Thursday, 7 November 2013

As any fule kno

But what does any fool know?

Do you know who I'm quoting? Do you know who this is, on the right?*

I can't imagine not knowing that, but then nor can I imagine not knowing, as I discovered no-one on Simon Mayo's radio show did a couple of weeks ago, that Artemis was (is?) a woman.

I can't imagine not knowing the basic plot of most Shakespeare plays (I'm a bit woolly on the Merry Wives of Windsor and Love's Labours Lost, among others), or most of the major Bible stories (at least all the ones that don't involve endless lists of "sons of").  I know my Greek and Roman myths, as you can tell, as well as which god translates as which from the one to the other.  I've got a general grasp of Norse mythology too.

I know my Kings and Queens of England, and what order they come in, though I'm rubbish at the Scottish ones.    I can put most of the countries of Europe on a map, and Asia, but not Africa.

But I don't know one end of the periodic table from the other.  I have no idea about Hindu mythology, or the Koran, or what the difference is between a Buddha and a Boddhisatva.  I couldn't tell you which were the Kings that got defenestrated, and I once went to a Norwegian independence day party in full ignorance of who it was that Norway was independent of (Sweden, as it happens).  Despite years of musical training, I have no knowledge of any music that doesn't originate in Europe or America.

Does it matter?  Does it make a difference what random facts I have and you don't, or vice versa? Why was I so horrified (lots of shouting at the radio) that no-one pulled Simon up on the fact that Artemis was unlikely ever to have been the lover of Aphrodite (although I think he called her Venus, just to confuse) - although come to think of it, the frisky types those Greeks were, anything's possible.

There's an American academic called E D Hirsch who came up with the concepts of Cultural Literacy and Core Knowledge.  Paraphrasing very drastically, essentially what he says is that to get on within a society, and specifically to understand the written word, you need to have a set of common cultural references - so reading my blog is much harder if you don't, say, know who Molesworth is, and reading Shakespeare is much harder if you don't know that Henry V came after Henry IV, and functioning generally in Britain today is tricky if you have no idea who 1D or Miley Cyrus are (I may have made that last one up, but sometimes it feels true).

We've all been in situations where everyone's laughing or shaking their heads over a common cultural reference, and we're the only one looking blank.  Wouldn't it be nice if that were never the case?

Michael Gove's a big fan, apparently, and when you look at it at the outset you can see the attraction (though not of Michael Gove personally).  E D Hirsch discovered that very bright students from disadvantaged (often immigrant) families struggled to understand the literature he taught in his classes because they just didn't have the frame of reference of the other students who automatically knew that Germany was in Europe, or that Mozart was a composer and not an artist.  They understood the words, but not the references (and inferences) made.

So he came up with the idea of a list - a set of cultural facts that everyone should know.

And this, of course, is where it gets tricky.  Which facts?  And who decides?  Because it's very easy, that way, to slip into Maoist territory: to control what people know and, in so doing to expunge, delete, do away with the other stuff they don't know.  And if you're doing that it's ever so tempting to get rid of the unpalatable and the unflattering.

It's particularly easy to see how that could happen with history, but it works with literature and music too:  Don't like Wagner? Don't teach him.  Don't want children to be exposed to difficult ideas in art?  Don't let them see Guernica or the Massacre of the Innocents or the Raft of the Medusa. And what about science?  Anyone want to join the FlatEarthers?

And though the original aim of E D Hirsch's theory was, as I understand it, to be inclusive, surely the end result is the opposite.  Because if everyone knows something and you're the one person who doesn't, you're excluded from the outset. 

I don't know that there is an answer.  In fact I'm sure there's not: because you can't get away from the fact (pun intended) that we all have a tendency to assume that people have the same cultural experiences we do ourselves - I've found that out living here: people go blank when I say particularly English things, and I have to have the children's school lunch menu translated for me.  And I'm only 350 miles from where I was brought up, not a continent or a generation away.   Nor can you deny, as Hirsch identified, that it is easier to read Dickens or Eliot if you understand the cultural references they make.

