Note to British Youth: Columbus Did Not Defeat the Armada

Article excerpt

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. …