Category Archive • Famous educations
January 25, 2005
The education of the Aviator

Today they announced that The Aviator has been nominated for eleven Oscars.

For some time now I've been meaning to do another of those celebrity educations postings, and today I got to wondering what kind of education Howard Hughes had?

HowardHughes.jpgI found an answer, albeit a brief one, here:

Education: Hughes attended private school in Boston, where he was better at golf than classwork. He was attending Thacher School in California when his mother died. In California, Hughes spent time with his uncle, Rupert, who inspired his later interest in filmmaking. Hughes never graduated from high school. Nonetheless, his father arranged for him to sit in on classes at Cal Tech by donating money to the school. Afterward, Howard returned to Houston and enrolled at Rice Institute (now Rice University). Howard, Sr. died suddenly a few weeks after his son turned eighteen. Young Howard inherited much of the family estate and dropped out of Rice.

I love that bit about his dad arranging for him to attend Cal Tech by donating money. Go capitalism!

Picture of Hughes from here.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 06:17 PM
Category: Famous educations
December 14, 2004
Christopher Wren takes refuge from religious turbulence in science

Wren.jpgChristopher Wren (1632-1723) was a great architect, and also a great scientist, although the distinction between those two callings was less clear in his lifetime than it is now. Here is how Adrian Tinniswood, in his Wren biography entitled His Invention So Fertile, describes the education of his portagnist:

Throughout the worst period of his father's trials and tribulations, the mid-1640s, Christopher Wren spent much of his time away at school in London. In Parentalia, the collection of family memoirs which is still a core source for Wren studies, his own son records that he was 'of tender health', and that his constitution 'was naturally rather delicate than strong, especially in his Youth, which seemed consumptive'. As a result, until he was nine he was taught at home by his father and a domestic tutor, the Reverend William Shepheard. ('Home' at that time was the Deanery at Windsor, although the family still spent extended periods at East Knoyle.) Then in about 1641 the boy went as a boarder to Westminster School, a natural choice for any child of Wren's background: it was run by the notorious disciplinarian Richard Busby, a firm believer in King and corporal punishment. During the war Busby managed to combine these two interests by birching any boys who showed signs of deviating towards the Parliamentary cause, although since he thrashed any boy at the least provocation, one wonders whether Royalist children really had any preferential treatment. His enthusiasm for the King was such that John Owen, Dean of Christ Church, told Oliver Cromwell that 'it would never be well with the nation till Westminster School was suppressed'. Much the same sentiments, although from a different perspective, were expressed by one of Wren's contemporaries at Westminster, Richard South, later to become one of the Restoration court's most popular preachers. South said that 'Westminster School was so untaintedly loyal that he could truly and knowingly own that in the very worst of times he and his companions were really King's scholars as well as called so'.

Other contemporaries included John Dry den and John Locke. There is something satisfying about the picture of these four boys, who would make their names as architect, Anglican divine, poet and philosopher, working together at their Latin and Greek primers (written, incidentally, by Busby himself and sold to his pupils as a profitable sideline). The headmaster had also translated Euclid into Latin, so although it was unusual for mathematics to figure in school syllabuses of the day, Busby's entrepreneurialism extended to the teaching of geometry.

The earliest of Wren's writings to survive dates from these early schooldays. It is a Latin letter to his father from Westminster and endorsed across the bottom in Dean Wren's hand, 'Written in his tenth year':

Reverend Father:

There is a common saying among the ancients which I remember to have had from your mouth: that there is no equivalent which can be given back to parents. For their cares and perpetual labours concerning their children are the evidence of immeasurable love. Now these precepts so often repeated, which have compelled my soul to all that is highest in man and to virtue, have superseded in me all other affections. What in me lies I will perform as much as I am able, lest these gifts should have been bestowed on an ungrateful soul. May the good God Almighty be with me in my undertakings and make good to thee all thou most desirest in the tenderness of thy fatherly love. Thus prays thy son, most devoted to thee in all obedience.

Given the date of this precocious exercise in filial devotion – probably the autumn of 1642, and possibly to mark Christopher's tenth birthday in October of that year – it would be nice to think of it as a childish message of support for the increasingly beleaguered Dean. But that is being sentimental. The letter is more likely just a Latin exercise by a rather bright young boy who is eager to show off to his father.

Perhaps because he was still quite a sickly child, perhaps because of the change in family circumstances, Wren left Westminster in 1646, when he was still only thirteen. Already he had seen his father go from eminent divine to humiliated and disgraced ex-parson. He had seen his uncle, one of the most prominent churchmen in England, thrown into the Tower of London and left to rot. And, of course, he had seen the religious and political belief-systems that had informed the whole of his childhood ridiculed and discredited and dismantled. What effects did these things have on him at the time?

We don't know. We don't know if he was proud or pious or just plain bored as he sat with his sisters in the rector's family pew at East Knoyle and watched his father stand at the candle-lit altar elevating the Host, or if he had any inkling that the angels and Old Testament figures which hovered over the chancel walls were an expression of pro-Catholic sentiment that was tantamount to treason. We don't know if he cried when he was told how soldiers had ransacked his father's Deanery, or when he heard that his uncle had been sent to the Tower.

It is a little easier to guess at the long-term consequences of Wren's childhood experiences. A career in the Church was no longer an option. The hopes in that direction that the Dean must have had for his son vanished with Matthew's imprisonment. More interestingly, the collapse of Laudianism may account for Christopher's lack of religious zeal in adulthood. He became a conventional and reasonably orthodox Anglican, but apart from his son's statement chat at the end of his life in the 1720s he spent his time in 'Meditations and Researches in holy Writ', there is little to show that religion was particularly important to him. Did the treatment meted out to his father and uncle teach Wren the fragility of political life? The importance of being on the winning side, whichever side that happened to be? The idea that it was better to abstain from political controversy altogether, that he should keep his mind 'invincibly armed against all the enchantments of Enthusiasm', as a colleague was to put it years later?

I think it did. Like any of us, he was angry and frustrated at times, pleased with himself when things went well and exasperated with others when they didn't. But he was also a supreme pragmatist, well able to switch allegiance if it was in his interest to do so. His son's summary of his character in Parentalia, written soon after his death in 1723, suggests that the events of his childhood had taught Wren the dangers of extremism: 'He was happily endued with such an Evenness of Temper, a steady Tranquillity of Mind, and Christian Fortitude, that no injurious Incidents, or Inquietudes of human Life, could ever ruffle or discompose; and was in Practice a Stoick.' It is also tempting to think that having had his world turned upside down politically, spiritually and personally in the 1640s, he saw in the scientific studies that would occupy half his life a means of placing that world on a systematic and rational footing.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:45 PM
Category: Famous educations
December 08, 2004
Famous first words

Worried about your child or pupil not talking until quite old?

There is a joke about a German child who said nothing until he was about eleven, when one day he did speak, to complain about something. When asked why he had not spoken sooner he said: "Because until today everything was satisfactory."

Carlyle.gif Take heart from the fact that apparently something similar really did happen in the case of Thomas Carlyle, later the author of many learned books and writings. Young Thomas said nothing for year after year. His first spoken words, as recounted by pinko thesp Corin Redgrave on Quote Unquote last Sunday came when Carlyle was, if I remember it rightly, seven. Then, an aunt (or someone) poured boiling water on him, and apologised profusedly to young Thomas. Who then said:

"Thank you madam, the agony has abated."

Relax. He's just hasn't yet had anything important to say.

