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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