Tuesday 21 July 2009

It's llam-entable

I was wearing my other hat today, the relief teacher one, and one of the girls commented on something that I was literally wearing, namely, my llama-patterned cardigan. Yes, it sounds dweeby, but a teenage girl said, three times no less, and apparently without irony, that she liked it, so clearly it's actually a cool thing to wear. Or, given that it's made of alpaca wool, actually very warm. Tch, enough with the word-play.

She asked where I had bought it and I, in a manner that was totally superficially nonchalant, said, "Peru". She thought a bit and said, "Peru - that's in Australia, right?" And while I was still hyperventilating, corrected herself and continued, "Oh no, I'm thinking of Perth."

But she was unperturbed at her lack of geographical knowledge, even going on to say, "I only found out last month that Wellington's in the North Island." Well, she was 14, and I suppose that's excuse enough. I can't say the same for one of the other journalists on a recent famil in the Northern Territory: an Australian woman not in the first flush of youth, there to write a story for an airline magazine, she interrupted me at one point to ask where Auckland was. I don't think I'm being a needy Kiwi to find this shocking.

But then, I'm easily shocked, especially when I'm in school and coming across girls who are not only unbothered about not knowing very basic things, but are also entirely uninterested in finding out. I suppose it's always been the case that older people are shocked by the ignorance of the youth of the day, but lack of curiosity is a sad thing, I think. And it's so unempowering, not to know about the world, not to understand how things work, what's gone before and what's happening now.

I think they see current affairs, geography, history, politics - social studies, in other words - as a soap opera like Coronation Street, that's been going for so long that it seems impossible to catch up on the back-story, so they don't try. It's such a shame, because they'll always feel detached, and when they get long in the tooth like me they'll never experience the huge satisfaction of making connections between disparate facts and topics that they've known for years.

This would be the perfect place for an example, but it's late and I can't think of one, so I'll come back and add it when I do. But I'm glad I've been paying attention all these years.

>>> "How would you like to go see Macbeth?" I asked my stage-struck teenager a while ago. "Ah," she replied, "the Scottish play. Ok."

Although her thespian debut was in the title role of A Tadpole’s Tale (incorporating a tricky on-stage costume change as she triumphantly morphed from eponymous tadpole to full-blown frog, as much a challenge for the wardrobe mistress – me – as it was for the actor), she has done a lot of resting since those glory days; so I was pleasantly surprised to find that she was familiar with theatrical superstitions. "How did you…" I began. "It was in The Simpsons," she yawned.

It is also thanks to The Simpsons that my younger daughter knows about George Washington’s wooden false teeth. Friends taught them both who Joseph Stalin was, and Malcolm in the Middle explained the Doppler effect. Further, we owe it to Seinfeld that neither of them will ever become a social outcast by unhygienically double-dipping the guacamole.

I was reminded of these incidental educational benefits of television when teaching a class of bright fourteen year-olds about the causes of the Second World War. We had read and talked about Pearl Harbor and I had my whiteboard marker poised to dot the full-stop after the summary instruction ‘Briefly describe what happened at Pearl Harbor’ when something prompted me to add ‘in Hawaii’. I turned around to be met by half a classful of waving hands belonging to people who wanted to know what Hawaii had to do with Pearl Harbor. This led, in turn, to a discussion about the stars on the Stars and Stripes that would never have had to take place when I was fourteen: because I, of course, had had the benefit of watching Jack Lord in Hawaii Five-0.

...It should be obligatory for every light entertainment programme shown here to slip in at least six items of general knowledge: a worthy challenge for any writer, particularly those working in Hollywood, who should be contractually constrained from rewriting history to give it a more flattering spin.

Think how the national IQ would rise – and how smug we could feel when, unlike around ten percent of the British population, no-one here remains convinced that Robin Hood was real and Winston Churchill a fictional character, and we all know, at least to the nearest century, when the Great War took place.

[Pub. The Press 4/4/05]


the queen said...

Gary and I were at the Smithsonian. We saw George's false teeth. We immediately found a guard and said, "We have a question."

He didn't wait, but said, "They aren't made of wood. They wouldn't make any sense, now, would it?" I imagine it's the only question he ever gets.

I think it's too bad she learned about the Macbeth superstition on the Simpsons - I learned about it on Blackadder.

TravelSkite said...

Well, that's even more intriguing. How did that story get started, then? I always did wonder how he managed, with wet wood in his mouth.


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