Why it’s never too late for that

If you want to have a say in discussions about current international pop music with your circle of friends, you should be familiar with Dua Lipa, Lizzo and Doja Cat. That’s not enough for participants of the quiz show Who wants to be a millionaire? You would be well advised to also know the famous parents of North, Saint, Chicago and Psalm. And if young journalists don’t even know where the Bundeswehr is currently deployed and what the solidarity surcharge means, they will probably have a hard time taking the entrance test at the renowned Henri Nannen School.

Pop music, celebrities, politics: Knowledge from these areas may seem irrelevant to some people’s lives. After all, some people don’t know the difference between the Bundestag and the Bundesrat, even in old age. And yet we are sometimes quite stuck when we have no idea about certain areas of life – and not only in quiz shows, professional recruitment tests, discussion groups or small talk. “General knowledge is super important to understand what’s going on in the world – and how it affects my life,” says TV presenter Jennifer Sieglar, who has long hosted the children’s news program “Logo!” at Kika. Because if you want to understand the rising prices for electricity and gas, you first have to understand the Russian war of aggression in Ukraine and its consequences.

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Any person of average ability can learn it

General knowledge is socially relevant knowledge that anyone with average educational opportunities can acquire. Complex formulas for hydraulics, for example, do not fall under this category, as they require in-depth physical knowledge. But last but not least, we should master the rule of three in mathematics for our personal finances – and even supposedly useless knowledge about celebrities is definitely part of general knowledge. After all, these are very influential people who shape our culture.

However, general knowledge is not just about factual knowledge: “The aim of general knowledge is to be able to develop connections,” emphasizes Beate Söntgen, Professor of Art History at the Leuphana University in Lüneburg. For example, if you know that celebrities like to give their children unusual names and that reality TV star Kim Kardashian and singer Kanye West have four children, you can probably guess that they are the parents of the children mentioned above.

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Make complex connections

However, political and scientific topics in particular are subject to much more complex contexts. “Many, very different forms of knowledge are linked to topics such as climate change in particular – it takes more than narrow, disciplinary knowledge to know the connections,” says Söntgen.

As an art historian, she trains students, for example in museums, to develop interdisciplinary perspectives. Among other things, with geographical and historical knowledge you can learn a lot about the paintings. “With general knowledge, you can see from the South Seas paintings by the French painter Paul Gauguin, for example, that the landscapes are not in Europe, after all the people depicted are dressed differently,” says Söntgen. Anyone who also has knowledge of colonialism or the year the paintings were made can unmask the deceptiveness of Gauguin’s works: he had never found the untouched earthly paradise that he depicts in his paintings on his trips to Tahiti – it was when he arrived in 1891 long since destroyed by the colonial administration.

Online news media as a driver of education

Of course it is not possible to know everything. But it’s never too late to acquire broader general knowledge. On the contrary: It grows with age and is mainly conveyed through news, as an evaluation of the knowledge test “Student Pisa” by the magazine “Der Spiegel” with more than 600,000 participants from 2009 showed. Online news media in particular proved to be an “education engine”.

Reports on the development of conflicts in the Middle East, on the other hand, have little meaning for people in Germany if they lack background knowledge about the causes and actors of the war. And political decisions are difficult to understand if we do not know how and by whom they are made. “Such knowledge is usually required for news, unlike in series, there is rarely a ‘What happened so far’,” says Sieglar.

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So it takes a foundation of knowledge to understand current world events. That doesn’t mean we have to memorize tons of facts, though. That wouldn’t work either, according to Söntgen – it’s more about asking yourself: What am I interested in – and why? “Knowledge comes with curiosity,” says the art historian.

Why not start with kids news?

But where can you find an introduction to complex topics such as politics, climate change and the economy? If you can’t keep up with the news on TV at first, you can start with children’s news, for example – even as an adult, says Sieglar. “It is not assumed that the viewers know the background information on the topics,” she says. In order to give people tutoring in general knowledge, she and her husband and “Logo!” colleague Tim Schreder also published the book “Never Again No Idea” (Piper) in 2021. The book promises to explain topics such as local elections or the war in Syria in an understandable way.

The Internet also gives us access to an enormous amount of knowledge. But caution is advised here: Some websites do not check their information, thereby spreading misinformation, intentionally or unintentionally. That’s why it’s important for people to be able to distinguish legitimate sites from dubious ones. In social networks there is also the danger of not being aware of most of what is happening in the world. “Algorithms specifically show us the news that they think is of interest to us,” says Sieglar. So if you’re interested in football, you’ll get news about the Bundesliga – but world politics sometimes doesn’t end up on the social media feed. Sieglar therefore advises using human-curated offers instead.

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The world is constantly changing – and as a result, general knowledge must always be cultivated. But that doesn’t necessarily have to take a lot of time. Skimming through print or online media in the morning while having breakfast, turning on the radio news while driving, getting the most important news on your cell phone via push notifications with news apps: these are all ways of staying informed at all times. “If we always stay on the ball, we no longer feel powerless in the face of all the complex issues in the world – and can make well-founded decisions for our lives,” says Sieglar.

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