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
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-
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
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. …