Blogs > Cliopatria > Conan the Unready Defeats Dr. Zaius At the Battle of the Bulge

Apr 6, 2004 8:40 am

Conan the Unready Defeats Dr. Zaius At the Battle of the Bulge

Ken McLeod comes oh so perilously close to joining the usual post-survey-about-history chicken-clucking squad, but saves himself at the very end.

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.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

David Lion Salmanson - 4/8/2004

Well, before I got on the do not call list, I used to really mess with the markerters heads. I live in a predominately black zip code and often had to answer surveys about which I like better, Jet or Ebony. Needless to say, this white guy would go strictly by the numbers on these surveys (what magazines do you read? Newsweek, Montana; what radio stations do you listen to? adult alternative, country; etc. etc.) My other favorite trick was to say, "could hold on a minute, the pot is overboiling" and leave the phone down for minutes at a time..., or then there is "i'm sorry, I didn't catch that could you start over?" And yet somehow I never got dropped from anybody's list. sigh.

Michael C Tinkler - 4/6/2004

And for the economists' point of view on the "public's" view of THEIR facts, go see:

So rejoice! It's not just us!

Ophelia Benson - 4/6/2004

What I mean. Battle of Britain, sure, it's part of all their grandparents' experience, or if they're recent immigrants, their friends' grandparents' experience. But the Battle of the Bulge isn't.

I was a bit too cavalier about Wellers and Nels, I suppose; it's worth knowing which is which; but I can think of more important bits of history to know.

(Though maybe not if you live in London. Nelson is the one in Trafalgar Square, Wellington is the one at Hyde Park Corner. That's important.)

The uniform Nelson died in is at the Naval museum in Greenwich; I can remember staring at it for a long time one tourist afternoon, and finding it rather moving somehow. Maybe because he was so obviously not a big guy.

Richard Henry Morgan - 4/6/2004

I think you can make a case for knowing turning point battles that relate to your own history, simply as part of understanding causal relationships within a war, as opposed to causes of the war. Battle of Britain? Yeah. But Battle of the Bulge? Not a turning point battle, and not a significant defeat for Brits, like the evacuation from Dunkirk. I can't understand why a Brit would be expected to know the Battle of the Bulge any more than they should be expected to know the Australian Light Horse contribution at Beersheba.

Ralph E. Luker - 4/6/2004

"screw 'em" is right, especially if they do their polling via telephone! After registering our # with the federal "don't call" list, the telemarketers have backed off a bit, but I don't bother with citing the law any more. I just quote my consultation fee and ask for their credit card # and expiration date.

Michael C Tinkler - 4/6/2004

And by all the trees in the median in front of the monument. And the life size bronze mule (her name is Sal) by the Erie Canal Weigh Lock downtown. *I* just think people don't pay attention, because they're pretty likely to misidentify current events or their own children's names, too.

I think Tim's instance of the "screw this survey" is actually pretty important. I had to fill out a library user satisfaction survey ("had to" because the entire reference department was grinning at me and giving me encouraging looks) the other day. I was sorely tempted to downgrade them, chance of winning a DVD player or not.

When it comes time for a test -- when there's a grade riding on it -- most of my class CAN identify 1066. It's when I long for them to volunteer their knowledge in an after-lunch-art-history-class-in-the-dark that I'm regularly disappointed. Or heartbroken.

Oscar Chamberlain - 4/6/2004

I think the Erie example is a human thing. Our associations with our local worlds tend to be present-oriented. Erie Blvd gets you somewhere you regularly go: friend's house, the Mall, whatever. So the older significance of the name is obscured by daily life.

Michael C Tinkler - 4/6/2004

I find it annoying that people walk past things with names on them all the time and don't notice said names -- like the Erie Canal monuments in Syracuse. I've astounded more than one of my students FROM Syracuse by pointing out that Erie Boulevard follows the course of the Erie Canal.

Me, I'd be satisfied if my students knew what happened in 1066 (yes, I'm a medievalist), but one of my modernist colleagues (I speak precisely -- he's teaching Joyce this term) is in despair because "the only reason they can tell World War I from World War II is the number!"

Ophelia Benson - 4/6/2004

Furthermore - that survey sounds even sillier than Tim said. I mean, 10% - so what?! Ten percent of any crowd is going to include a good many dim bulbs; this is a news flash? Ten percent is impressively low, really, if you add up the barking and the mickey-taking and the dim and the lost in the fog and the busy with other things.

And so half of them confuse Nelson and Wellington. Er - so? Is that the most important kind of history people can think of to ask questions about? And as for the Battle of the Bulge - who cares? Why is it important for people to know about particular battles? What the war was about, its roots and origins, who was on which side, as much as possible about the Final Solution, yes, but individual battles? Why?

And ironically (or not) the UK papers were reporting about a year ago that the German ambassador to the UK (I think) was protesting that there was too much history of the Nazis in UK schools.

You can't win.

Ophelia Benson - 4/6/2004

Not forgetting good old Shakespeare. However Holinshed-lifted and Tudor-propping and wrong his history plays were, hey, at least they help us keep all those Henrys and Richards and Eddy babys in the right chronological order.

Oscar Chamberlain - 4/6/2004

The chaotic learning process is not limited to the general public. One time I was intensely aware of the variety of my sources was when I finished the History GRE long, long ago.

I survived by utilizing knowledge from a combination of sources, including classwork, Masterpiece Theater (in particular Elizabeth R.), umpteen Hollywood epics of various spectacular conflicts (I probably should have thanked David Lean personally), the novel Johnny Tremain, Warner Brothers cartoons (absolutely essential), various strange things learned over pitchers of beer, and the fact that my bed as a kid was next to a bookshelf.

All this goes to suggest that Ralph is right. What saved me was less precise knowledge of facts than having a sufficient sense of the stories to get close to the right answer.

Richard Henry Morgan - 4/6/2004

Inevitably, there are borderline cases. This raises the philosophical question of how factually incorrect a description must be before it loses its referential power. In particular, I refer to King Arthur and Robin Hood. Are they entirely mythical, or loosely based on historical figures? Hmmm.

There is also the extreme postmodernist position that even wars are merely 'texts'. As one wag put it, tell that to veterans of D-Day. Soon, one will no longer have that opportunity.

Timothy James Burke - 4/6/2004

Raphael Samuel's book Theatres of Memory has some smart things to say on the heterogeneity of the ways that we come to know the past and on the relative blindspot of historians to that heterogenity (which I think has changed somewhat since Samuel wrote the book.)

Ralph E. Luker - 4/6/2004

While we're doing oral histories with people to find out what they know about World War II or whatever, it would be good to ask how they know it. My guess is that we'd get an interesting mix of: I saw it on the telie, me mom told me about it, I read about it in a book, we talked about that in school, and more. I don't know of a good source on how people think their historical information comes to them, but even my own sources of historical knowledge are quite mixed and sometimes cloudy, except when there's the professional obligation to footnoting -- and then I can get highly particular.