I can find no Internet reference to these words. But more about Carlyle is to be found here:

Thomas Carlyle was born in Ecclefechan, Dumfries and Galloway, as the son of a stonemason and small farmer. He was brought up in a strict Calvinist household. At the age of 15 he went to [the] University of Edinburgh, receiving his B.A. in 1813. From 1813 to 1818 he studied for the ministry of the Church of Scotland, but abandoned this course and studied law for a while.

Carlyle taught at Annan Academy (1814-16), at Kircaldy Grammar School (1816-18), and privately in Edinburgh (1818-22). …

It's off message, but I also like how Tennyson defended Carlyle's marriage, to someone equally strange, against various critics of it:

"By any other arrangement, four people would have been unhappy instead of two."

UPDATE: I tried again, and this time I did find a reference to this literary late talker tale. And apparently it was Macaulay, not Carlyle at all.

Macaulay also wrote many books and writings.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 02:14 PM
Category: Famous educationsQuote unquote
November 24, 2004
Hutton on Mussolini

Mussolini.jpgHere is Harry Hutton's latest Killer Fact:

Mussolini was expelled from school for knifing one of his classmates. He went on to become a primary school teacher (Mussolini, not the classmate).

Indeed he was (although I cannot verify that it was a knifing of a fellow student that broke the disciplinary camel's back) and indeed he did.

It's off topic somewhat, but I really do admire Harry Hutton's blogging a lot. It's not hard to get and to keep the attention of readers when you already are famous. His writing, it seems to me, is a model of how to use blogging to get famous, although perhaps he already is famous and I hadn't noticed. His postings are terse and to the point. No attention is presumed upon. I think my own blogging style may now be being influenced by him. If so, good.

I recently hailed Scrappleface's new book. Someone (maybe Harry Hutton himself if all others fail) should do one of Harry Hutton's best bloggings.

Harry Hutton has been a teacher for quite a long time, and many of his more penetrating postings are on educational themes.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:29 PM
Category: BloggingFamous educationsThe reality of teaching
November 07, 2004
"Do you wanna graduate college or do you wanna be a film director?" – Spielberg makes his choice
More from this book.

Following on from the success, such as it was, of Firelight, Spielberg's next effort as a film maker was Amblin, and this, given that he had already made some movie industry insider contacts, got him the serious attention of Hollywood. So much so that Hollywood made him an offer which he did not refuse …

A couple of months later Amblin was ready for unveiling. Since the negative was held at the Technicolor lab within Universal Studios, the twenty-four-minute movie was handily situated for a providential borrowing.

Universal's president in charge of TV was thirty-two-year-old Sidney Jay Sheinberg, and after a feature screening one night. Chuck Silvers prevailed on him to watch 'this young guy's short film'. Sheinberg agreed and was suitably impressed. He liked the way Spielberg had selected the performers and developed their relationship, he admired what he saw as the maturity and warmth in the movie. Taking in the close-to-mirror image of himself that Spielberg presented in the hastily arranged follow-up meeting was something else again. Sheinberg recalls a 'nerd-like, scrawny creature' appearing: 'The surprising thing was that he looked just like me.'

'You should be a director,' he informed Spielberg.

'I think so too,' came the rapid agreement, 'but I'm still at college. I haven't graduated yet.'

'Do you wanna graduate college or do you wanna be a film director?'

A TV contract at Universal or back to college? Oh, real tough. Spielberg quit college so fast – to hell with graduation – he didn't even stop to clean out his locker. His seven-year deal was drawn up and signed a week after the offer was made.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 08:06 PM
Category: Famous educationsHigher education
November 04, 2004
Steven Spielberg decides where he belongs

Spielberg.jpg From a book by Andrew Yule about Steven Spielberg:

An early introduction to his goal of filmmaking in Hollywood came courtesy of Universal Studio's guided tour. Originated by the company's founder 'Uncte' Carl Laemmle in the 1920s, the tours had just been reinstated following two years of extensive updating; Spielberg bought his ticket during a summer vacation in Canoga Park spent with cousins.

Hiding behind soundstages after the tour bus had departed, the seventeen-year-old wandered the studio for several hours. This was his home, he decided, this was where he belonged. Some crazy kind of osmosis would take-care of the details. As luck would have it, director John Ford was in a rare expansive mood when he found himself confronted with the intruder. While showing off his collection of Western prints to the choked up, profusely sweating youngster – who could scarcely believe his luck - the crusty veteran had two pearls of wisdom to impart. 'When you understand what makes a great Western painting, you'll be a great Western director' came first. Next: 'Never spend your own money to make a movie.' His final words: 'Now get the hell out of here.'

Before he did, Spielberg also met Chuck Silvers, a senior editor on the lot, who listened sympathetically to his tales of amateur moviemakmg. A pass was handed out for the next day so Spielberg could return without having to pay, and so he could bring along a few of his 8mm shorts. After viewing his work and offering a few words of encouragement. Silvers explained that he didn't have the authority to write any more passes. He wished him good luck, and told him to stick with his moviemaking. That was enough for Spielberg.

Next day, and for the rest of me Summer, wearing a suit and swinging a briefcase that contained a sandwich and a few candy bars, he breezily walked past the guards and gave a friendly wave. The hope was that he would pass master for 'some mogul's kid'. It worked. Disappointingly, it was the only thing that did. Despite virtually squatting in offices on the lot, no one among the writers, editors and dubbers to whom he spoke showed any interest in what he had to offer. Their indifference sent Spielberg back to Phoenix more determined than ever to produce something that would change their minds.

Borrowing $400 from his father, he produced and directed 140-minute science-fiction movie, Firelight, a tale of hostile UFOs. Employing mainly student actors from Arizona State University, it had aliens harassing the Earth's scientists, running circles round the National Guard, and stealing an entire city to reassemble it on their own planet. It was great fun to shoot at weekends, with Spielberg using all his powers of persuasion to have the local airport shut down a runway for one scene, a hospital to throw open its emergency room for another. Sister Nancy found herself enrolled in the venture, playing a kid reaching up in her backyard toward the mysterious light in me sky. 'Steve had me looking directly at the sun,' she, recalls. '"Quit squinting!" he'd yell. And don't blink!"'

Although it was shot silent, Spielberg had a sound strip applied to Firelight. There was a sense of considerable pride when his father hired the local cinema (Worid Premiere! March 24, 8 pm!) and the movie was shown for one heady night only in Scottsdale. It recovered its cost and came out, on a box-office gross of $500, with a clear $100 profit. Spielberg regards it as a tragedy of sorts that most of the film was promptly lost the day after the premiere in the family's move to Saratoga, a suburb of San Jose. So he should, for what remains contains lighting effects of space ships hovering and swooping that would not have looked out of place in many a Monogram or Ed Wood epic, even a Roger Corman programmer (scratch that; Spielberg's effects were too good, and in colour.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:51 PM
Category: Famous educations
July 22, 2004
Jacqueline du Pré: "… very excited about the cello"

JduPre.jpg With each edition of Gramophone there comes a free cover CD, usually of classical music excerpts. However, the latest issue's CD also includes a snippet of the late great classical cellist, Jacqueline du Pré, talking about her earliest experience of the cello.

Well, I heard it on the radio when I was very small, when I was four. And, although I don't remember the sound at all, I liked it so much, apparently, that I asked my mother to give me the thing that made that sound. And she did. She gave me a big, big cello, which I learned to play. But she'll be able to tell you more accurately about that.

