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Educated answers

Observations: Quizzes

Suddenly the intelligent quiz, the inexpensive filling in the BBC’s serious-purpose credentials, is on all the front pages. It helps that Gail Trimble, that nice girl in glasses who could have explained Quintilian to us if asked, is simply so decent. It helps, too, that she took Corpus Christi from half a furlong back to nudge ahead by a nose – National Velvet for bookish types – even though Corpus were stripped of their title in the end.

Quizzes are fun. I have just emerged from a bout with Mastermind: the episode already screened has me pipping the rector of Caterham (“Punk Rock in the Seventies”) by a point, with “The Life and Works of A E Housman”. But even though they may be fun, on quizzes you work. God, you work! There are two good, if squabbling, lives of the Bromsgrove Latinist. I read both three times and typed 300 questions, through which my wife, Deanna, took me several times. As for the poems, I just read and reread.

There is, however, something bigger to make of this. Think of how the quiz might apply in education. Teachers everywhere grieve about motivation. A killer plague of inspectors persecutes them for the niggling futility of immaculate preparation schemes a term ahead. Meanwhile, lumpen youth yearns for its iPod and lolls in abstracted contempt through offshore African islands, Measure for Measure and the effort of understanding Faraday and the force field. Gail Trimble’s Horace and Aristophanes, lumpen youth declines to have heard of.

Put all these joys – and they are joys – into an exciting scramble for points and I promise you, it will work. This is a wholly serious argument to be forwarded to the Education Secretary. We should use the quiz on a large scale, local and national, to teach.

Young people adore competition. Not as Margaret Thatcher did – they do it as the fans of Manchester United, Wolves, Leicester City and Brentford, leaders in the four leagues (and the fans of the clubs still chasing). When I was at school, we had “school lists”. Nobody was bored or maimed. I was mid-table, but kept chasing.

Suppose we used the quiz and attached it to subjects, first of all privately, in class. Two weeks to read Persuasion, take notes, then answer 18-20 spoken questions. Do it across the curriculum, class against class. Get a serious amount of history, literature, general science and geography learnt, pretty well for ever, by the sort of study which sets you chasing.

From there we can lead up to a national finale by picking teams: school against school, town against town, much like University Challenge. When it’s down to the last 16 or 32, push it on to radio or TV. You will get a following, but, this being a benign craze, you will get such motivation.

Neither should quizzes be set only on exam subjects. “Culture” today belongs in inverted commas, something superior to be resented. Witness the sullen person in the Radio Times trashing every Charles Dickens dramatisation. Look: Mozart, Pope, Velázquez and Palladio are among several thousand beautiful things. Carol Vorderman can’t see the point of Shakespeare. But if you read him properly, even for the larkish purpose of getting more points, Shakespeare will stick.

The horse will drink all right. The problem reverses the cliché: it becomes one of getting him to the pool. And how good is the water? “Knowledge is happiness.” A E Housman said that!

This article first appeared in the 09 March 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Planet Overload