Guiding the clever to wisdom’s shores

August 8, 2013

I was fascinated by the quote from Tony Blair in 1999 promoting 50 per cent entry in UK higher education: “In today’s world there is no such thing as too clever. The more you know, the further you will go.” (“Now we are fifty”, 25 July.) That Blair confused cleverness with knowledge seems typical of the shaky basis of his policy.

Libraries contain knowledge, but are not clever. People are born clever: it is apparent in four-year-olds. Clever people do not need to be told twice. The job of cultural transmission and education is to give clever people the knowledge they lack and the training in analysis and thinking they need to become wise. Clever people gain most from higher education. From my experience, veterinary undergraduates with 4As at A level can learn four times as much in a lecture as ABB science undergraduates.

Take George Baldry, who was clever and wise: you can read his story in The Rabbit Skin Cap: A Tale of a Norfolk Countryman’s Youth. Born in November 1864, Baldry could have been another Brunel had he been educated.

Soon after entering primary school and under the age of 7, he got a holiday job minding pigs after the harvest. While watching them feed, he taught himself rush-braiding and made his own frail (basket). Indeed, Baldry taught himself anything he needed, becoming a local builder, carpenter, metalworker and fixer of all things, and gained a productive position on merit.

While still a child, Baldry heard a story about someone who had made a perpetual motion machine but had to destroy it before it shook his house down. Bitten by the idea, he made himself a portable forge, a lathe and a drilling machine, and cast metal weights for 13 machines, but they never worked. One lesson in thermodynamics could have informed him about friction, which made his task impossible (and will eventually stop the world spinning). He would have understood instantly.

Baldry, without education, was as clever as any politician or university administrator in the country today. Most people are not very clever at all.

Hugh Fletcher


The young man walking across the bridge in King’s College, Cambridge on the opening pages of “Now we are fifty” seems to have travelled through space as well as time: he is unmistakably dressed in the subfusc of a University of Oxford undergraduate. (The prominent stripe in his suit, as well as the carnation, would incur a fine of a bottle of port for his college’s praelector if that were Cambridge academical dress.)

R. J. E. Thompson
University orator (Cantab)

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