She was marvellous, because she has a great talent for teaching small children, and she started off by writing little tunes for me when I could hardly play the thing at all, and she added words to these tunes, and on the opposite side of the page she drew beautiful pictures illustrating the tunes. And she used to do these while I was asleep, and I could hardly wait until the morning came, because in the morning I'd wake up and find this beautiful thing waiting for me. And then we'd rush down and play it together. And that really made me very excited about the cello.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:56 PM
Category: Famous educations
July 03, 2004
James Croll and the ages of ice

Another bit from the Bill Bryson book I've been reading. I've now nearly finished this book. Still excellent.

One of the more charming oddities of university life are those people who manoevre themselves into positions in the university which are not academic, but for an academic purpose. This is not done out of indifference to academic concerns. On the contrary, the people I am talking about take charge of the faculty air condition system, or (as is the case I am about to refer to) become janitors, out of an enthusiasm for the academic life, but accompanied by an unwillingness to bear the usual burdens of a conventional academic post, in the form of such annoyances as teaching unwelcome pupils, administrative duties, or tiresome instructions from academic superiors. Either that, or the university just wouldn't give them a proper job, so they got an improper one.

I remember people of this sort when I was at university. Their success rate is presumably not much different from that of regular academics. Most just live out their lives in obscurity, and by the end of it all they are janitors, or whatever. But occasionally they hit the big time. Bryson recounts one such success story.

In the 1860s, journals and other learned publications in Britain began to receive papers on hydrostatics, electricity and other scientific subjects from a James Croll of Andersen's University in Glasgow. One of the papers, on how variations in the Earth's orbit might have precipitated ice ages, was published in the Philosophical Magazine in 1864 and was recognized at once as a work of the highest standard. So there was some surprise, and perhaps just a touch of embarrassment, when it turned out that Croll was not an academic at the university, but a janitor.

Born in 1821, Croll grew up poor and his formal education lasted only to the age of thirteen. He worked at a variety of jobs – as a carpenter, insurance salesman, keeper of a temperance hotel – before taking a position as a janitor at Anderson's (now the University of Strathclyde) in Glasgow. By somehow inducing his brother to do much of his work, he was able to pass many quiet evenings in the university library teaching himself physics, mechanics, astronomy, hydrostatics and the other fashionable sciences of the day, and gradually began to produce a string of papers, with a particular emphasis on the motions of the Earth and their effect on climate.

Croll was the first to suggest that cyclical changes in the shape of the Earth's orbit, from elliptical (which is to say, slightly oval) to nearly circular to elliptical again, might explain the onset and retreat of ice ages. No-one had ever thought before to consider an astronomical explanation for variations in the Earth's weather. Thanks almost entirely to Croll's persuasive theory, people in Britain began to become more responsive to the notion that at some former time parts of the Earth had been in the grip of ice. When his ingenuity and aptitude were recognized, Croll was given a job at the Geological Survey of Scotland and widely honoured: he was made a fellow of the Royal Society in London and of the New York Academy of Science, and given an honorary degree from the University of St Andrews, among much else.


People like this, when they make their first academic breakthroughs, are often celebrated as Holy Fools. Uneducated illuminati. They are nothing of the sort. They are very well educated, but by themselves.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:15 PM
Category: Famous educationsScience
June 24, 2004
"Wilt thou sit down whilst I put this lad right about his arithmetic?"

I've already quoted here from the delightful A Short History of Nearly Everything, about the American scientist Michelson. Here is Bill Bryson describing that modest genius of chemistry, John Dalton (1766-1844). Dalton was a school-teacher from a very early age, until – despite his scientific eminence – a very late one.

Dalton.jpgDalton was born in 1766 on the edge of the Lake District, near Cockermouth, to a family of poor and devout Quaker weavers. (Four years later the poet William Wordsworth would also join the world at Cockermouth.) He was an exceptionally bright student – so very bright, indeed, that at the improbably youthful age of twelve he was put in charge of the local Quaker school. This perhaps says as much about the school as about Dalton's precocity, but perhaps not: we know from his diaries that at about this time he was reading Newton's Principia – in the original Latin – and other works of a similarly challenging nature. At fifteen, still school-mastering, he took a job in the nearby town of Kendal, and a decade after that he moved to Manchester, whence he scarcely stirred for the remaining fifty years of his life. In Manchester he became something of an intellectual whirlwind, producing books and papers on subjects ranging from meteorology to grammar. Colour blindness, a condition from which he suffered, was for a long time called Daltonism because of his studies. But it was a plump book called A New System of Chemical Philosophy, published in 1808, that established his reputation.

There, in a short chapter of just five pages (out of the book's more than nine hundred), people of learning first encountered atoms in something approaching their modem conception. Dalton's simple insight was that at the root of all matter are exceedingly tiny, irreducible particles. 'We might as well attempt to introduce a new planet into the solar system or annihilate one already in existence, as to create or destroy a particle of hydrogen,' he wrote.

Neither the idea of atoms nor the term itself was exactly new. Both had been developed by the ancient Greeks. Dalton's contribution was to consider the relative sizes and characters of these atoms and how they fit together. He knew, for instance, that hydrogen was the lightest element, so he gave it an atomic weight of 1. He believed also that water consisted of seven parts of oxygen to one of hydrogen, and so he gave oxygen an atomic weight of 7. By such means was he able to arrive at the relative weights of the known elements. He wasn't always terribly accurate – oxygen's atomic weight is actually 16, not 7 – but the principle was sound and formed the basis for all of modern chemistry and much of the rest of modem science.

The work made Dalton famous – albeit in a low-key, English Quaker sort of way. In 1826, the French chemist P. J. Pelletier travelled to Manchester to meet the atomic hero. Pelleder expected to find him attached to some grand institution, so he was astounded to discover him teaching elementary arithmetic to boys in a small school on a back street. According to the scientific historian E. J. Holmyard, a confused Pelletier, upon beholding the great man, stammered:


'Est-ce que j'ai I'honneur de m'addresser a Monsieur Dalton?' for he could hardly believe his eyes that this was the chemist of European fame, teaching a boy his first four rules. 'Yes,' said the matter-of-fact Quaker 'Wilt thou sit down whilst I put this lad right about his arithmetic?'


Although Dalton tried to avoid all honours, he was elected to the Royal Society against his wishes, showered with medals and given a handsome government pension. When he died in 1844, forty thousand people viewed the coffin and the funeral cortege stretched for two miles. His entry in the Dictionary of National Biography is one of the longest, rivalled in length among nineteenth-century men of science only by those of Darwin and Lyell.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:37 PM
Category: Famous educationsScience
June 18, 2004
Albert Michelson persuades President Grant to fix him up with a scientific education – and makes good use of it
I've been reading Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything, and I think it is very good. In fact if you want to educate yourself, chattily and relatively painlessly, about the entire history of science, no less, this could be just the book for you.

Here is Bryson's description of the education and achievement of America's first Nobel Prize winner.

Michelson2.jpgIf you needed to illustrate the idea of nineteenth-century America as a land of opportunity, you could hardly improve on the life of Albert Michelson. Born in 1852 on the German-Polish border to a family of poor Jewish merchants, he came to the United States with his family as an infant and grew up in a mining camp in California's gold rush country where his father ran a dry goods business. Too poor to pay for college, he travelled to Washington, DC, and took to loitering by the front door of the White House so that he could fall in beside Ulysses S. Grant when the President emerged for his daily constitutional. (It was clearly a more innocent age.) In the course of these walks, Michelson so ingratiated himself with the President that Grant agreed to secure for him a free place at the US Naval Academy. It was there that Michelson learned his physics.

