Clueless About History
April 5, 2004 9:13 AM   Subscribe

Clueless about History Britain is a nation of history dunces with many even believing Adolf Hitler never existed, according to a new survey. A quarter of those interviewed were not sure if the Battle of Trafalgar was a real historic event, while one in seven did not know the Battle of Hastings really took place. Sadly, it gets worse. Apparently the Battle of Endor actually happened in some people's minds.
posted by Coop (56 comments total)
Would be interested to see the questions. I am sure they were unfairly leading!
posted by kenaman at 9:47 AM on April 5, 2004

I find it impossible to believe that people honestly believed the Battle of Endor took place. I think they were jerking the test administrator's chain.
posted by agregoli at 9:55 AM on April 5, 2004

Let's just hope they don't help their kids with the homework.
posted by squealy at 9:56 AM on April 5, 2004

I too would like to see the questions. Likely, it was just a list of names and those surveyed were simply asked to check fact or fiction. If they were given a list like this:

World War One
World War Two
War to End All Wars
The Great War
War of the Worlds
War of the Roses

...that could easily explain why 5% thought the Martians invaded. Same with the rest of the supposedly odd results. Add in a certain amount of cheekiness to boot...
posted by GhostintheMachine at 10:00 AM on April 5, 2004

So are these sort of woeful surveys as standard in Britain as they are in the States? It kind of sounds like it from the article.
posted by furiousthought at 10:03 AM on April 5, 2004

It sounds like the test group for this survey was a bunch of blokes down the pub.
posted by sciurus at 10:04 AM on April 5, 2004

this reminds me of those *terrible* jay walking segments leno does. Also, this story about 11 percent of 18 - 24 year olds in the US not being able to find america on a map.
posted by bob sarabia at 10:22 AM on April 5, 2004

"Answers for Common Knowledge are determined by a nationwide survey of 17-year-old high school seniors."
posted by naxosaxur at 10:30 AM on April 5, 2004

Mh the numbers don't add ...ooohh wait Sky News , same guys who work so hard to produce Faux News. Top level quality, if you are batman and live upside down.

Britain is a nation of history dunces and they're pretty confident they can affirm that out of a sample of 2069 persons probably picked out like sciurus said.

and they also notice that

Yet the results showed that, despite being one of the greatest victories in British military history, nearly three quarters of the population had never heard of the battle.

Yeah of course how strange, people don't remember about historical battle because, wow, they're watching your channels instead of reading some good book I guess ?
posted by elpapacito at 10:32 AM on April 5, 2004

they're watching your channels instead of reading some good book I guess ?

And you're blaming the media for the public's ignorance?
posted by BlueTrain at 10:41 AM on April 5, 2004

King Arthur and Robin Hood not historical figures? But I thought the consensus was that they, or at least Arthur, were based on some level of fact, however distorted by time and imagination. Also, unless the "Battle of Endor" were identified as being something from Star Wars, I would have assumed it was a Biblical reference.
posted by SealWyf at 10:45 AM on April 5, 2004

To play the part of the Devil's Advocate for a moment, as Mr. Ford said: History is bunk. So what if they do not know this and that about their history? Santayana's remark that those who don't know their history will repeat it is a cleche by now...history never repeats itself in exactly the same way etc etc Let's blame tv and computer games.
posted by Postroad at 10:58 AM on April 5, 2004

Apparently the Battle of Endor actually happened in some people's minds.

This have something to do with that.
posted by eatitlive at 11:00 AM on April 5, 2004

Is it any wonder people are unsure about the battle of Endor? It was a long time ago.
posted by biffa at 11:20 AM on April 5, 2004

bluetrain: not "the media" which is tv+radio+internet+phone+book+ whatever delivers some content , but "bad" media only interested in producing whatever gives them good audience ratings at the lowest cost possible.

Of course such media tries hard both to entertain the public and to attract people attention and quickly cancels whatever does not give a good return on investment (even if the show is good, say for instace Futurama) or that seems (to them) not to be appreciated by their audience expecially if its making their audience leave for competitors.

