. “The primary-school curriculum we are now rewriting will be taught to children who will be leaving school in 2024. The world will be very different then. Technology is already making a real impact on the way children learn and communicate. They will soon all have hand-held computers in the classroom, with e-mail and Google, and we need to make use of that.”

A certain lack of general knowledge—what some might call ignorance—is thus built into the system, and will be more so in the future. My Googling undergraduates are doing something they may have been encouraged to do at school.

Before we go any further with this, though, there is a factor that needs to be taken into account: I may be asking those students the wrong questions. By way of illustration, here is a short quiz. Who was the German philosopher best known for his 1781 work “The Critique of Pure Reason”? Which composer, whose works include “Clair de Lune” and “La Mer”, settled briefly in Eastbourne in 1905 with his pregnant mistress after his distraught wife shot herself in the Place de la Concorde? And who was the Roman tribune whose land reforms and personal ambitions so alarmed senators that they beat him to death with their chairs in 133BC?

How did you do? Perhaps you have made an informed guess (“that’s got to be either A or B; I’ll say A”), or maybe one answer is on the tip of your tongue and when you see it you will tell yourself you knew it all along. Then again, you may be muttering sourly that the last one is a bit obscure, since hardly anyone these days knows the names of Roman tribunes. In fact those questions (answers in a moment) owe their origins to an article written in 1969 by the historian and poet Robert Conquest, who, addressing the state of the school curriculum of the time, declared that “an educated man [sic] must have a certain minimum of general knowledge”. What was that certain minimum? “Even if he knows very little about science and cannot add or subtract, he must have heard of Mendel and Kepler. Even if he is tone deaf, he must know something about Debussy and Verdi; even if he is a pure sociologist he must be aware of Circe and the Minotaur, of Kant and Montaigne, of Titus Oates and Tiberius Gracchus.” (Our answers are there: in order, Kant, Debussy and Tiberius Gracchus.)

As a measure of what every educated person must know, I suspect that even many of Conquest’s readers at the time would have found that obtuse. They might have pointed out that he was educated (at Winchester and Oxford) before the second world war. Today, another generation on, his list fails us on additional counts, not least that it is heavily weighted with dead white European men. When we talk of general knowledge, even at its most high-minded, we are talking about something fluid and dynamic. As Bamber Gascoigne puts it: “General knowledge changes. It always has and always will. It has to adapt.” New facts arrive, such as President Obama and the 100-1 Grand National winner, and old facts are sloughed off, like poor old Tiberius Gracchus.

That much is obvious, you may be saying. And yet this churning of knowledge causes plenty of exasperation. I recall the blank faces that met my first mention of the Falklands war in a university lecture. I had assumed the students would know about it, but most did not—those events happened in 1982, before they were born. When I discussed the Wapping dispute of 1986 I again had difficulty, though when you stop to think about it modern students with little knowledge of the workings of trade unions were perhaps bound to struggle with concepts like demarcation and the closed shop.

I also remember my own youthful incomprehension at a running gag in which Eric Morecambe did his impression of Jimmy Durante (“Sit-ting at my pianna…”). Durante, a 1950s personality, meant nothing to me, just as a young reader now might be wondering, “Who’s Eric Morecambe?” (A hugely popular television comedian of the 1970s.) The frame of cultural reference never stops moving, and it is surely unfair to describe the consequence as ignorance. I need to accept that, though my students may appear to me to have less stuff in their heads, they may in fact know a lot of different stuff, stuff that I don’t know and can’t ask about.

What has changed in the past generation is that the internet has come along, and the question stands: is it a threat to general knowledge? When I put that to John Lloyd, creator of “QI”, the subversive BBC quiz show presented by Stephen Fry, he gave a very QI answer, referring me to the story of the Egyptian god Thoth. I looked it up, and it was told by Plato. It goes like this: Thoth has invented writing and proudly offers it as a gift to the king of Egypt, declaring it “an elixir of memory and wisdom”. But the king is horrified, and tells him: “This invention will induce forgetfulness in the souls of those who have learned it, because they will not need to exercise their memories, being able to rely on what is written…rather than, from within, their own unaided powers to call things to mind. So it’s not a remedy for memory, but for reminding, that you have discovered. And as for wisdom, you are equipping your pupils with only a semblance of it, not with truth.”

That was written 2,400 years ago, and Lloyd pointed out that similar arguments about inevitable damage to human thinking and memory attended the arrival of printing in the 15th century AD. We seem to have survived both shocks with our capacity for general knowledge intact, indeed enhanced. That puts modern concerns into perspective. 

Kevin Ashman, responding to the same question I put to Lloyd, acknowledged that there was a problem of young people simply saying “I don’t need to know that,” but like Lloyd he was far more excited about the educational potential of the internet. “There is much more information available, giving people far more opportunities to boost their general knowledge.” And he is certain that they are taking advantage of those opportunities. Ashman’s opinion is relevant because he is the Tiger Woods of general knowledge. A former civil servant from Winchester, he has won “Fifteen to One”, “Mastermind” (he still holds the record score of 41) and “Brain of Britain”, and is also a three-time world quizzing champion and a regular egghead on the “Eggheads” programme. “I don’t tend to take part in the local pub quizzes,” he told me. “I wouldn’t be terribly welcome.” 