Ten years later, by now a professor at the Case School in Cleveland, Michelson became interested in trying to measure something called the ether drift - a kind of headwind produced by moving objects as they ploughed through space. One of the predictions of Newtonian physics was that the speed of light as it pushed through the ether should vary with respect to an observer depending on whether the observer was moving towards the source of light or away from it, but no-one had figured out a way to measure this.

It occurred to Michelson that for half the year the Earth is travelling towards the Sun and for half the year it is moving away from it, and he reasoned that if you took careful enough measurements at opposite seasons, and compared light's travel time between the two, you would have your answer.

Michelson talked Alexander Graham Bell, newly enriched inventor of the telephone, into providing the funds to build an ingenious and sensitive instrument of Michelson's own devising called an interferometer, which could measure the velocity of light with great precision. Then, assisted by the genial but shadowy Morley, Michelson embarked on years of fastidious measurements. The work was delicate and exhausting, and had to be suspended for a time to permit Michelson a brief but comprehensive nervous breakdown, but by 1887 they had their results. They were not at all what the two scientists had expected to find.

As Caltech astrophysicist Kip S. Thorne has written: 'The speed of light turned out to be the same in all directions and at all seasons.' It was the first hint in two hundred years – in exactly two hundred years, in fact – that Newton's laws might not apply all the time everywhere. The Michelson-Morley outcome became, in the words of William H. Cropper, 'probably the most famous negative result in the history of physics'. Michelson was awarded a Nobel Prize in physics for the work – the first American so honoured – but not for twenty years. Meanwhile, the Michelson-Morley experiments would hover unpleasantly, like a musty odour, in the background of scientific thought.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 05:21 PM
Category: Famous educations
June 11, 2004
B. J. Frazer teaches empathy to Ronald Reagan: "… not bad training for someone who goes into politics …"

Ronald Reagan's funeral is today. Here's an intriguing educational titbit from his Autobiography:

Another newcomer in Dixon that year was a new English teacher, B. J. Frazer, a small man with spectacles almost as thick as mine who taught me things about acting that stayed with me for the rest of my life.

Our English teachers until then had graded student essays solely for spelling and grammar, without any consideration for their content. B. J. Frazer announced he was going to base his grades in part on the originality of our essays. That prodded me to be imaginative with my essays; before long he was asking me to read some of my essays to the class, and when I started getting a few laughs, I began writing them with the intention of entertaining the class. I got more laughs and realized I enjoyed it as much as I had those readings at church. For a teenager still carrying around some old feelings of insecurity, the reaction of my classmates was more music to my ears.

Probably because of this experience and memories of the fun that I'd had giving readings to my mother's group, I tried out for a student play directed by Frazer – and then another. By the time I was a senior, I was so addicted to student theatrical productions that you couldn't keep me out of them.

Prior to Frazer's arrival in Dixon, our high school's dramatic productions had been a little like my mother's readings: Students acted out portions of classic plays or out-of-date melodramas. B. J. Frazer staged complete plays using scripts from recent Broadway hits and he took it all quite seriously. In fact, for a high school English teacher in the middle of rural Illinois, he was amazingly astute about the theater and gave a lot of thought to what acting was all about. He wouldn't order you to memorize your lines and say: "Read it this way ..." Instead, he'd teach us that it was important to analyze our characters and think like them in ways that helped us be that person while we were on stage.

During a rehearsal, he'd sometimes interrupt gently and say: "What do you think your character means with that line? Why do you think he would say that?" Often, his questioning made you realize that you hadn't tried hard enough to get under the skin of your character so you could understand his motivations. After a while, whenever I read a new script, I'd automatically try first to understand what made that particular human being tick by trying to put myself in his place. The process, called empathy, is not bad training for someone who goes into politics (or any other calling). By developing a knack for putting yourself in someone else's shoes, it helps you relate better to others and perhaps understand why they think as they do, even though they come from a background much different from yours.


Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:22 PM
Category: Famous educations
May 06, 2004
Wellington at Eton
Napoleon & Wellington by Andrew Roberts is what you might call a comparative double biography. What did the two have in common? How did they differ?

Here is the bit that deals with Wellington's schooling, at Eton. Note the mention of the Wall Game.

I found the picture of Wellington here.

Since Wellington's refusal to be overawed by Napoleon primarily stems from his invincible self-assurance, which in turn came largely from the nature of his schooling, it is worth while examining his psychology up to the time, in the summer of 1793, when he, in an action pregnant with symbolism, burned his violin and embarked on a serious professional military career.


Wellington's remark about the battle of Waterloo having been won on the playing fields of Eton might well not have been a reference to the cricket pitches. An Eton historian, Lionel Cust, believes he was more probably alluding to 'the mills at Sixpenny Comer', which was where the boys went to fight one another. It was there, where the Wall Game is now played, that Wellington had a fight with Robert Percy 'Bobus' Smith, although sources differ on the outcome.' In the three years that he was at Eton before being withdrawn, probably but not certainly for financial reasons, Wellington entirely failed to distinguish himself in any capacity. 'A good-humoured, insignificant youth' was all a contemporary, the 3rd Lord Holland (admittedly later a political opponent), could remember about him there. Although it might be too hard to call him 'the fool of the family', as the Eton beak George Lyttelton did in one of his letters to the author Rupert Hart-Davis, he was intellectually far behind his eldest brother Richard, who had so shone at the school that he chose to be buried there.

A glance at the Eton College register for the three years that Wellington was a pupil there, from 1781 to 1784, shows how many of his contemporaries were drawn from the aristocracy. Although Winchester and Westminster had rivalled her socially in the past, by the late eighteenth century Eton was pulling away to become, as she unquestionably was by the early nineteenth century, the grandest school in the country. Wellington was educated with the offspring of three dukes, a marquess, thirteen earls, five viscounts, seven barons and a countess whose title was so ancient that it also went through the female line.

His Etonian contemporaries were a colourful lot, and provided a number of his senior officers later on. Robert Meade, son of the 1st Earl Clanwilliam, was a lieutenant-general by 1814, as was William Lumley, son of the 4th Earl of Scarborough. Hugh Craven, son of the 6th Lord Craven, was a colonel in 1814, a major-general in 1825, and shot himself in his house in Connaught Place in 1856 owing to his losses on the racecourse at Epsom. At least his exit was intentional; Lord Barrymore, son of the 6th Earl of Barrymore, died in an accidental explosion of his musket while conveying French prisoners from Folkestone to Dover in 1795. George Evans, son of the 3rd Baron Carbery, died at Reddish's Hotel in London from a burst blood vessel on New Year's Eve 1804, and George de Grey, son of the 2nd Baron Walsingham, was burned to death in bed at his home in Upper Hariey Street. Robert King, son of the 6th Baron Kingston, was tried at Cork assizes in 1798 for the murder of Henry Fitzgerald, who had eloped with his sister. It was a pretty dear-cut case but, astonishingly even for eighteenth-century justice, he was unanimously acquitted by the House of Lords.