Obviously education of people is none of their duties, therefore if some show doesn't give them good money returns nobody can force them to produce it, but nobody is forcing them not to produce educational shows either ; but instead of attempting this potentially dangerous route they choose to imitate whatever media is currently cashing more money or attracting more attention (see for instace The Sopranos and Arrested Developement : both depict a family of "funny" delinquents).

As the big media attempts to compete for LARGE audience (in batches of millions) they'll produce what seems to entertain the largest number of spectators at the same time, so that the cost is reduced to minimun and potential profit to maximum ; that makes sense for any company.

Here lies the problem: as every human being is born ignorant and remains ignorant , advanced societies attempt to educate people as much as possible. Big numers media must entertain as much people as possible, so sooner or later they will look at whatever can be understood AND _appreciated_ by as many people as possible. They go directly toward the lowest common denominator -because- of economical convenience.

By broadcasting stuff that is designed to appease the lowest common denominator, they're basically taking away precious time that could be otherwise invested in -raising- the lowest denominator (you only have so much time in a day) ; but given that education doesn't seem to appeal large number of population (expecially working population, tired by work and who want to have fun) big media prefer not to alienate their audience and keep on seeking for whatever entertains the masses, instead of whatever educates the masses.

Basically they're NOT guilty of ignorance (everybody is born ignorant) but they're not helping education either AND they have interest directly conflicting education.
posted by elpapacito at 11:41 AM on April 5, 2004

The difference between the battle of Hastings and the battle of Endor is that we have film footage of Endor. I mean, really, I've never seem footage of Hastings!
posted by djfiander at 11:55 AM on April 5, 2004

I must agree with the above. There is no way anyone would think "oh, yeah, with the Ewoks and such? great moment in British History."

Only think that makes sense is as Ghostinthemachine says, and to then report the rsults in this fashion is nothing more than bad science, and/or bad journalism.
posted by John Kenneth Fisher at 12:00 PM on April 5, 2004

I mean, really, I've never seen footage of Hastings!

But... you've seen yardage of it.
posted by SealWyf at 12:02 PM on April 5, 2004

Apparently the Battle of Endor actually happened in some people's minds.

I'm confused by that, doesn't that mean people are ignorant about the original Star Wars trilogy, not ignorant of history?

Like, it could be people just vaguely recalling hearing that phrase somewhere, like I've heard of the 100 Years War, I have no idea when or where it took place (well I will in a few minutes with google) but I'm sure it happened, maybe people just guessed wrong on Endor.

And doesn't it suck when you meet someone who knows absolutely nothing about history (like who Lee Harvey Oswald was, or which party Nixon was in) but makes more money than you.
posted by bobo123 at 12:08 PM on April 5, 2004

i'm pretty sure its not the medias business to educated the public, and as such, I dont see blaming them, even somewhat, as believable. Having said that, there's plenty of education programs on tv, like the hilter channel...i mean, the history channel.
posted by bob sarabia at 12:10 PM on April 5, 2004

Oooh, time for a Blackadder quote:
Baldrick: I heard that [World War I] started when a bloke called Archie Duke shot an ostrich 'cause he was hungry.
Edmund: I think you mean it started when the Archduke of Austro-Hungary got shot.
Baldrick: Nah, there was definitely an ostrich involved, sir.
Edmund: Well... possibly.

Whilst this is obviously stupid journalism, I do believe that the standard of history education in UK schools is pretty poor. I left school knowing very little about the history of Britain, let alone the rest of the world. Thankfully there are loads of history documentaries shown on the TV these days to fill in the gaps, but it shouldn't really be left up to the BBC or UK History Channel.
posted by chill at 12:16 PM on April 5, 2004

elpapacito, while I sympathize with the clash between media and education, the public is, and should be, held mostly responsible for their own ignorance, and not some faceless "bad media". It is not media's responsibility, nor is it solely the state's, to educate the public. If you want major media to elevate the level of discourse, either fund it through taxes or get the public to stop whining about having to work for a living and understand the responsibility that it on their shoulders.

