How Not To Be Clever – 62 Years Later

Back in 1946 (that’s 62 years ago) George Mikes, the author of the undying classic of How To Be An Alien, in the chapter titled How Not To Be Clever, observed, with the usual for the book irony, that

“in England it is bad manners to be clever, to assert something confidently. It may be your own personal view that two and two make four, but you must not state it in a self-assured way, because this is a democratic country and others may be of a different opinion… And about knowledge. An English girl, of course, would be able to learn just a little more about, let us say, geography. But it is just not ‘chic’ to know whether Budapest is the capital of Roumania, Hungary or Bulgaria. And if she happens to know that Budapest is the capital of Roumania, she should at least be perplexed if Bucharest is mentioned suddenly”.

To paraphrase this in the light of the recent news, the British children should at least be perplexed to know that Churchill is not just a dog in the insurance advert, but also the surname of one of the country’s greatest statesmen.

I read the comments on this article at Yahoo!, and I don’t quite agree with the voices that children should not be expected to know these historical facts or even figures. I cannot speak for today’s school pupils in Russia, but I am confident that my generation has grown up knowing by heart the number of Soviet losses in the Second World War. Fair enough, this doesn’t automatically make one a good citizen, let alone a pacifist, but if you don’t learn about your country’s most devastating war conflict of the not too remote past, then what is there to be said about country’s prospects for not engaging in a similar conflict in future?

As an historian and an individual, I absolutely believe that at 11 y.o. a child must already know the names of the leading historical figures of his or her country. I won’t go down the line of decrying the lack of historical sense or the loss of historical memory, etc. What I think is necessary instead is to re-focus the school curriculum. I have never looked at the British curriculum, so I haven’t got a viable solution. But one of the comments read:

“the idea that we should teach Primary school childern war, war, war until they can name the entire 1941 cabinet is a little unrealistic. Tally ho, British Empire and all that. There is so much more than that…”

I don’t think the ability to name the entire 1941 cabinet will serve good to either children, or the country. But if they are able, even at the tender age of 11, to name the main participants of the Second World War, the countries’ leaders of the time, the timeframe, and – possibly – a few key events, it will be so much better. My view has always been that a child should leave the school with the minimum of knowledge that will, on the one hand, save them from complete ignorance and embarrassment and, on the other hand, will form the basis of knowledge upon which they will be able to build later, if necessary.

On another note, the news struck a curious cord with the thought that crossed my mind not too long ago. I suddenly realised that the distinguished Prof Umberto Eco has got a very interesting surname. “Interesting”, of course, in the light of our current obsession with how best to protect Nature. So, the day will probably come when a child asks his parent: “Dad (or Mum), this man’s surname is Eco – is it because he is eco-friendly?”

And when that happens, it will really be the time for the global stir.

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