One of Wellington's school contemporaries. Henry Fitzroy, son of Lord Southampton, married Anne, Wellington's sister, but he was less fortunate in two others. Lord Holland, son of the 2nd Baron Holland, and Charles Grey, son of Earl Grey, became leading Whigs and political opponents of his. Holland was later a bitter personal critic, describing Wellington in his memoirs as 'destitute of taste, wit, grace or imagination', and a man whose vanity even 'exceeds his ambition' and who little care[s] what troops he leads or what cause be serves, so that he, richly caparisoned in the front, be the chief pageant of the show and reap the benefit of the victory and the grace of the triumph'. (The Whig hostess Lady Holland, an heiress of forceful personality, great beauty and ten thousand pounds a year, had heard Robespierre speak to the National Assembly during her five-year Grand Tour and had been most impressed.) The exaggerated loathing of the Whigs for the man who threatened and finally defeated their idol Napoleon was to be a constant feature throughout Wellington's career. They emerge from this story not as witty, brilliant, big-hearted Olympians of politico-social mythology, but as quotidian, nit-picking, mean-minded quasi-traitors.

Napoleon went to Brienne Military Academy speaking a Corsican patois and returned speaking French, but there is no suggestion that Wellington had even a smattering of an Irish brogue before attending Eton. Indeed throughout his life Wellington felt himself to be markedly superior to the Irish, once saying, albeit perhaps apocryphally, that they required 'only one thing to make them the world's best soldiers. White officers.' He is also believed to have quipped that his own Irish birth no more made him an Irishman than being born in a barn made one a horse.

Eton gave Wellington a belief in himself and his capabilities that his ten subsequent years of doing very little indeed entirely failed to dent. There are suggestions that he was taken away from school not because the Wellesleys were too poor after the death of his father the 1st Earl of Mornington in 1781, but because his academic prospects were so unpromising. This is somewhat discounted by the fact that Lady Mornington took him to Brussels, where the cost of living was noticeably lower, and where Wellington was taught by a local lawyer.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:36 PM
Category: Famous educationsHistory
April 15, 2004
Hitler as a schoolboy

Joachim C. Fest's Hitler, first published in 1973, is one of the most respected Hitler biographies. Here is Fest's description of Hitler as a schoolboy.

younghit.jpgIn reality Adolf Hitler was a wide-awake, lively, and obviously able pupil whose gifts were undermined by an incapacity for regular work. This pattern appeared quite early. He had a distinct tendency to laziness, coupled with an obstinate nature, and was thus more and more inclined to follow his own bent. Aesthetic matters gave him extraordinary pleasure. However, the reports of the various grammar schools he attended show him to have been a good student. On the basis of this, evidently, his parents sent him to the Realschule, the secondary school specializing in modern as opposed to classical subjects, in Linz. Here, surprisingly, he proved a total failure. Twice he had to repeat a grade, and a third time he was promoted only after passing a special examination. In diligence his report cards regularly gave him the mark Four ('unsatisfactory'); only in conduct, drawing, and gymnastics did he receive marks of satisfactory or better; in all other subjects he scarcely ever received marks higher than 'inadequate' or 'adequate'. His report card of September 1905 noted 'unsatisfactory' in German, mathematics, and stenography. Even in geography and history, which he himself called his favourite subjects and maintained that he 'led the class', he received only failing grades. On the whole, his record was so poor that he left the school.

This debacle is unquestionably due to a complex of reasons. One significant factor must have been humiliation. If we are to believe Hitler's story that in the peasant village of Leonding he was the uncontested leader of his playmates – not altogether improbable for the son of a civil servant, given the self-esteem of officialdom in Imperial Austria – his sense of status must have suffered a blow in urban Linz. For here he found himself a rough-hewn rustic, a despised outsider among the sons of academics, businessmen, and persons of quality. It is true that at the turn of the century Linz, in spite of its 50,000 inhabitants, was still pretty much of a provincial town with all the dreariness and somnolence the term connotes. Nevertheless, the city certainly impressed upon Hitler a sense of class distinctions. He made 'no friends and pals' at the Realschule. Nor was the situation any better at the home of ugly old Frau Sekira, where for a time he boarded with five other schoolmates his age during the school week. He remained stiff, aloof, a stranger. One of the former boarders recalls: 'None of the five other boys made friends with him. Whereas we schoolmates naturally called one another du, he addressed us as Sie, and we also said Sie to him and did not even think there was anything odd about it.' Significantly, Hitler himself at this time first began making those assertions about coming from a good family which in the future unmistakably stamped his style and his manner. The adolescent fop in Linz, as well as the subsequent proletarian in Vienna, would seem to have acquired a tenacious class consciousness and a determination to succeed.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:41 PM
Category: Famous educations
March 29, 2004
Michel Thomas shops around for his education

Perhaps you recall that I've been reading about the great language teacher Michel Thomas. I have recovered the book about him which I temporarily mislaid, for which thanks to the relevant people. I've not yet encountered any bits about the man's own remarkable teaching methods, but I did encounter this fascinating bit about the man's own education. Thomas was born in Poland, but while still a child he moved to Germany.

By the age of sixteen Michel began to feel that he had outstripped the school he attended and no longer felt challenged. 'I was anxious to get it over with.' He developed a plan in which he would take extensive private instruction instead of school work, enabling him to gain a year. He took the idea to the principal, who instantly rejected it.

Undeterred, he started shopping around for alternatives, an outlandish concept for a student at that time. He chose a Gymnasium attended by children of the militaristic upper-class Junkers, a school known to be rigid in its educational methods and unforgiving in its academic standards. ('It certainly had no Jews.') But the principal, although a severe disciplinarian of the old school, was sympathetic to a teenager's passion to learn. He accepted the scheme.

At the same rime, Michel sought out a private tutor. He chose a highly educated intellectual in the city, Dr Karl Riesenfeld, a musicologist who wrote opera reviews and literary criticism in the highbrow publications. 'He was a walking encyclopaedia. I explained I wanted to leave school early and go on to university, and that I wanted him to teach me personally.' When pressed, Michel admitted that he had not yet spoken to his family about the idea. Not surprisingly, the professor turned him down. Michel refused to take no for an answer.

Riesenfeld tried to brush him off, saying he was busy: 'Besides, summer is coming and I will be travelling.'

'Fine,' Michel said. 'I'll come with you.'

He was passionate and persuasive, and the professor finally agreed to talk to Michel's family, and that if they consented something might be worked out.

MThomGer.jpgThat same evening at dinner Michel decided it was a good time to speak to his aunt and uncle about the various far-reaching arrangements he had made for his life. 'I've quit school and I'm not going back.' He explained he had left his old school and was intending to go to a more demanding establishment, finish a year early and go to university. 'I gave them my reasons and told them what I had achieved, that a Junkers Gymnasium had accepted my plan, and that this brilliant man was prepared to talk to them about private instruction. I must say they were impressed by my initiative.' He was granted his wish, and was also allowed to travel with his chosen Aristotle.

They visited the Alpine resorts of Austria, the Italian Dolomites and the cities of northern Italy. Michel studied every day, and discussed history and art, hour after hour. 'I started looking at history through different eyes than those at school. The professor was a learned man, but brought people and places to life. I began to see great historical personages not as figures detached in time who fought some war, but as real people. I started to question what they were like and what motivated them. I developed critical thinking and evaluation – not accepting what I was told and read, which was very un-German at the time. It was one of the greatest learning experiences of my life.' He had previously been weak in mathematics, a subject he had no interest in and for which he was convinced he had no ability, but the professor changed all that. 'Through challenge and love I became a reasonable mathematician. He showed me that there is nothing so complicated that it cannot be made simple, and the concept of reducing complexities later became a cornerstone of my teaching.'