America is full of whiny, narcissistic, arrogant citizens who refuse to acknowledge the simple fact that they are not special. Find a way to inject some Eastern community-oriented thinking into this materialistic, deluded society and perhaps we'll spend less time blaming the "bad media" and more time ignoring it in favor of intelligent programming.
posted by BlueTrain at 12:24 PM on April 5, 2004

There is an ancient document known as the "Foundation Charter ceded to the Valley of Andorra by Charlemagne and Ludovico Pio in 784". Although many specialists question this document's authenticity, it is kept securely in the Parliamentary archives (the cupboard of the six keys).
posted by clavdivs at 12:26 PM on April 5, 2004

Hey, if it wasn't for us saving your limey behinds you'd all be speaking ewok.
posted by elwoodwiles at 12:27 PM on April 5, 2004

The BBC has a quiz up that's inspired by this study. I must admit that I was surprised to find out that the Battle of Stamfordbridge didn't involve rival gangs of football hooligans.
posted by Zonker at 12:33 PM on April 5, 2004

Did you know that 1 in 1 of all people making surveys in England are unable to spell the titles of popular television shows being questioned?

Xena Warrior Princess. Zena is one letter away from the Punjab word for rape (IIRC).
posted by shepd at 12:35 PM on April 5, 2004

Well, really. I suspect that [insert country here] is a nation of [insert school subject] dunces with many even believing [insert ridiculous thing here] would work for just about any combination of those things. Most people don't know much stuff. Get over it.

That said, I just left an English secondary school with little to no knowledge of history, mainly because I gave it up at the first opportunity (which was the start of GCSEs, when I was 13-14). All we really did was a bit about the Romans, some stuff about Henry VIII and then all that crazy Reformation/counter-Reformation stuff (we spent ages on that for some reason), and an, uh, "executive summary" of World War I. I've learned more about history off my own bat since then (especially the history of America, and World War II, and the Elizabethan period when it popped up in English Literature) -- but I can see how someone with no interest in it could be ignorant of a few basic facts.
posted by reklaw at 12:42 PM on April 5, 2004

We in the UK are not dunces at history. History is whatever the Party says it is.

The thoughtcrime in this thread is very troubling.
posted by Blue Stone at 12:51 PM on April 5, 2004

There was a sixth century king, who may've been named something approaching "Arthur," who kept the Saxons from advancing in England for a few years. All of the rest is hooey and oral tradition, but he is, according to many historians, at least the germ of a historical figure. And yeah, same with Robin Hood. Since the details of how the test worked aren't provided, I think it's safe to assume that it was done in an extraordinarily non-scientific fashion, and that a large number of respondents were probably gaming their replies. I mean, come on, Helm's Deep? The movie came out less than eighteen months ago. I'm pretty sure nobody's THAT confused.
posted by logovisual at 1:39 PM on April 5, 2004

It's also not crazy to reply that War Of The Worlds was a historical event -- after all, the panic-inducing radio broadcast of the story is a well-known event, and depending on the wording of the quiz, plenty of people would logically assume that to be what the test was referring to.
posted by logovisual at 2:01 PM on April 5, 2004

bluetrain: Indeed if I had a simple quick way to introduce "intelligence" in people I'd do that right away; but I don't. The best I'm able to do right now is expose some trouble and talk to some people about it : i guess it's a way to at least make the problem surface and build some attention with the instruments I have.

On a tangent :

As for personal responsability : I agree whiners and bitchers should just shut the hell up, but some of them really don't know better, or have such a poor education they really can't understand you as you speak to them (I bet you had many an example of people just staring at you bewildered) ; they are _not_ guilty of being ignorant, both you and me were born ignorant and many others and we were lucky enough to receive enough education to do something more then moving object from point A to B.

Some whiners and bitchers were just indirectly taught that this method works, mostly because their parents allowed that behavior and didn't know as well how to raise their kids without just repressing their bad behavior.

I just want to make clear that the concept of being guilty of ignorance is at times insane: were we "guilty" of being born ignorant?

