Issue 169: 2018 09 13: Education and After

13 September 2018

Education and After

The classroom and the world.

By Neil Tidmarsh

What did the Duke of Wellington (1769-1852), Sir Winston Churchill (1874-1965) and Sir Henry Rider Haggard (1856-1925) all have in common?

Yes, yes, they all had spectacularly successful careers, of course  – Arthur Wellesley, the first Duke of Wellington, saved the world from the tyranny of Napoleon, and Churchill saved the world from the tyranny of Hitler, and Rider Haggard was the most successful, prolific and best-selling novelist of his age – but apart from that, what else did they have in common?

They were all failures at school.  As youngsters, all three were written off as dunces and duffers.  They were the despair of their parents.

Arthur Wellesley was so useless and lazy at Eton that his mother withdrew him at the age of sixteen.  “I don’t know what I should do with my awkward son Arthur” she lamented, before doing with him exactly what the British upper classes have always done with unpromising off-spring – she sent him abroad to waste time in a posh finishing school for a year, and then purchased a commission in the army for him.

Winston Churchill’s schooldays were even more hopeless.  “Examinations were a great trial to me” he wrote, with admirable honesty but typical understatement, in his autobiography My Early Life.  “I did not do well in examinations.”  He describes his entrance exam to Harrow; after two hours, he handed in a sheet of paper completely blank but for his name, a “(1)” for the number of the first question, and “a blot and several smudges”.  He was accepted into Harrow only because he was the son of the Leader of the House of Commons and Chancellor of the Exchequer, and he remained in the bottom class throughout.  No Oxbridge for him; his father decided that he wasn’t clever enough to go to the Bar; there was nothing left but the army.  Nevertheless, he failed the Sandhurst entrance exam twice, and eventually passed on the third try only after attending a “crammer” in London.  And after Sandhurst he failed to get into the infantry, only managing to get into the cavalry (more expense, less kudos) instead, much to his father’s disgust.

Henry Rider Haggard showed so little promise as a child that his father decided not to waste money on his education but to send him to the local grammar school at Ipswich (his brothers were all sent to prestigious public schools).  He proved his father right – his academic record was so dismal that there was no hope of university or a profession; there was nothing left but the army.  But he failed his army entrance exam.  His father sent him to a “crammer” in London to prepare for the entrance exam to the Foreign Office instead; but he never sat the exam because he’d made so little progress after two years that his father packed him off to Africa, having pulled strings to secure him the lowly and inglorious position as an unpaid assistant to the secretary to the governor of Natal.

Thus all three of them, in the eyes of their class, found themselves practically dumped on the scrap heap on the eve of adulthood.  Losers and no-hopers.  As junior officers or clerks in some obscure corner of the empire or other, they could have been expected to slide into deeper obscurity, pickling themselves in whisky perhaps, or being picked off by a native bullet in some unimportant border skirmish, or sinking under the weight of huge gambling debts, or simply retiring to a bungalow in Bournemouth or Eastbourne after an undistinguished life of routine and boredom.  No doubt these were exactly the futures their teachers imagined for them.  But their teachers were wrong.

Arthur Wellesley was a colonel by the age of thirty, a governor in India by the age of thirty-five, and a general by the age of forty.  He won a brilliant victory in India at the Battle of Assaye, drove the French from Spain and Napoleon into exile, was created a Duke, became the ambassador to France, and, as field-marshal in command of the allied forces following Napoleon’s return, defeated the great Frenchman at Waterloo.  He was prime minister twice, and Commander-in-Chief of the British Army for the rest of his life.

Winston Churchill had a successful career in the army, then a successful career in journalism, and then a successful career in politics, becoming prime minister in 1940 and leading the free world in its defiance and defeat of Hitler in World War II.  Oh, and he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953.

Henry Rider Haggard wrote King Solomon’s Mines before he was thirty; it was published in 1885 and it was, deservedly, an instant best seller.  More classic adventure stories followed: the extraordinary and amazing She in 1886, Allan Quatermain in 1887, and more than thirty others over the next three or four decades, all selling in their millions (not to mention about the same number of non-fiction books and a mountain of journalism).  Oh, and he was knighted in 1912 for his active life in public service, campaigning for agricultural and social reform.

Losers and no-hopers?  The Duke of Wellington shaped the geo-political landscape of the whole of Europe for the entire nineteenth century.  Winston Churchill shaped the geo-political landscape of the world for the twentieth century.  Rider Haggard helped to shape the inner imaginative landscape of the modern mind; his stories – high adventure, fantasy, horror, historical, supernatural – were hugely influential at the time and continue to be so; She has been filmed at least seven times, and almost every Hollywood blockbuster (including – would it be controversial to say? – the very recent Black Panther) owes a debt to his work.  All three men benefited to a greater or lesser extent from family connections, but their success depended upon inherent individual brilliance, a brilliance which signally refused to show itself at school when they were youngsters.

The importance of education can’t be overstated.  Every young person should of course do their best to master as many tools as possible for use in tackling the challenges of the adult world which they will inevitably have to face.  But let’s not panic.  There’s absolutely no excuse for head teachers chucking out under-par pupils in an attempt to keep their schools riding high in the performance tables.  There’s absolutely no need to maximise class-room time by limiting the lunch-break to ten minutes and taking away chairs in the dining-hall so pupils have to stand while they eat and so won’t linger over their food (as is happening in some schools in China).  There’s absolutely no need to set an inordinate amount of homework (on average, Chinese pupils have nearly three hours of homework each day; last week a teacher in the city of Foshan told her class of nine-year-olds to count 100 million grains of rice for homework – a task which would have taken nine years to complete).

And it isn’t the end of the world if someone fails an exam.

The world is so big and so rapidly-changing – and human potential is so mysterious and seemingly limitless – that only a fraction of life can ever be anticipated, recognised and tested in the classroom.

Did some young person you know receive dire GCSE or A level results when they were published last month?  Then give them Churchill’s My Early Life and Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines and She to read.  That will cheer them up, inspire them, and reassure them that all is not lost.  It will do them good to read someone, who failed just about every exam he sat, nevertheless declaring that the “world opened up to me like Aladin’s cave” once he’d left the horrors of studying and exams behind.  “Twenty to twenty-five!  Those are the years!”  Churchill wrote.  “Come on now all you young people, all over the world.  You have not an hour to lose.  You must take your place in life’s fighting line.  Don’t take No for an answer.  Never submit to failure…”

Damien Hirst famously boasted that “it’s amazing what you can do with a E in ‘A’ level art, a twisted imagination and a chainsaw”.  The Duke of Wellington, Winston Churchill and Rider Haggard didn’t even have an E in Art between them – but that didn’t stop them.  Be brave and don’t be disheartened, these three Dead White Males tell us.  Life is an adventure and the world is an exciting place.  Go out there and grab it.


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