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:46 PM
Category: Famous educations
March 23, 2004
Micklethwait's Law of Educational Complaint

I love Laws. Not law Laws, that the Police moan about if you break. I hate most of those. I mean Laws like Murphy's Law or Parkinson's Law, and before I die I hope to have one named after me. I am extremely proud of Micklethwait's Law of Negotiated Misery, and will go on saying this until others take up the mantra and save me the bother. Micklethwait's Law of Negotiated Misery is true. It explains something very important about the world, which is why so many people are so miserable all the time, despite rising living standards, DVDs, etc. It is blackly humorous, which is very important for these Laws, and it is in general a most excellent Law which I commend to you with pride and enthusiasm.

Here is another.

Re my friend who was complaining at the end of the previous posting here today about the quality of her education, she now strikes me as a fine example of Micklethwait's Law of Educational Complaint, which says that the better educated a person is and the better they subsequently do in life, the more loudly they complain about their early education. My two favourite examples are Einstein, who moaned all his life about the blundering fool who first taught him science, and Yehudi Menuhin, who still rages about the man who first taught him violin.

But I would reckon those those those two long-dead pedagogues did, you know, okay. I mean, science to Einstein? Violin to Menuhin? They must have been doing something right.

In contrast, all the people you meet who seem utterly convinced that their education was wholly excellent seem, as a general rule, to be completely useless human beings, good for nothing except droning on about how their schooldays were the happiest days of their lives, despite the fact that they were beaten senseless by their teachers, sexually molested by their fellow pupils, made to do completely stupid things in vile weather or hideously drafty and dirty classrooms, etc. etc., none of which "ever did us any harm", etc. etc.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 12:49 PM
Category: Famous educationsThis and that
March 21, 2004
Wodehouse and Monkhouse both went to Dulwich

I've been loafing about today, not working, or blogging. But I have recently discovered that one of the posher schools in London, Dulwich College, produced the following two ex-Dulwichians (?): P. G. Wodehouse, and Bob Monkhouse. Coincidence I wonder? Probably.

PG I got from a book of biographical pieces of his called Wodehouse on Wodehouse, and Monkhouse I got from watching a TV show about him earlier this evening.

Most comedians of the Monkhouse generation were born with dirty shovels in their mouths, and milked their miseries for the rest of their lives. Fair enough. But that wasn't Monkhouse. He had no miseries to boast about. He prevailed in the comedy universe by applying the skills of a highly educated man to the business of producing jokes in the manner of a factory turning out cars, or perhaps a better metaphor might be: supplying jokes for audiences like perfectly fitted suits, because he was a great judge of an audience. (Most of the criticism he suffered was because he did a lot of TV, and with TV you can aim your stuff at this or that audience all you like but there will still be members of quite different audiences also watching, and not like it nearly so much. TV made Monkhouse rich, but it also got him a lot of criticism.)

Wodehouse also worked very hard, and harder than he liked to pretend. (I recall him using the word "loafing" to describe what he did with the first few years of his life.) But he too churned the stuff out. If he got less complaint than Monkhouse this was because people who didn't and don't want to read his books never did so merely because they couldn't be bothered to switch over to another book, or to switch off. Books are not read nowadays except by the entirely willing.

This is straying into the territory of my Culture Blog, but I am leaving it here, as today's educational effort.

What I'm trying to say is: here were two very successfully educated people, which says to me that Dulwich College may have been and may still be a very good place to be educated.

Certainly when you live in London and you ask about good schools, Dulwich always crops up as a money-no-object peak in the mountain range of educational goodness. I seem to recall I even gave a talk there once, which passed off smoothly and politely enough.

I've just googled to the effect that this guy also went to Dulwich. Monkhouse started out as a comic artist. The two of them were mates there, apparently.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:24 PM
Category: Famous educations
March 19, 2004
Douglas Bader 2: Drill

I can keep appointments for something like a radio broadcast or a medical examination. But I am appalling procrastinator. (I do daily postings at my personal blogs because if I didn't, entire months would go by postingless.) If there is no fixed moment when I have to start, and I am able to postpone by a few more hours, then I do, and the hours pile up for ever.

An example of this is that a really quite long time ago, I did a posting with a title that began something like "Douglas Bader 1". Since which time there has yet to materialise any Douglas Bader 2 posting of any sort. This I will now correct.

Douglas Bader was the man who was a young star in the Royal Airforce but who had both himself and his career cut short when he lost his legs in a flying crash. Only the Second World War gave him a chance to get back into the RAF, and he duly distinguished himself in that conflict and became a classic Great British Hero.

Here is a description (again, from this book) of how they made (and still make I assume) RAF officers.

The Senior NCOs had the greatest responsibility for teaching the Flight Cadets the ways of the Service, instructing them in ground school and on the drill ground, berating them, exemplifying authority and responsibility, inculcating self-respect, self-discipline and self-control. Bader and many others recalled that it was the Senior NCOs who taught the cadets how to become officers.

Each squadron had an NCO drill instructor - a flight sergeant or a sergeant - who was responsible for training cadets to the high standards of drill practised by the Cadet Wing. Before attaining that, cadets would not be allowed to join their squadron on parade. There was a Wing Sergeant Major who was the Senior Drill NCO. He was the final arbiter of a cadet's fitness to join the Wing on parade. Every morning, the two squadrons were called by bugle to the parade ground, and inspected - meticulously, ruthlessly. Each Saturday morning there was the Colour Hoisting Parade.

Drill and flying were the two most important parts of the daily routine. Academic and ground studies were secondary, but not markedly so. Cadets had to undergo a great deal of drill. First, there was basic drill, then arms drill. It took about a month of intensive foot and arms drill every working morning to reach the standard required to perform as a team with the Squadron and the Wing.

A good way of fostering team spirit and formation, drill was an important part of training. It stimulated team work, and required concentration and alertness. It taught cadets all about parading and ceremonials, for they too would have to command and supervise such things one day. Later, as Fourth Termers, cadets had to command the Wing on parade. Bader became under-officer of his 'A' Squadron.

Does drill count as "education"? Maybe not. But a few generations ago it would have, because boys used to do this kind of thing at school.

I did drill at school. I was made to. Bastards. But it was good exercise, and if I'd been allowed to choose I might have chosen it. I especially liked the music that was always played: Elgar's Pomp and Circumstances marches.

The serious thing that drill teaches is cooperation. It isn't the only kind of cooperation you'll ever do, but it is one of them, and it has one huge merit when compared with something like sports: it is extremely easy to do. Practically anyone can do drill.

And when it comes to "educating" soldiers, drill is essential. I know, I know, what's a libertarian doing having nice words to say about drill? But unless you are a pacifist, you have to acknowledge that there are times when (a) you have to fight, in a group, which means (b) that you had better do some drill. Armies that do drill fight better.

Lots of civilians regard drill as an inherent insult to their individual humanity, and in a sense it is just that, and on purpose. But if you have experienced the difference that drill can make to a body of soldiers (or in Douglas Bader's case airmen) then you will have learned something (not everything, but something) of the difference between effective and efficient cooperation and the more usual sort, which only brings to bear about 15% of the available energy.

This is a lesson worth learning. Those who refuse to learn it - as I refused to learn it at my school (I just marched back and forth in a state of contemptuous resentment) - shouldn't be forced to go through the motions. But if you volunteer for it, you could really learn some worthwhile stuff.

