Education Viewpoint: Trapped in a strait-jacket of general ignorance: Today's teenagers are no masterminds, complains Susan Elkin. Why are they so uninformed about the things that make life really interesting?

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WHAT has happened to general knowledge? Few of the teenagers I encounter daily have any worth mentioning. Many are trapped in a strait-jacket of factual ignorance, bound by Neighbours on one side and the limitations of their immediate native locality on the other.

Impossible to define neatly, general knowledge is the totality of all those things that every schoolchild used to be supposed to know but which may not be part of a formal school curriculum, national or other. It is the bits and pieces, arguably trivial in themselves, which make the difference between a knowledgeable person and an ignorant one.

Surely a secondary-school pupil should know, for example, that Kenneth Clarke is Home Secretary, that Madrid is the capital of Spain, that the Battle of Waterloo took place in 1815 and that Andre Agassi won the 1992 Wimbledon men's singles title? Sadly, most of my secondary-modern teenagers know none of these things. Why are they so woefully uninformed?

I think general knowledge is absorbed in three ways. First, newspapers, magazines, television news and current affairs programmes are rich suppliers of information with their maps, historical comparisons, names of notable people alive and dead, references to customs and procedures, photographs, diagrams and analyses. It is, therefore, worrying to be told by pupils that they never watch the news because it is 'boring'.

And surely every school should have a good selection of papers and periodicals in its library? Many do not in these cost-conscious times. Current affairs should be regularly discussed and alluded to in the classroom. A pupil at a private boarding school once told me that she and her friends were obliged to listen to a radio news bulletin every morning and then give in written 'news notes' daily. As a result, she was an exceptionally well-informed girl. Any school could set up something similar as an occasional homework to develop current affairs awareness.

General knowledge is also unwittingly gathered through reading fiction. You cannot help learning about 19th-century London if you read Dickens, or about Victorian ecclesiastical politics if you prefer Trollope. Dick Francis informs about racing, Jilly Cooper about polo and C P Snow and David Lodge about academia. Among writers aiming specifically at a youthful readership, Robert Westall brings the north-east coast to life, Bernard Ashley often sets his stories against the London criminal world and Gillian Cross's recent award-winning The Great Elephant Chase taught me a great deal about the needs and nature of elephants, along with the geography of the Ohio and Missouri rivers.

Any work of fiction, however unmemorable in literary terms, feeds a few nuggets of general knowledge. Many young people are, regrettably, very reluctant readers. Tens of thousands spoof their way through school and leave at 16 without ever having read a book right through.

Lastly, people acquire miscellaneous information through conversing with each other. It seems to me that there is far less constructive talk going on today than there was a generation ago. Many families now self-cater on an individual basis, from freezer to TV tray via the microwave, so that the traditional focus for discussion - the meal table - is obsolete. Vast numbers of my pupils sit down to a family meal only on Sundays or at Christmas. The ubiquitousness of television and video limits conversation, too.

Curiously, television does not compensate. Rather, it seems unaccountably to work in inverse proportion: the more they watch, the less they know. Even inside schools everyone is so busy hurrying, panicking about national curriculum tests and covering for absent colleagues that there is precious little time for casual but enhancing interactions between teachers and students. Conversation lubricates learning. Its decline is partly responsible for our aridly ignorant mainstream school population.

In the Fifties we were coached at school in general knowledge as a discrete subject because it featured in the 11-plus. Parents bought books of questions, and those anxious for their offspring to 'pass for grammar school' drilled into them that Daniel Defoe wrote Robinson Crusoe, that Mercury was the winged messenger of the Greek gods and that an octopus had eight tentacles. It is fashionable to sneer at all this today, denigrating it as decontextualised knowledge: the Mastermind or Trivial Pursuits mentality. I have great admiration for the eclectic knowledge of many quiz contestants, and particularly for their versatile ability to switch among disparate subjects at high speed. I doubt that the sneerers have a fraction of the knowledge of these stalwarts.

But I also worry about the bulk of today's schoolchildren whose lack of general knowledge appals me. I recently asked a class of 14-year-olds of average ability to name Britain's Prime Minister during the Second World War. Result? Blank stares of incomprehension. If we cannot find a way of getting them to read newspapers and books, or to talk thoughtfully with adults, then perhaps we ought to revert to instructing them in general knowledge as a specific subject somewhere in the curriculum. School leavers should surely know some facts.