Thomas Sutcliffe: British teens aren't cultural cretins

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The Independent Online

Earlier this week, the British Council revealed the details of a survey into international awareness among the world's schoolchildren, the headline finding being that United Kingdom pupils were the least globally aware of the 10 countries polled. The reaction to this, where there was a reaction at all, was to tut over the insularity of our teenagers and add it to the growing stack of evidence that Government education reforms haven't been a glowing example of value for money.

The finding seemed to be reinforced by another survey, which showed that a third of British respondents believed that Mount Everest was in Europe. This is not the kind of thing we're meant to be bad at. We have the Americans for that – a chortling superiority about redneck ignorance of anything outside the US borders being a staple of British comedy. But if these surveys are correct it looks as if we're sinking into an obesity of the mind ourselves, glutted by junk television and YouTube clips of talking cats.

I don't doubt that there's an element of truth in this gloomy picture. It's best never to underestimate the cretinism of modern life. But I did find myself wondering about any simplistic connection between the vigour of a culture and its curiosity about others. The chief executive of the British Council certainly presented the survey's findings as a warning of potential national decline.

"Our schoolchildren cannot afford to fall behind the rest of the world," he said. "For the UK to compete in a global economy, it is vital that we encourage our young people to have an interest in, and engagement with, the world around them". Well, "hear, hear!" to that, but isn't it at least possible that insularity is a marker of economic and cultural success as much as a symptom of flagging energies?

It's immediately noticeable that three developing countries – Nigeria, India and Brazil – come at the top, while the USA and the UK score lowest for what you might call cultural longsightedness. You could conclude that the schoolchildren of Nigeria and India are the beneficiaries of an education system that is far more cosmopolitan and multicultural than that available in Britain. But you could also conclude that they expressed more interest in cultures not their own because they had little other choice. If they want to be connected to modernity, to the best that the globe can offer, they have to learn English and take an interest in what is happening in America or Britain. This may even be true if what they're interested in is their own native talent: I'd hazard a guess that British media had more interviews with the writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who wrote the Orange-Prize-winning Half of a Yellow Sun, than their Nigerian counterparts.

This isn't to argue that nothing of interest is happening elsewhere, just that the global dominance of English (and English-speaking cultures generally) creates a certain natural inertia when it comes to learning other languages or understanding other countries. To put it crudely: why look abroad when there's such a cornucopia closer to home, in a language you grew up speaking?

A bright and ambitious young Briton, growing up in Londinium AD120, would have shown an outward-looking interest in Latin and Roman culture that almost certainly wouldn't have been reciprocated by a Roman counterpart. What's more, a Nigerian teenager who conceived a passion for Brazilian architecture or politics would almost certainly find the information he craved on English websites. English is the lingua franca for pretty much anyone who thinks of themselves as a "global citizen" – which most of those teenagers did, with the exception of respondents from Britain, the Czech Republic and the USA.

This won't last forever of course, and there is already evidence that shifts in cultural and economic power are doing their bit to expand our horizons. Thirty years ago I doubt you would have been able to find many schools in England that offered classes in Mandarin. Now it's far from hard, as it becomes increasingly clear that China may well be making the running in the future. But take an interest in Chinese culture right now and what you'll very often find is artists and writers looking back at us, taking the best of contemporary Western culture and adjusting it for domestic consumption. I imagine that other powerful incentives to look abroad are on their way, too – developments that will force British schoolchildren to relocate the centre of their world somewhere beyond the white cliffs of Dover. But, as desirable as that might be, it will be evidence of weakness as well as strength.