Wednesday, 6 April 2011

First Aid In Knowledge ?

I apologise if you think I’m going over old ground here.

We had a discussion in the staffroom at lunchtime, as we often do, and the subject turned once again to the general knowledge – or lack of it – displayed by even exceptionally bright pupils today. The catalyst for discussion was that my Head of Department was working on J.B.Priestley’s “An Inspector Calls” with his good year 11 GCSE class. Trying to probe into the political background that produced the book, he found that not one had heard – or would admit to having heard – of Marx, Lenin, or even the Russian Revolution.

Alright, this is quite familiar ground, and I’m sure that its ground that has been well - trodden in staffrooms the length and breadth of the country. And yes, we semi-omniscient greybeards solemnly intoned that it wasn’t like this in our day, and that we had at least some general knowledge when we were at school, back in the days before Maggie T. stopped the free school milk. The reason why I write is that the discussion moved on to considering why this is. Why, if things are as they seem, do children who are every bit as bright as we were at the same age have such a seemingly inferior general knowledge to that of children 30 and more years ago. I have my own views on this, but I was interested to hear what they came up with. And the most interesting thing of all was that all of those in the staffroom at the age of 35 or over all came up with the same answer – every single one of them. This answer was- when they were at school, they all used the “First Aid in English “ !

Now, I fall into the over-35 category , by quite a distance as it happens , so I well remember the “First Aid In English” . I tried to do a little background research before writing this post, and considering its something which was used by, and which influenced a whole generation of schoolchildren, there is relatively little background information readily available out there on the net about it. I was rather surprised to find that there is no Wikipedia entry for the book at all, which is a little odd considering the wide range of ephemera which get their own space in this particular online resource. Amazon gives hardly any details when you look up the most modern version – “The New First Aid In English” – I couldn’t find any publisher’s notes, and while its always interesting to read the reviews by readers, they didn’t really answer any of my questions. So while I know that it was written by Angus Maciver, and that it was certainly around by the 1950s, I have no idea when the first edition was published, nor how many copies have been sold, nor how many editions or versions there have been, nor how many countries have their own editions. It’s a shame.

I don’t intend to discuss its value as an English textbook – far better qualified and cleverer people than me have already done so – but I just find myself wondering why it is that so many of my generation and older have such respect for this book as a purveyor of knowledge. After all, to take my Head of Department’s example from earlier today , my memory may be at fault, but I don’t remember finding anything about Marx, Lenin or the Russian Revolution between its covers. Yet on the other hand, I do think that I know what he and the others meant. I think many of us recall the book for the pages of stuff like collective nouns, and proverbs. After all, lets be honest, this was for some of us maybe our first encounter with something which we learned , or were asked to learn, with hardly any practical value . This was knowing something for no other reason than its arguably better to know it than not to. Which may be why we remember it , rather than the Look and Learn comics we read in the school dentist’s waiting room, for example, or the Valerie Singleton items we saw on Blue Peter . ( Maybe again my memory is playing tricks here, but it always seemed to me that in my youth on Blue Peter they would give anything educational to our Val, anything where there was a chance of getting hurt, or making a complete p@*!t of yourself to John Noakes, and Peter Purves got to play with the model trains.)

For the record, I don’t actually subscribe to the view that children aged 11-16 today have little or no General Knowledge. However I do hold the view that they have a very different General Knowledge to that which we had , and that of our parents before us. I also challenge the view that they have no interest in the world around them, or in knowledge that has no practical use or immediate relevance to themselves. Case in point. There is one book in our school library which many children of all ages and abilities make a beeline for. The latest edition of The Guinness Book Of Records. They love it. Yes, ok, there’s some amazing pictures in each edition, but that’s not the whole appeal of it. The desire for knowledge for its own sake is still there, but it comes out in different ways, and in different places.

Oh, and by the way , it’s a muster of peacocks, a nide of pheasants, and a covey of partridges.


joe said...

My son is moving to secondary school in September and was preparing for his 11+ entry exams last year. The independent schools' entry papers assume a familiarity with parts of speech, general colloquial expressions and the like. I quickly found that my son had learned none of these at his (state) primary. So I sourced a second-hand First Aid in English from Ebay and we spent a few months dipping into MacIver's masterwork leading up to the 11+ in January. It definitely fills a gap and is worth its weight in gold.

I gather that the newer editions are targeted mainly at teachers of English as a foreign language, rather than the well-rounded schoolboy of yore!

And as to why modern kids have no general knowledge to speak of; it's that they don't read as much or as widely as did previous generations. For better or worse, they have many other more-tempting entertainments and activities available to them.

Londinius said...

Hi Joe

Thanks for dropping by. As I said, I'm not really trying to make a point about its effectiveness as an English textbook - although if it Helped your son, then that's brilliant. I certainly don't think it did me any harm when I was in primary school either.

AS I said too, I don't think its quite as simple as that they have no general knowledge to speak of. They certainly don't have the same general knowledge that an average child of my generation may6 have had. However to say that they have none suggests a complete lack of curiosity about the world, and their lives, and in my experience this just isn't the case. Now, exactly what constitues a body of general knowledge to the 11 - 16 year olds of today, well, that is another question entirely. If I may give a facile example, I mentioned to a class of 14 year olds the problems that have bedivilled my poor old laptop. The amount of knowledge they showed sicussing potential causes of and solutions to the problems left me for dead. Admittedly that's no difficult thing , but nonetheless, it shows that the average child does know something, and probably a lot more than we might think.

Thanks for a thought provoking comment


Andrew B. said...

Well, I'm over 35 (though not by much), and I've never heard of "First Aid in English".

Londinius said...

Hi Andrew

Ah, maybe it just applies to us fortysomethings then. It was a textbook on English useage and grammar, much in vogue in primary schools in the 50s, 60s and early 70s. For some reason I think that it made quite an impression on many of us from that generation.