The way to correct procrastination is to devise a drill for yourself, and then do it.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 11:59 PM
Category: Boys will be boysFamous educations
March 05, 2004
The Wright brothers at work and at play

Wilbur Wright was born in 1867, and younger brother Orville in 1871. The Wright brothers were the first people in the world to build and fly an airplane. They first did this on December 17th 1903, when they got their contraption to fly, under the control (and it was control – he wasn't just perched on board) of Orville, watched closely from the ground by Wilbur. On flight number four, they got their airplane to stay airborne for almost a minute and to cover a distance of getting on for a thousand feet.


But how did they get their start as aviation's ultimate pioneers?

The Wright Brothers by Fred C. Kelly was first published in Britain in 1944, and presumably before that in the USA, although I don't know when. My edition is a Panther paperbeck published in 1958. The quotes that follow are the first few paragraphs of this book.

From earliest years both Wilbur and Orville Wright were motivated by what Thorstein Veblen called the instinct of workmanship. Their father, the Reverend Milton Wright, used to encourage them in this and never chided them for spending on their hobbies what little money they might have. But he did urge them to try to earn enough to meet the costs of whatever projects they were carrying on. "All the money anyone needs," he used to say, "is just enough to prevent one from being a burden on others."

The economic theme is an interesting one. I believe that this is now under-emphasised. This posting is about the Wright brothers and their education, not about my opinions, but modern education strikes me as not only educationally quite easy to criticise but also an economic absurdity. I can quite understand that looking after the elderly and the very young is sometimes necessarily expensive, but it ought not to cost as much as it does to look after the young and the vigorous. And teaching them to fend for themselves economically should be all part of teaching them generally, as it was for the Wright brothers.

Anyway, on with the mechanical stuff:

Both brothers were fascinated by mechanics almost from the time they were conscious of interest in anything. The childhood events most vivid in the recollections of Orville Wright have had to do with mechanical devices of one kind or another. One of the high spots was the day he attained the age of five, because he received for a birthday gift a gyroscopic top that would maintain its balance and spin while resting on the edge of a knife-blade.

Shortly after that fifth birthday, and partly because of his inborn enthusiasm over mechanics, Orville began an association with another boy that had an important influence on his life. His mother started him to kindergarten. The school was within a short walking distance of the Wright home and Orville set out after breakfast each morning with just enough time to reach the classroom if he didn’t loiter. His mother bade him return home promptly after he was dismissed and he always arrived punctually at the time expected. When asked how he was getting along, he cheerfully said all was going well, but did not go into details. At the end of a month his mother went to visit the kindergarten to learn just how Orvie was doing. "I hope the child has been behaving himself," said the mother to the teacher.

The teacher stared at her in astonishment. "Why," said she, "you know, since the first few days I haven’t seen him. I supposed you had decided to keep him at home."

It turned out that Orville had almost immediately lost interest in kindergarten and instead had regularly gone to a house two doors from his own, on Hawthorne Street, to join a playmate, Edwin Henry Sines. With an eye on the clock to adjust himself to kindergarten hours, he had stayed there and played with young Sines until about a minute before he was due at home.

Orville’s father and mother were not too severe when this little irregularity was discovered, because the boys had not been engaged in any mischief. On the contrary, their play had been of a sort that might properly be called "constructive." The thing that had occupied them most was an old sewing machine belonging to Sines' mother. They "oiled" it by dropping water from a feather into the oil-holes!

Both Orville and Wilbur followed their father's advice and earned whatever money they spent. One source of income was from wiping dishes in the evening, for which their mother paid a flat rate of one cent. Sometimes she employed them to make minor household repairs. Orville seemed to find more outlets for money than did Wilbur, who was more saving, and from time to time borrowed from Wilbur – but he kept his credit good by sticking to an arrangement they always made that the next money earned should be applied to the debt.

One of Orville's early money-making ventures was the collecting of old bones in near-by alleys, vacant lots, or neighbors' yards, and selling them to a fertilizer factory. He and another boy first did this as a means for raising funds with which to buy candy for use while fishing. They accumulated a weight of bones that seemed to them must represent a small fortune – and were somewhat shocked when the buyer paid them only three cents.

At first, Orville's associates in his projects were boys of his own age rather than Wilbur, who was more than four years older and moved in a different group; but a day came when the brothers began to share curiosity over a mechanical phenomenon. In June, 1878, when Orville was seven years old and Wilbur eleven, the Wright family left Dayton, because the work of the father, who had been made a Bishop of the United Brethren church, was shifted to Cedar Rapids, Iowa. And it was in a house on Adams Street, in Cedar Rapids, not long after their arrival there, that an event occurred which was to have much influence on the lives of Wilbur and Orville – as well as to have its effect on the whole human race.

Bishop Wright had returned from a short trip on church business bringing with him a little present for his two younger sons.

"Look here, boys," he said to Wilbur and Orville, holding out his hands with something hidden between them. Then he tossed the gift toward them. But instead of falling at once to the floor or into their hands, as they expected, it went to the ceiling where it fluttered briefly before it fell. It was a flying-machine, a helicopter, the invention of a Frenchman. Alphonse Pénaud. Made of cork, bamboo, and thin paper, the device weighed so little that twisted rubber bands provided all the power needed to send it aloft for a few seconds. As the brothers were to learn later, Pénaud, an invalid during most of his short life, had not only invented, as early as 1871, various kinds of toy flying-machines – both the helicopter type and others that flew horizontally – but was the originator of the use of rubber bands for motive power. Simple as was this helicopter – they called it the "bat" – Wilbur and Orville felt great admiration for its ingenuity. Though it soon went the way of all fragile toys, the impression it left on their minds never faded.

Not long afterward Wilbur tried to build an improvement on that toy helicopter. If so small a device could fly, why not make a bigger one that could fly longer and higher? Orville was still too young to contribute much to the actual building of larger models, but he was keenly interested as Wilbur made several, each larger than the one preceding. To the brothers' astonishment, they discovered that the bigger the machine the less it would fly; and if it was much bigger than the original toy, it wouldn't fly at all. They did not yet understand that a machine of only twice the linear dimensions of another would require eight times the power.

Orville, meanwhile, had distinguished himself in another way, by organizing an army. …

But that's another story.

What fascinates me is how very "progressive" this all is. There is the skipping of the kindergarten, but the parents not minding. There is the economic stuff, which, translated into progressive-speak, would now be called "involvement in the local community". And there is the direct connection between play and subsequent achievement, with the very age of aviation itself first coming to the attention of the brothers in the form of a toy, powered by a rubber band. (I used to play with airplanes just like that myself, although they were not helicopters.)

In general, if you want technological innovators, the lesson seems to be (at not just from the story of the Wright brothers): let them mess about with technology. Let them have experience of technology, "hands on" experience. Book learning, if you want inventors, is necessary in a rudimentary form, but it is absolutely not sufficient.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:56 PM
Category: Famous educations
March 03, 2004
The singular education of Peter Drucker

Peter Drucker is undoubtedly the most famous ever writer about "management". Here is a description of his childhood from chapter 1, "A Singular Education", of The World According to Drucker by Jack Beatty.
The war haunted Peter Drucker's childhood, though, as we will see, it also expedited his career as a writer. He and his friends taught themselves to read "by scanning the casualty lists and the obituaries with the big black borders, looking for names we knew, names of people we loved and missed." To them war was a permanent condition of the world. "None of us could imagine that the war would ever end," Drucker recalls. "Indeed every boy my age knew that 'When I grow up' meant 'When I get drafted and sent to the front.' "

A few years later, when Drucker was a senior in high school, his class was assigned to review the first crop of books to appear on the war. "When we then discussed these ... in class, one of my fellow students said, 'Every one of these books says that the Great War was a war of total military incompetence. Why was it?' Our teacher did not hesitate a second but shot right back, 'Because not enough generals were killed; they stayed way behind the lines and let others do the fighting and dying.'" In this the members of Drucker's generation shared something in common with the generals. They were spared. Drucker is conscious of his luck in being too young to be used as cannon fodder by those murderously incompetent generals. "Those of us who have been spared the horrors in which our age specializes," he wrote in Landmarks of Tomorrow (1959), "who have never suffered total war, slave-labor camp or police terror, not only owe thanks; we owe charity and compassion."

