Note to British youth: Columbus did not defeat the Armada

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 Francis Drake.

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-cleverness."

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 TV.

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.

'Will this be on the exam?'

Educators point to failings in the school system. History courses, for example, focus too heavily on the 20th century, they say, neglecting earlier periods. Shakespeare students often do not have to read the full play - they just watch a video and read a few scenes that may come up in examination questions.

Exams are a pale imitation of the tests set 20 or 30 years ago, according to teacher Chris Brotherton.

"Exams are getting easier," he says, anticipating another set of inflated results when marks are awarded for 16- and 18-year-olds later this month. "Because we have 45 percent going on to university now, compared to 15 percent a generation ago, it has to be easier to get an 'A' grade."

But he claims that at the same time, teaching has improved. "When we were at school it was 'chalk and talk.' There was no thinking - it was all about memorizing."

A surge in university admissions suggests that youth see value in acquiring knowledge. But Nick Seaton, chairman of the Campaign for Real Education, says professors complain that the academic standard of incoming students "is nothing like what it was 10 or 15 years ago."

"Undoubtedly, traditional standards in this country have dropped markedly over the last 20 or 30 years and a lot of it we would put down to the cultural change in the education system where content has been thrown out in order to allow more young people to achieve success," Mr. Seaton says.

Not just a British problem

The problem is hardly Britain's alone. Across the pond, the US Department of Education reported in 2001 that more than half of high-schoolers thought the US fought World War II in partnership with Germany, Japan, or Italy. Sixty-five percent couldn't link the Boston Tea Party to the American Revolution.

Such ignorance is not new, either. In 1987, educator E.D. Hirsch created a storm with the publication of "Cultural Literacy," outlining essential facts that he thought educated Americans should - and by his estimate, didn't - know.

In Britain, not everyone subscribes to this view of a dumb and dumber country.

Professor Adamson says the students passing through his classes are more intelligent and articulate than their predecessors 10 years ago. Plenty of them know that Gandalf never got close to the Spanish Armada.

David Goodhart, editor of "Prospect," a high brow monthly, says intellectualism is alive and well in Britain.

"In Britain, we have always despised the idea of the preening expert who is not understood by the ordinary man," he says, "But we actually have a more thriving media, university, theater culture than Germany and other countries in continental Europe where there is a more formal respect for the intellectual."

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