As for "what can we do about that" ? Personally I just try to shed some light on some people I know just doesn't get it ; it's hard it's not welcome , but at times it works.
posted by elpapacito at 2:28 PM on April 5, 2004

No wonder 80% of Brits oppose the liberation of Iraq. I guess those who forget history really are condemned to repeat it....
posted by darren at 2:34 PM on April 5, 2004

Yes Darren and that's why we must never forget the sacrifice the ewoks made.

Actually Darren I'm not sure I get your point, the British liberation of Iraq in the 1910s was also a nightmare so surely Brits who do remember history would oppose the present occupation?
posted by biffa at 2:46 PM on April 5, 2004

No wonder 80% of Brits oppose the liberation of Iraq. I guess those who forget history really are condemned to repeat it....
...which is SO obviously the point that News Corp. was trying to make; they have a significent self-interest in propogating the myth that other countries' populations are more historically illiterate than the U.S.ofA., where the majority supported the occupation of Iraq (for a while). So you won't see Fox News doing a similar survey here (ah, but that's what the New York Times is for!)
posted by wendell at 2:48 PM on April 5, 2004

Self-disclosure: When I first saw reference to "The Battle of Endor", I immediately thought "How silly of anybody to think it really happened! It was in one of the Lord of the Rings books!"
posted by wendell at 2:51 PM on April 5, 2004

I once knew a girl who thought we were pulling her chain by trying to convince her that bats really exist. She was certain that they were imaginary.
posted by oissubke at 4:31 PM on April 5, 2004

Well, I for one can understand the Endor confusion. I mean it says right there at the top of the movie/newscast that what you're going to see took place A Long Time Ago. They're just confused about the Galaxy Far Far Away part.
posted by papercake at 5:05 PM on April 5, 2004

Researchers found that many of the 2,069 adults Sun readers Sky viewers questioned could not tell fact from fiction.
posted by inpHilltr8r at 5:06 PM on April 5, 2004

i'm pretty sure its not the medias business to educated the public, and as such, I dont see blaming them, even somewhat, as believable.

I'm gonna have to disagree.

Of course, I'm not an expert on either British or American media, but in the US I believe that the bandwidth on which television and radio are broadcast is owned by the public and licensed by the FCC, with specific instructions that it should be used in such a way as to benefit the public. Certainly, the philosophy behind protecting the first amendment freedom of the press is that free speech enlightens us, makes us better able to functions as parts of a democracy, not merely titillates us. Both of these observations lead me to conclude that media does have a certain innate responsibility to educate.

As for Britain, which is what the article is actually about, one would assume that some similar responsibility is true, at least for the BBC, which is publically funded.

Now, if I'm right on this, you should of course hail me as a genius -- but if I'm wrong, I plead ignorance and urge everyone to forget it all.
posted by Hildago at 5:16 PM on April 5, 2004

Well, allow me to take a moment to explain this. Its simple really. The blame should rest directly on the shoulders of the teachers. Now, before you call me a troll, bear with me... Because, I, too, am a teacher. A teacher who didn't know who Sanford Fleming was when the students asked me about him today...
posted by Old Man Wilson at 5:19 PM on April 5, 2004

He invented penicillin, right, guys? Right? Because that's what I told them...
posted by Old Man Wilson at 5:20 PM on April 5, 2004

No, that was Ian Fleming.
posted by kindall at 5:29 PM on April 5, 2004

Nope--Peggy Fleming
posted by amberglow at 6:31 PM on April 5, 2004

nope - ian ziering.
posted by oog at 7:00 PM on April 5, 2004

There was *not* a battle of Endor, but there *was* a Witch-of-Endor. Bruhahaha
posted by woil at 7:36 PM on April 5, 2004

Sir Sanford Fleming was a nineteenth century engineer and scientist, best known for proposing the present system of standard timezones.

I'm cheating, of course. I didn't learn this in school or university - you can thank this "patriotic rubbish". So you can learn some (very whitewashed) history from the media.

It also helped that there is a sculpture and a building named after Fleming at the University of Toronto - I used to play on the sculpture.