Ashman, Gascoigne, Ashurst—I was drawn to general-knowledge specialists as I investigated this, and they in turn reminded me of something I was not getting right. General knowledge is not, and never has been, something that you acquire during your formal education. It is a lifelong accumulation, and we pick it up from every available source as we go along. Anne Ashurst (“Mastermind” specialist subject: Barbara Villiers, Duchess of Cleveland) points out that she was an avid reader before she ever entered a classroom. Kevin Ashman (specialist subject: the Zulu wars) still effortlessly, continuously and often unconsciously absorbs facts, even from the posters in the London Underground. Of course they remember some of what their teachers told them, but for people like them, and for millions of others, the internet is just what its enthusiasts claim: a fountain of knowledge that is accessible, democratic and does not run dry when you leave school or university.

Millions of others? Really? Oh yes. Look at the quiz world and you realise that general knowledge is in much better nick than you might imagine. “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” and “The Weakest Link” are among the most watched shows on television. “University Challenge”, revived by the BBC more than a decade ago, is in rude, headline-making health, and “Mastermind” is doing fine; it’s telling that the BBC’s grand inquisitors, Jeremy Paxman and John Humphrys, bother to host these shows. “Eggheads” goes out five days a week after 6PM, often beating “The Simpsons” in the ratings. Quizzes and quiz-based puzzles pop up daily in the newspapers, no longer saved for bank holidays. Trivial Pursuit and its imitators have sold in their millions. And the pub quiz, with its attendant leagues, has become a mainstay of the liquor trade, with tens and possibly hundreds of thousands of people competing up and down the country every week.

IS GOOGLE KILLING GENERAL KNOWLEDGE 2A few sample questions. Two from “The Weakest Link”: what we call natural gas consists mostly of which gas? Which Labour leader resigned in 1992 to become a European commissioner? Two from “University Challenge”: the battle of Austerlitz in 1805, one of Napoleon’s greatest victories, was fought on a site in which present-day country? What is the correct name for the right-hand pedal on a pianoforte? And finally two from “The Prince of Wales (Highgate) Quiz Book”, edited by Marcus Berkmann (who also edits “Dumb Britain”): what do the following have in common: John Bunyan, Oscar Wilde, Adolf Hitler, Jeffrey Archer? In a famous novel and more recently in a musical, how was Anne Catherick known?

The answers are methane, Neil Kinnock, the Czech Republic, the sustaining pedal, they all wrote books in prison, and “The Woman in White”. How did you do? Even if you found them easy, you would have to admit that this is a long way from Dumb Britain. It is true that modern quizzes mix questions of this kind with varying quantities of sport, celebrity, pop music and other aspects of popular culture. Try these, one of which is from “University Challenge” and the other from “The Weakest Link”. Which fashion designers produced the dress worn by Diana, Princess of Wales, on her wedding day in 1981? And which French designer created Madonna’s bustiers in the late 1980s and early 1990s?

The Emanuels and Jean-Paul Gaultier, and for that matter Simon Cowell and Wayne Rooney, are ephemeral and to many of us unimportant. They will not last like Mendel and Montaigne (although the Emanuels have already shown some stamina, with 28 years in the public memory bank). But knowing about them surely isn’t evidence of ignorance; indeed, to say they don’t belong in a quiz is to align yourself with those High Court judges who need to be told who the Beatles are.

Over the past generation or so, quizzes have democratised general knowledge. On television, the genre was represented in my boyhood by “University Challenge”, “Top of the Form” and “Ask the Family”. Like pretty well all television in those days, these shows were rigidly and unashamedly middle-class. The message was that if you weren’t educated at a grammar school, general knowledge was at best a spectator sport. We don’t live in that world any more.

Who competes in pub quizzes? Will Jones runs a website listing no fewer than 2,000 regular pub quiz nights around the country “and that’s nowhere near all of them”. The clientele is as varied, he says, as any group of people you find in pubs, with a majority of men but a fair number of women, and a wide range of ages. And remember, these people are being asked, as I was in my own local the other day, in what county they would find the Giant’s Causeway and in what way Cecil Day-Lewis was distinguished. Many who know the answers (Antrim, and as a poet) passed through our schools at times when teaching was supposed to be at its most woolly and fact-averse.  

Jones finds it depressing that education today is less fact-based, but he is anything but hostile to the internet, which he insists has a big role in the quizzing boom. “Of course education and books are important, but if you read online, you’re going to pick up general knowledge there too, and it is so easy. The supply of information has absolutely exploded—it’s like having hundreds of thousands of books on your shelf.”

There will always be dimwits, and their feats of stupidity will always make news. Equally, there will always be teachers and parents who shake their heads at the supposed ignorance of the young. We need to be careful before we construct trends from such things. But the internet is different, and it lifts the discussion onto a different plane. We are bound to tap into it for general knowledge, and the young will do it first. Schools are surely right to encourage them. The story of Thoth tells us that the curmudgeonly response—“This invention will produce forgetfulness in the souls of those who have learned it”—is a waste of breath.

But equally, the extraordinary popularity of the quiz in the mass-communication age suggests that general knowledge, the idea of a pool of information shared within a culture and a time, is potent enough to survive. 

 

Picture Credit: Michael Harvey, rickh710, mattboschetti (both via Flickr)

(Brian Cathcart is a professor of journalism at Kingston.)