We’ve all experienced this at some time in our lives. You’re in a room full of people, roaring with laughter, and you are the only one left cold. What do you do? Laugh anyway, even though you have no idea why the joke is supposed to be funny? Ask for an explanation, and spoil the party, drawing humiliating looks of disbelief from all those people who can’t believe you didn’t get it?
This excruciating experience can happen to anyone, however clever or knowledgeable they are. If you do not happen to possess the crucial piece of background information, you will be left in the dark, unable to participate unless you make the painful and difficult step of seeking enlightenment.
If adults find it hard to be the only one who doesn’t get it, and are reluctant to draw attention to themselves in order to seek admission to the crowd of those who are in the know, how hard must it be for young people, when they have not been given the relevant background information, to stand out from others and seek an explanation?
This is the situation in which pupils find themselves over and over again when there is no coherent teaching of core knowledge. The gaps that are left by a curriculum based on vague skills instead of specific content cripple them. They end up feeling stupid, just as we do when we are the only one who doesn’t get the joke.
But they are not in fact stupid. As E D Hirsch has pointed out, ‘even smart people don’t always get jokes’ (The Schools We Need, p23). These pupils just lack the background knowledge that would enable them to make sense of what they are being taught. This has nothing whatsoever to do with ability and or intelligence. It is simply a case of poverty: deprivation of intellectual capital.