Monday, February 02, 2009

Dumbing down

I once saw a programme about ‘dumbing down’ in our society. This particular programme happened to be British but I suspect there are similar shows in most countries.

In this one, a group of 15/16-year-old British students were heading for France on exchange visits. In spite of studying the French language, nobody in the group could name a single famous French person either alive or dead. One then had a flash of inspiration and shouted out “Plastic Bertrand”, who in fact is Belgian and I think an entertainer/ex pop star.

Whether People such as Voltaire, Napoleon Bonaparte, Marie Curie, Charles de Gaulle and even Zinedine Zidane for that matter, would be happy to know that their fame would be less long lasting than that of Plastic Bertrand I don’t know.

The same group equally struggled to identify a single German they’d heard of apart from, with sad predictability, a short man with a moustache – and even he was Austrian.

This isn’t just restricted to British teenagers. Many adults from the UK who become expats actually have a poor understanding of the geography, history and politics of the country they’re moving to. I’ve met British people in The Netherlands that could not name the capital city and others in France who had no idea at all who was President or what the French national anthem is called. One expat I spoke to in Spain didn’t know which city was the Spanish capital and had also never heard of General Franco.

This isn’t one sided either. I’ve met Europeans living in the UK who have little knowledge of the UK outside of London and a few limited parts of the South-East of England. Many have had some truly bizarre ideas about the role of the royal family in British daily affairs.

I guess one needs to ask whether or not all this ignorance matters? If I’m sitting in a café in Amsterdam, completely content and minding my own business, does the world stop if I can’t bring to mind immediately the name of the Polish Prime Minister, the name of the second largest city in Slovenia, or the names of all the constituent peoples of Spain?

No, I guess not, but I’d like to think that if I was living in Poland, Slovenia or Spain, then I’d be able to have a pretty good go at getting the answers right!

Yet one could even question that. If you’re sitting in that café this time in Sydney where you now live, does it matter if you mistakenly believe you’re in the capital city of Australia? After all, surely all these things are only important in a quiz show?

This really is at the crux of the issue and relates to how expats of any nationality in any country integrate into their new society. How good is your knowledge of your new home?

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