64 years after failing biology, a Nobel Prize

At the age of 15, John Gurdon ranked last in his biology class at Eton. “It would be a sheer waste of time” and “quite ridiculous” for Gurdon to pursue a career in science, wrote his teacher in 1949. “If he can’t learn simple biological facts he would have no chance of doing the work of a specialist.”

Sixty-four years later, Sir John Gurdon won the Nobel Prize in Medicine for his research on stem cells.

The school report sits above his desk at the Gurdon Institute in Cambridge, which is named in his honour. It’s the only item the scientist has ever framed, reports The Telegraph.

The “blistering criticism” common 60 years ago may have been “more motivating – and helpful – than the consoling lies doled out to youngsters today,” writes Allison Pearson in Praising the school of hard knocks. The years after World War II were tough for Britain.

Telling children they were marvellous when they were bottom of the class and careless was not going to improve their chances.

By the Seventies, when I was at school, teachers were still allowed to write reports you could cut your hand on. “Allison has no interest and no ability in this subject,” observed my needlework teacher, a ferocious female with a face like a Ford Anglia. . . .

In today’s climate, Miss Harper would probably be suspended for damaging my self-esteem, even though she was absolutely right.

. . . We can already start to see where the Age of Praise has got us. Encouragement that fails to discriminate between the excellent and mediocre has been devalued. Our children have grown cocky and thin-skinned, poorly equipped to enter the global race . . .

By contrast, Max Davidson thinks teachers should encourage students, recalling that young Albert Einstein’s teacher predicted in 1895,  “He will never amount to anything.”

His daughter’s chemistry called her “a legend” when she was 15. “Her confidence rocketed – until she compared notes with her friends and found there had been five legends in one class.” Still, he prefers too much praise to dream-stomping criticism.

The Onion also takes on harsh teachers in Seeds of World War II Planted in Beijing Middle School Gym Class.

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  1. A friend who was on the hiring committee for a tenure-track position in Classics some years back said they got 100+ applications, and 18 of them had letters from the same eminent scholar calling the candidate “the best scholar of his generation”. (He also noted that none of them had a letter saying or implying “X is a better scholar than I am”.)

  2. Even more cutting than letters like this was criticism received in class when you were among your peers. In my first grade class we had to stand up and read from our Dick and Jane book. The mortification of not being able to pronounce a word or to have to clumsily sound one out was plenty of motivation to learn to read. By the end of the year, every kid in that working-class room could stand up and read.

    By stifling criticism, you ALSO stifle the great sense of accomplishment at overcoming real obstacles. Giving kids an always-smooth path to negotiate is not doing them any favors.

  3. Surely you are correct that a single, scathing report can be regarded as the principal – perhaps the only – reason that a privileged son of wealth, attending one of the finest preparatory schools on the planet with parents who supported him through his educational struggles, and from which graduation was all but certain to lead to an Oxbridge degree went on to be successful. Gurdon was clearly inspired by the bad report, but it didn’t keep him from graduating at the bottom of his Eton class.

    If you dig more deeply you will find that Eton at the time of Gurdon’s enrollment emphasized rote memorization and note taking, and that he excelled at neither. When he emerged from that environment and was supported by his academic mentors in the pursuit of his academic interests, he flourished. Perhaps you can find a takeaway in that.