What should a person reasonably know?

Please watch the two minute youtube and then try the test below:


1. For half a point: The two kingdoms of Bernicia and Deira together made up which 7th century kingdom within the British Isles? For the other half: What new kingdom was the southern part subsequently lost to?

2. For half a point: Who made the “we shall fight them on the beaches” speech? For the other half: In which year?

3. For half a point: “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players: they have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts, his acts being seven ages.” Name the play. For the other half: Name the author.

4. For half a point: Name the British dependency on the southern coast of Spain. For the other half: It was ceded to Great Britain in the 1713 Treaty of U——?

5. For half a point: In what year was Magna Carta signed? For the other half: In a meadow in which part of Surrey did this supposedly happen?

6. For half a point: Which was the last American state to join the Union? For the other half: In which year?

7. For half a point: What does the 2nd Amendment entail? For the other half: In which year were the first ten amendments appended?

8. For half a point: Which is the 2nd largest Great Lake by water volume? For the other half: By surface area?

9. For half a point: What river is Washington DC on the north bank of? For the other half: At which Washington DC memorial did Martin Luther King make his “I had a dream” speech?

10. For half a point: Three of the Presidents’ faces carved in rock are Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln. Who is the fourth? For the other half: What was the name of this 4th President’s bunch he used to ride with and of which he was so proud?

Don’t forget to write your name in the top right corner of the paper, in the space provided and the examiner will collect your paper when you raise your hand.


Northumbria, Danelaw; Churchill, 1940; As You Like It, Shakespeare; Gibraltar, Utrecht; 1215, Runnymede; Hawaii, 1959; the right to bear arms, 1791; Michigan, Huron; Potomac, Lincoln Memorial; Teddy Roosevelt, Rough Riders.

When you ask a young person, “Budapest is the capital of what country?” the answer is often a blank stare and then you make it broader and ask, “Well, roughly where is it? Is it near Africa, say or near China?’ She might answer: “India.”

“Yep,” you say, “it’s not all that far away.”

Traditionalists will jump on to that and speak of our education system failing to impart even basic knowledge to kids but a modernist [i.e. essentially uneducated] would put the Pink Floyd line: “We don’t need no ejukashun.”

Another will point out that there is only so much one can know and just because you don’t know where Budapest is, doesn’t mean you’re stupid. You might know that the oldest character in East Enders is Dot and lots of things about X Factor and Coronation Street. You might know everything about MySpace, Second Life and gothic games. You might be an anorexic expert or a feminist who can quote you de Beauvoir or Dworkin.

Does this mean you’re as thick as pig s— in general terms? It’s a good question because we’re talking about different kinds of knowledge or just different knowledge. In a way, it comes back to politics and philosophy; there are those who believe in some absolutes – thou shalt not kill etc. and those who feel everything is relative.

There are those who feel there is a base knowledge, especially about one’s country, a minimum you could reasonably expect people in the country to know and then you have the leftists who say no, no, there should be no knowledge standard whatsoever. They ensure this by asking how it can be determined. As it’s difficult, best not to try it.


Then we come down to Tiberius Gracchus, on whom I tried an experiment. I quoted him some history which comprised dates and deeds, including what people had said at the time but I knew it was outside his version of history.

He wrote then, in answer to me about me being a theorist. What he wrote was history but what I wrote was theory. Yet I quoted dates and deeds. So where is the theory there?

History is the story told by those we accept as authoritative and those we don’t don’t get a look in. Therefore, there is history Tiberius would never have read because it is not taught because only history of a certain type is taught in institutes of higher learning and that of a different point of view is either left off the list or mentioned in passing, in the interests of fairness.

When one’s world view has already been confirmed by the first wave of reading one has done, then anything in the second wave gets filtered out or in according to point of view. Thus, if the Marxist professors in university had already got me reading sympathetic sources, then I can be exposed to, say, the Austrian School and be relatively immune, inured against this school’s views.

This is the nature of bias in education and cuts both ways. Captain Cook discovered Australia, not Dirk Hartog because that is what the texts said and all the educators and educators of the educators before them. So though we read of Hartog, even though a person knows, chronologically, that he came first, still we maintain the fiction that it was Cook.

I’d love to see the Spanish version of Drake and the 1588 Armada.

17 comments for “What should a person reasonably know?

  1. January 20, 2010 at 20:07

    14 for me.
    My sister in law had never heard of Winston Churchill . But she had heard of Hitler. And De Gaulle.

  2. January 20, 2010 at 20:41

    Well James, I took your little test: largely on history. I got 5/10, made up of 4/5 for the UK bit and 1/5 for the USA bit. How I got exactly right the year of signing Magna Carta, heaven knows.

    I know it is doubtful that you will agree with me, but I have a view on the utility of knowledge as something that should contribute to how we value it. I view the widespread (ie place-invariant and nationality-invariant) and time-invariant things as most useful.

