Being smarter than a 10-year-old

Embarrassingly, I think the answer to the question Are you smarter than a ten year old? may be no for this Country Life staffer. Half-watching Noel Edmonds’ latest vehicle while doing my ironing one Sunday afternoon, I was forced to conclude that my general knowledge is shockingly poor.

While I stumbled over questions rooted in maths, geography and even parts of my A-level subjects, such as English and history, a smug group of small children excelled in every area. My money is on the chirpy, pig-tailed Lizzie as the next winner of Who wants to be a prepubescent millionaire?

This led me to reflect on the sterling education I had received at a top independent school and at Oxford—and the fact that there is more than one noticeable gap in my knowledge.

Despite receiving decent marks during my time at school and a good degree at the end of three years’ hard work, I would be fairly likely to cause the endearingly mop-haired Louis (aged 9, specialities include world geography and numeracy) to put his head in his hands as I groped for the answer to a seemingly simple question.

However, this is the flaw in our current system of education—the fact that we often turn out keen specialists, but very few all-rounders. There are certain areas in which I would wipe the floor with these miniature masterminds, but others in which they would have no problem in showing me up.

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Recently, a physicist friend was horrified to discover that I could only recall two of the three types of average, and that it took me some time to work out that ½ multiplied by ½ equals ¼ (for the record, I got there in the end).

Worryingly, it’s not just in the unfamiliar subjects, hastily dropped after GSCE, that I have problems. Although I have a degree in English Literature, I have studied hardly any literature written after 1920 and outside of the UK, and skirted over several genres in between, which my tutors were less keen on, such as Restoration comedy and the Gothic novel. My A-level art history course stopped after the High Renaissance and didn’t recommence until Realism over three hundreds years later.

I have an ‘A’ at history A-level, but doubt I would be able to tell you the salient details of the English civil war, although I could explain Watergate’s effect on American society (the fact that my American history course went up to 1982 caused my mother some distress). Needless to say I am not one of those people who shine in Trivial Pursuits.

But, ultimately, do we really need such all-rounders in society? I’m not sure that I necessarily want my surgeon who has a passion for Proust and Abstract Expressionism, or to think of Britain’s best nuclear physicists questioning the existence of a bomb rather than attempting to defuse it. Similarly, very seldom in my job in the arts sector am I required to identify carboniferous limestone or explain the finer points of photosynthesis.

However, I do concede that a base layer of knowledge in the practical subjects would be useful. While I may not need trigonometry on a daily basis, it would be helpful to know how to calculate, say, a percentage, if only to work out how much of my paycheque will be eaten up by taxes.