What am I talking about? Yet another one of those wretched surveys that purport to document public ignorance about historical events has come out, this time focused on the British public. The Independent'srun-down of the results has all the usual overwrought commentary about Hollywood and education by alarmed experts and the usual calls for the renewed study of history. McLeod comments on the results rather soberly and then pauses to wonder whether the survey's design doesn't bias the findings somewhat.
Damn straight it does. As do almost all such surveys, whose results rarely occasion even feigned anxiety for me. It's such a regular ritual: the findings are issued, the press dutifully reports them in that hazy middle-ground between the wacky story about a dog that plays the violin and the serious news of the day, and the stuffed-shirt end of the chattering classes mutters direly about how today's undereducated masses just aren't up to the standard of their forefathers and call for more spending on history instruction.
Let's look at the results a bit here. First off, we've got the under 10% responses for things like the HG Wells novel War of the Worlds or the Cylon defeat of humanity being real. Is anybody at all bothered by this, besides the serial harumphers the Independent digs up? Here's a working hypothesis about those results. In any poll where you ask adults,"Did the novel Lord of the Rings really happen?", the following people will say"Yes": 1. People who are barking mad (where their knowledge of history isn't really the thing to worry about) and 2. People who are taking the piss out of the survey and answering mischeviously. I think group 2 is actually a pretty sizeable population of almost all survey respondents, but especially so in this case. That easily gets you up to 10%, I'd wager.
For the numbers who think the Battle of the Bulge didn't happen (over half), or William Wallace didn't exist (42%), there's another explanation that's a bit more complex, but not especially worrisome. (First remember to subtract the 10% who are just mocking the whole exercise.) There was a recent story in the US about a person who calls restaurant managers, tells them he is a policeman, and instructs them to conduct a strip search of one of their employees. The bizarre thing is that some people obeyed him. This just confirms what we already know from many other sources, which is that some people even in liberal democracies will do whatever they think an authority figure wants them to do or say. A survey that asks,"Did X event really happen?" or"Did Y person really exist?" is situating itself in the position of an interrogating authority, in fact, rather like a history instructor in secondary school, and the more tedious variety at that.
So I suspect at least some of the respondents are thinking that these are trick questions, or are trying to answer what they are supposed to answer, rather than drawing upon what they know. If you look at the results, the more fanciful real names and events are the ones most likely to be disbelieved."Battle of the Bulge", or Nelson's improbably dramatic victory at Trafalgar. The Battle of Hastings, in constrast, is believed by most to have actually happened. I suspect more respondents to that poll know about the general events of World War II than the historical context of the Battle of Hastings--but the Battle of Hastings sounds dry, respectable, ordinary, and therefore less likely to be a"trick question" from a demanding authority. As for William Wallace--well, didn't many of us (yours truly included) come roaring out after Mel Gibson's"Braveheart" to harrumph that his Wallace was largely a fiction? Small wonder if some respondents might see this as another"trick question".
There's also the issue that some of the answers viewed as evidence of Hollywood's befogging of history are at least arguably correct. More than half the respondents believe King Arthur was real. Well, there's more than a few historians who might answer that question the same way, though they'd have a million caveats to attach to that affirmative."A real person who gave rise to the legend of King Arthur may have been real". Ditto Robin Hood.
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, and that they know more from more sources than we guess, including Hollywood films. I'm sure we'd also find some shocking or surprising gaps and mythologies--but maybe we'd have to explain for once why those matter rather than just tut-tutting as if it were self-evident why we should care whether tomorrow's Britons know whom Hardy was asked to kiss or whether Albion was built on the ruins of Cimmeria.
P.S. The kicker, of course, is that the survey was commissioned by Blenheim Palace as part of their observance of the 300th Anniversary of the Battle of Blenheim--which includes events like these.
UPDATE: Gary Farber has the same reaction I had to this story.