If the war brought fear, the peace brought hunger. The winter of 1919-1920 was grim. "Like practically every child in Vienna," Drucker writes in his sparkling autobiography, Adventures of a Bystander (1979), "I was saved by Herbert Hoover whose feeding organization provided school lunches. They left me with a lasting aversion to porridge and cocoa – but definitely saved my life and that of millions of children throughout ontinental Europe." An "organization" did all that good. One sees the biographical roots of Drucker's concept of organization as an instrument of human creativity.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 03:30 PM
Category: Famous educations
February 20, 2004
Douglas Bader (1): Who was he and what is he doing here?

There is something particularly compelling about how people are taught to fight, with machines, in war. The machines mean that you have to learn how to use them, and the obvious dangers associated with using them incompetently make the "discovery method" unsatisfactory. Children may safely be allowed to explore the possibilities of what can be done with a set of coloured pencils and a pile of scrap paper, or with a box of plastic bricks or the contents of a sandpit. Allowing a trainee pilot to discover for himself the results of landing an airplane the wrong way, or a trainee soldier to discover what happens when he takes that pin thing out of a grenade while neglecting immediately after that to throw it anywhere … that's a different matter. So military education interests me a lot. Simply, it has to be done, and it has to be done well. If not: disaster.

And what is more, since what people are being trained to do is, among other things, to risk their lives, a lot of thought also goes into creating the sort of men whom other men will follow into battle. This is not merely a matter of teaching people to push the correct buttons and to follow orders accurately. There is more to the training soldiers and their commanders than "training", if you get my drift.

This posting is the first of what I now intend will be several about one particular military leader and educator, the legless World War Two fighter pilot Douglas Bader. (Bader is pronounced "Barder" by the way.)

Bader was a mega-celebrity in Britain, to all those Britons who fought – or who merely endured – World War Two. Tin legs, and a fighter ace. Imagine it. A celebrity biography was written about him after the war called Reach For The Sky, and a film of the same title was made in the nineteen fifties about Bader, starring Kenneth More.

Follow those links and you immediately get that Bader was famous, and that he was courageous. That he was. Not surprisingly, Reach For The Sky (in both its manifestations) concentrated on the personal battles of Bader - his battle to stay alive after losing his legs, then to walk without crutches despite having lost his legs, and then to get back into the Royal Air Force despite having lost his legs. Then, of course, there were his personal battles with Luftwaffe pilots, and subsequently with various German prison camp commandants.

But I suppose most people's knowledge of Bader stops, if it now even gets that far, after: no legs, wartime fighter pilot. (Some might add, "right wing politics", to the short list of Bader attributes. And that's true. He had no liking for socialist politics or policies, and from time to time in his later years he said so. He remained belligerently patriotic to the end of his days.)

What is somewhat less well known is that Bader was probably the most influential trainer of fighter commanders in the World War Two RAF. Although himself captured by the Germans in 1941, his pupil-subordinates continued to fight on after him using his methods, and increasingly, to command those fights.

I have recently acquired another biographical study of Bader, which complements Reach For The Sky nicely, in that it concentrates on his flying and fighting, and on the flying and fighting that he taught to others. It is by Michael G. Burns, and is called, significantly, Bader: The Man and His Men. It says a lot about this book that it is over three hundred pages in length, but that Bader himself gets shot down on page 188.

Here is my first excerpt from this book, which consists simply of its brief (and very much to my point) Introduction:

This book treats Douglas Bader as an officer and professional fighting man. It seeks to discern why and how he was such an outstanding air combat tactician, inspired leader and gifted teacher. The contribution made by Bader's education at RAF College Cranwell and his training as an officer and fighter pilot in the early 1930s was paramount to his wartime success. Cranwell encouraged its officers to be innovative and challenging thinkers. The system turned Bader into a total professional.

Bader championed using the fighter wing instead of the squadron or flight to intercept bombers during the Battle of Britain. What is important about wings is not their marginal effect on the 1940 Battle, but what Bader did with the tactical insights he got from leading the Duxford Wing.

Bader analysed and discussed tactics for months. When he led the Tangmere Wing in 1941, he built it from small combat units not massed squadrons, honing timing to stop-watch perfection. With such a flexible force, he controlled a great volume of sky before and during combat defensively and offensively.

This book explores why so many of Bader's pilots became 'greats'. He moulded his squadrons by controlling postings, and by choosing from the squadron pool only the best to fly with him. They learnt by proximity to him. He had a sure eye for pilots who would learn - men like Cork, Donaldson, Crowley-Milling, Johnson, Dundas and Turner, who subsequently developed distinctively as leaders and significantly influenced the tactical employment of fighters and wings.

The small unit Bader developed in 1941 was the legendary 'finger-four' upon which British fighter tactics for the rest of the war were based; the flexible wing he developed in 1941 became the basis of the mid- and late-war fighter and tactical wings; and many pilots who flew with him in 1940 and 1941 became the leading fighter exponents of World War Two. These are the measures of Douglas Bader's greatness as a warrior.

I will comment no more on this than to note that the word "teacher" occurs in Burns' second sentence.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 08:44 PM
Category: Famous educations
February 06, 2004
Samuel Pepys learns Latin – and nothing but Latin

The Internet is paying quite a bit of attention to Samuel Pepys (1633-1703), now that you can read his diary on line. So around now was a good time for a new Pepys biography, and Claire Tomalin's Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self has attracted further attention to Pepys. Today I bought it in paperback. Here (pp. 30-31) is one of the more striking passages concerning Pepys' schooling, which took place during the time of the English Civil War:

As a boy with a sense of his own worth, whose schooling so far had been meagre, he must have been avid for education; and serious teaching is what you got at a grammar school, all day long, from seven in the morning until five in the afternoon. Two hours were allowed for lunch in the middle of the day, time to walk to Brampton and back, although the Hinchingbrooke kitchens would have been handier. Huntingdon School had a reputation, made under its headmaster Thomas Beard, who had sent his best pupils on to Cambridge, Oliver Cromwell among them. Latin was the chief subject, and the master's job was to put Latin into the heads of the boys, so forcefully that they could think and write in Latin as easily as in English. Very little else was studied except for some Greek by those who did well with their Latin and a bit of basic Hebrew for the exceptional pupil. Mathematics was hardly mentioned, beyond learning the Roman numerals, which took precedence over the Arabic ones, and Pepys had to learn his multiplication tables when he was twenty-nine.

Once past elementary grammar and vocabulary, Latin was taught largely by translating classical texts into English and then back into Latin, the object being to finish as close to the original as you could. It was common for boys to be punished if they failed to talk to one another in Latin, and parents occasionally complained of their sons forgetting how to read English. In any case they did not study English writers — no Chaucer, Bacon, Shakespeare, Jonson or Donne. They learnt instead to compose verses, essays and letters in Latin, and became familiar with a list of ancient authors that included Cicero, Virgil, Horace, Ovid, Terence, