Arnold's world

30th October 1998 at 00:00
So you are clever then?" asked the man who came to fix the washing machine. Modesty is not one of my many virtues, but none the less, it took me less than a nanosecond to yelp, "No!" And, by way of further clarification, I added a hasty "no, no, no - no, no".

If I were clever, I'd know how to sort out a Bendix that had gone ballistic on its fast spin and wouldn't be paying this gentleman's call-out charge, plus parts, plus VAT, plus an hour-long monologue on what's wrong with state education. It's a monologue because I can't keep up my end of the conversation. It's not easy to reflect on matters epistemological when your mixed whites have been marinating for three hours in a tepid cocktail of Dreft and their own juices.

What's more, although he spoke the plainest English, I have always been baffled by the terminology that he chose to use: brainy, bright, smart, dumbo, wooden-top, dunce, etcetera.

As teachers know, assessing pupils - rather than guessing how well they will do in national tests or public exams - is never quite that easy. Some very clever people can be very stupid. The man wrestling with the iffy outflow had no problem with definitions. Clever people know a lot. He used to be a "thicko" but ever since his pub abandoned karaoke and conversation in favour of general knowledge quizzes, he has dedicated himself to a rigorous programme of life-time learning.

He is one of that growing band of autodidacts (yes, I'm sure that he knows the word) who have been inspired by the popularity of the ubiquitous pub quiz to spend their spare time with encyclopaedias and reference books, swotting up the dates of the Peninsula War, the length of the Great Wall of China and the title of Alma Cogan's only number one. But he recognises that the day will come when, because of arthritis or Alzheimer's, his finger will no longer be first on the buzzer. And it bothers him that there might be no one to take his place.

Kids, nowadays, simply don't know enough. What's worse: schools don't seem to care. He cites his 13-year-old granddaughter as evidence. The girl claims that she has "done America, north and south". Indeed she even has a large red tick and an A-minus to prove how diligently she has followed the prescribed course.

Most grandpas would be as proud as Punch and leave it at that. But he has been bombarding the poor child with starters-for-ten. He is not impressed: she cannot name a single state capital, has no idea of the height of the Empire State Building and doesn't even know which presidents are commemorated on Mount Rushmore.

I tried to make suitable noises about there being more to education than "facts, facts, facts" (Hard Times, 1854). But it's not easy mouthing educational platitudes at a man who has voluntarily taken the trouble to learn the names of Puccini's operas in chronological order. I soon found myself, rather like the Bendix on its last fatal spin, juddering to a grinding halt. I think he might have a point.

Of course, the new school curriculum shouldn't be shaped by Trivial Pursuits but there can be no serious harm in taking the opportunity, during their decade of compulsory education, to cram children's heads with a few facts. I know it won't make them brainier, brighter or smarter, but it will, at least, guarantee them a welcome at their local.

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