    From this, I view the ability to read and write (irrespective of language) as highly important. Next I view the ability to count and perform simple arithmetic as highly important; the concept of abstraction is also very important, so some logic and algebra. Third, I view as important the grasping (by intellect rather than by just instinct) some basics of physics, such as the concepts of energy, force, time, distance, velocity and gravity, and appropriate physical laws of conservation; then (in somewhat more detail) Newton’s laws of motion, a bit about electricity (it flows, Volts, Amps and Ohms); perhaps a bit about liquids and gases and how they relate to solids. A bit about chemistry (elements, compounds, reactions) and biology (what is living and what not, animal and vegetable, food, excretion and reproduction). Knowledge of materials and geometry is very useful if one is in the business of building things.

    Understanding navigation used to be very important; less so now, with public transport and signposts. Knowing why places are where they are (eg London, Bristol, Sheffield, Barnsley, Stafford), and what they lacked, used to be important: much less so now, so geography is less relevant that previously. History used to be important, but I suspect that modern culture changes so fast that, together with globalisation (travel, communications and linguistic ‘simplification’), this is actually making it much less so. Perhaps in the humanities (societal sciences), economics is more to the fore than previously: the others not.

    In fact, as demonstrated by James video clip, ignorance is no real disadvantage. At least the lady knew to take her $10,000 and run: good on her!

    Meanwhile, as with Wells’ Eloi and Morlocks, some of us just have to keep things running.

    Best regards

  3. January 20, 2010 at 21:13

    I don’t know about the Armada but here is how the official French paper Le Monituer reported Trafalgar


    As for what we should know. I do believe a good grasp of history, warts and, all is essential.Perhaps on day we will finally stop repeating it!

  4. Peter Mc
    January 20, 2010 at 21:42

    I’m off for a cup of Deira Tea.

  5. January 20, 2010 at 21:45

    Danelaw? There was no such kingdom.

  6. Peter Mc
    January 20, 2010 at 21:49

    6/10. None of it learned at my bog-standard comps. Actually one was rather good, the other just a bog.

  7. January 20, 2010 at 22:27

    After careful consideration I don’t think a single one of those bits of knowledge were taught to me at school!!!

  8. January 20, 2010 at 22:41

    Thanks, folks. You’re right about the Danelaw – not exactly a kingdom but an administered area.

  9. January 21, 2010 at 04:10

    knew half, and came quite close with the dates 🙂

  10. January 21, 2010 at 09:17

    Let’s face it if she wasn’t being asked that question on a quiz show she would never have needed that knowledge to get through life.

    She seems to be doing better than 90% of the people on this planet yet I expect there is much much more she doesn’t know.

  11. January 21, 2010 at 09:59

    6.5, so not too bad and the only bits taught at school were questions 7 & 9 and those because I studied politics by choice!

  12. Peter Mc
    January 21, 2010 at 14:04

    “You’re right about the Danelaw – not exactly a kingdom but an administered area.”

    An early incarnation of the EU region, invented by John of Prescotus in an effort to stop that horrid patriot Bede’s idea of the ‘Gens Anglorum’ gaining traction.

  13. January 21, 2010 at 16:27


  14. January 21, 2010 at 21:07

    When the world was smaller it was possible to know everything. Now that possibility does not exist and we still aren’t sure just what people should know. A generation ago it was impossible to be considered an educated person without knowledge of the classics. Now they are hardly taught. I think this is sad but inevitable. Having said that, I think a reasonable amount of general knowledge should be expected of most people. However, on a crowded curriculum how are we going to fit everything in? We can’t exactly chuck out information technology, can we?
    I do think it’s important to distinguish here between knowledge and information. Information is not knowledge.

  15. January 21, 2010 at 21:14

    It was possible to know everything…. A very interesting viewpoint. Exactly which point in our evolution have we known everything?

    That also implies we have forgotten everything we don’t know now. That is a lot to forget.

  16. January 22, 2010 at 21:44

    “Everything” of course is a relative term and I thought that was clear. History up to one’s own time and in one’s own part of the world – which people thought was the only part of the world.

  17. January 22, 2010 at 23:48

    What I consider important to learn will be different to everyone else. This is why it is imperative to smash the centralised monopoly of state schools. They cannot be saved, they cannot be rehabilitated. The ideology behind them is deeply corrosive. School is not education, but rather a form of aversion therapy to learning and thinking. This latter is the rule. There are some exceptions, where free-thinking teachers slip through the fabian net, but parents beware what your children are being taught!

    I believe the classics are incredibly important, but I’ve only read them in recent years (now I’m late thirties). I don’t know if I’d have appreciated them when I was young – I guess it would have depended on the teacher. Considering the amount of blood and guts, I’m sure an enthusiast could have imparted a love of them to me and the majority of boys. I don’t know if this would work the same for girls.

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