I was amused to read recent Nobel prizewinner Sir John Gurdon’s account of his “crippling school report”, which included the statement: “I believe he has ideas about becoming a Scientist; on his present showing this is quite ridiculous…[a] sheer waste of time” (“I wouldn’t be where I am today…”, 21 March). It put me in mind of another well-known Nobel laureate whose school report described his performance thus: “Only fair. Perhaps better in Latin than in any other subject. Very poor in spelling.” Like Gurdon, thankfully William Butler Yeats did not pay much heed, becoming one of only four Irish writers to have won the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Interestingly, Yeats, like Gurdon, had a fascination with nature, biology and zoology in his early years, perhaps reflected in one of his most famous poems, The Lake Isle of Innisfree: “Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,/And live alone in the bee-loud glade.”
In relation to these two colossi of their respective fields, the phrase “giant oaks from little acorns grow” was never more apt.
Queen’s University Belfast
“I wouldn’t be where I am today…” prompted me to reflect on my own experiences of school. In so doing, I realised that the greatest impact on my own education (a lifelong process that never ends but is abandoned only at death) occurred neither at school nor university.
True, my grammar school had enabled me to pass A levels, but much of the learning was by rote. At university, my experience was never wholly satisfactory: for example, I recall in a third-year politics tutorial being told by my tutor (later a vice-chancellor): “Somerton, why don’t you go down a coal mine?” The comment was presumably “inspired” by the fact that my background was working class.
Having graduated from the University of Manchester with a degree in economics and politics, from 1964 I worked for 11 years for the Workers’ Educational Association. It was only at the onset of my teaching career that my real education began.
A memorable example of this process occurred in a trade union evening class I was teaching in the late 1960s. We were discussing the impact of inflation on wages and I had referred to the movement of the retail prices index. Someone in the class asked me, what was the RPI? I said it measured the movement in prices. “Yes,” I was told, “but what exactly is it?”
Despite my economics and politics degree, despite the fact that the RPI had featured in my study of statistics, I realised I had no idea how it was constructed. I came clean and said: “I don’t know but I’ll find out for next week.” I duly researched its construction and limitations as an expression of the inflation experience. A further result was that I developed a discovery exercise to help students work through the reading I had needed to do to expand my knowledge.
I continued to teach trade unionists and other adult students when I moved to a lectureship at the University of Hull in 1975, retiring as a senior lecturer in 2000 and then teaching part-time for another 11 years. On many occasions, responding to students’ challenges was crucial for deepening my knowledge of a particular area of my subject.
In short, students have been far more influential in developing my academic knowledge and understanding than my teachers at school and university.