Were you sitting up straight and paying attention? If you weren't you might have been led to believe New Zealanders have poor general knowledge. The New Zealand Initiative's survey of our skills in that area, based on a meagre 13 questions, was widely reported as showing we did very badly.
In fact, we did rather well: 85 per cent of us knew we were the first country to give women the vote, 81 per cent knew the capital of Australia, 67 per cent knew antibiotics did not kill viruses as well as bacteria, 90 per cent of us knew Winston Churchill was real not fictional and 80 per cent knew to write their, not there or they're when talking about their house.
A mediocre 53 per cent knew the Earth takes a year to orbit the Sun. But we only did very badly – and it was very very badly – in not knowing our own history, with just over 30 per cent knowing what year the Treaty of Waitangi was signed and what the Native Land Court was for.
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Do we need to know any of these things? It depends what you mean by need. You can be born, live and die without any of this information, of course. But, a little learning is a useful thing. It makes life more interesting if you understand what is happening when you look at the sky and see the Sun in different places during the course of the day, or look at the Moon and know that it is not actually glowing but reflecting light from the sun.
Regrettably, Whetu Cormick, the president of the Principals Federation, defended schools part in this by saying, basically, kids can look stuff up on the internet. Which they can, but it's not the same.
Kids used also to be able to learn from a variety of sources that are now seen as nostalgic throwbacks – magazines like Look and Learn or TV quiz shows such as the family friendly classic University Challenge opened doors onto a world of wonderful knowledge.
Children are naturally curious and they love that adults know stuff. It gives them a sense of security that the people who are responsible for looking after them know more than they do. It's a parent's job to know why the sky is blue and what happens when we die.
What got lost in the tutting over our so-called dismal general knowledge level was the crucial difference between knowledge and intelligence. Knowing things doesn't mean you are intelligent. It does not show that you are good at thinking logically or any of the other things that are required to solve problems and deal with the world's complications. It just shows that you are good at remembering stuff.
Take Scrabble, for instance. You win Scrabble by knowing what combinations of letters are accepted as words in the official Scrabble dictionary and how best to arrange them on the board. There is absolutely no requirement for a player to know what those words mean.
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To fully appreciate the general knowledge survey and its results you have to be curious enough to look at who ran it. It was done for the New Zealand Initiative, a conservative think tank formed from the rumps of the Business Roundtable and the New Zealand Institute. It has a history of promoting conservative policies that are counter to current educational thinking. The NZI thinks our education system is wishy washy and ineffective. Unfortunately, the results of the survey didn't quite bear that out, except in the case of New Zealand history. And that's all going to change when teaching of that subject becomes compulsory in 2022. Aren't we clever?