But is historical knowledge really about knowing names and dates? I have just begun a Ph.D. in British history, and yet there are many "facts" I would have to look up - and I don't know my prime ministers at all (shame, shame, yes - I can only plead that most come after 1800 and so are out of my period).

But I think the important part of teaching history is teaching historical development and processes - the bigs whats and whys of history. What was the world like? How did people think then? How did we get here, and what does it mean for who we are now? If you can teach a little of this in the one or two years of mandatory secondary history - and maybe instill some interest in your students to read popular history books or show interest in the past, then I think you have achieved something special.

(Thank you to both Mr. Volk and Luciano, two of my highschool history teachers)
posted by jb at 7:43 PM on April 5, 2004

Dear me. 'Let's laugh at stupid answers to questions on particular subjects' is such a worldwide journalistic staple. Nice, easy tabloid copy. Writes itself, nice little boxouts, throw in a few stock photos of Blackadder and Lord Nelson and you've got a full page done and dusted.

"We set out to establish where the Battle of Blenheim stood in the nation's consciousness and were amazed to find out that so few people had even heard of the battle.

Yeah, because the War of the Spanish Succession is really, really relevant to modern Britain. That's degree-level history, people. And as jb has hinted, history isn't taught as 'great dates and great chaps' any more. It's all about sources these days.
posted by riviera at 9:29 PM on April 5, 2004

papercake: Hey, get your own joke (newbie).
posted by biffa at 1:49 AM on April 6, 2004

There was *not* a battle of Endor, but there *was* a Witch-of-Endor. Bruhahaha

Dontcha mean Bruja-haha?
posted by BitterOldPunk at 6:31 AM on April 6, 2004

Zonker, that quiz is almost as bad as the original article!

Which of the following did most believe really happened?

That's a question about the quiz, fer crissakes. How the hell does knowing the answer to that reflect on my knowledge of history? And the "inaccuracies in film" one is similar... all those films took creative license, but I don't know my history because I can't identify which one the quote regarding its inaccuracy is in reference to? (Gad, parse that sentence at your peril). And they wonder why people appear to lack knowledge of history... if that's an indication of the original quiz, the results (as suspected) are meaningless.
posted by GhostintheMachine at 6:33 AM on April 6, 2004

I bet we could get Texas to put the Great and Glorious Battle of Endor into the textbooks. I mean, no one can prove it didn't happen - it's just a "theory" that it didn't.
posted by CunningLinguist at 6:44 AM on April 6, 2004

From what I've heard about current teaching in UK schools, there was no history before 1900, or possibly even 1914. It's very unPC to refer to anything before that and WE DON'T TALK ABOUT the British Empire, doncherknow! When I studied history, we did from 1750 to 1945, but ran out of school year about the time of the Boer War, so I'm still pretty hazy about the bits of the last century that I didn't live through.
The Battle of Helm's Deep was real though - I've seen the film of that. Is it in Iraq or Afghanistan?
posted by tabbycat at 7:14 AM on April 6, 2004

Over at the History News Network, Timothy Burke has a good discussion of this survey. Like most people here, he takes a fairly sceptical view of the results. But he also poses the interesting question: if we wanted to design a survey that would actually test public knowledge of history in a meaningful way, how would we go about it?

If anyone ever really wants to do a meaningful survey like this, I'd say they ought to sit down and ask someone, "Tell me about World War II: what do you know about it?" and just listen, with occasional prompts like "Tell me more" or "Is that so?" I suspect that we would find that most people know more than we think - and perhaps more than they think .. I'm sure we'd also find some shocking or surprising gaps and mythologies, but maybe we'd have to explain for once why these matter, rather than just tut-tutting as if it were self-evident why we should care ..

That pretty much sums it up for me.
posted by verstegan at 7:39 AM on April 6, 2004

Both of these observations lead me to conclude that media does have a certain innate responsibility to educate.

goddamn hippy.
posted by jpoulos at 8:57 AM on April 6, 2004

Like whatever man.
posted by Hildago at 5:50 PM on April 8, 2004

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