So however unattractive (when you take it to its extreme) the solution he drew, and that Michael Gove has allegedly adopted so enthusiastically, there is truth in it.

But then just because something's true, doesn't make it right.

I find myself descending into trite platitudes here, trying to find a conclusion rather than limply draining away, but maybe that in itself is the conclusion.  You can't conclude any more than you can draw up a list of the things everything should know, because this issue, like knowledge itself, is open-ended.  The fact that I know who Artemis is doesn't preclude me from also finding out who Lakshmi is, and each bit of knowledge I gain leads me on to more.

Maybe actually what any fule should know is that there's always more out there to learn.

* Iota does,  she quoted it in her last post too.  Obviously something Molesworthian in the air up here at the moment.   Click over there for some light relief in the form of a video (warning: it requires an element of cultural knowledge).


  1. Bother bother bother. I just wrote a long comment, and then clicked "sign out" instead of "publish".

    THOSE are the kind of experiences that will form the shared cultural references of the future.

    1. Because bonding is all about swearing and kicking technology. I should know.

  2. What I was saying was that I think there's too much choice now, for a strong shared pool of cultural reference. I might be wrong, though. I guess we all gather round certain tv shows, or celebs.

    But when your children get to university and have that inevitable giggly conversation about the tv programmes of their youth, they'll have the entire CBeebies repertoire to go through. In my day, we reminisced over Pogles Wood, The Clangers, The Magic Roundabout, Hector's House, Camberwick Green, Trumpton, and a few others.

    On the other hand, all generations think that the following one is shallower and not as serious and engaged as they were, so I'm probably wrong.

    1. And if you can't be serious and engaged about Trumpton, what can you be serious and engaged about?

      Although actually I was pretty much not allowed to watch television until I was 12 so I was left out of that one too....

    2. So that's why you're so good at Shakespeare and Wagner and Greek mythology.

    3. probably true. Didn't win me many friends in primary school though.

  3. I went to the glistening clear pool of Aphrodite once. It was hot and they sold tat. That is my cultural reference to Greek mythology.

    Anyhoo my point it, it doesn't matter if you go through your whole life not not knowing about it. It makes you no lesser a person. Except in the eyes of the people that think they are better because they do know about it.

    Anyhoo my point it, if it floats your boat, then fine but if you prefer 1D to Mozart, it doesn't make an 'Iota' of difference.

    In fact as far as solar panels are concerned Led Zep beat Wagner hands down.

    Anyhoo my point is Michael Gove is a c..........

    1. I love it when things make an 'Iota' of difference. See what a pool of blogging cultural references we all share!

  4. The water was hot or the weather was hot?

    And yes. He is...

    1. I think I recall you couldn't get near the water. It reminded me of Marvin's walk to God's last message. (Hitch hikers guide -possibly in so long and thanks for all the fish)

    2. It's years since I read it. Not even sure where my copy is. Will have to dig it out....

  5. I am culturally quite barren really. I find myself finding out all sorts of bits and pieces and snippets of information that I ought to already know. For example, I only just found out that it is the law to teach children about Guy Fawkes even though it's now been pretty much proven that he wasn't the ringleader at all but just some hired muscle. Apparently teachers can tell kids that and it all dates back the law King James made at the time.

    1. It's the law to teach them about Guy Fawkes???!! Seriously? Probably not on this side of the Border though...

  6. I knew Artemis was female and I loved Molesworth but I'm shaky on my history and my Shakespeare knowledge is quite narrow, depending on which of his plays I studied at school. My husband, and lately, my son, seem to have brains stuffed full of facts and answer many more questions than I do when we watch University Challenge. They are probably cleverer than I am. Or is it that they retain information better?

    This post has really got me thinking tonight. I have no answer but I'm so pleased you are blogging again so that posts like this pop up and make me ponder.

    1. Thank you for the compliment!

      We are University Challenge freaks too, although I go la la la not listening when they do the maths and science ones. B, on the other hand, makes coffee when they talk about literature. We're a killer pub quiz team together...


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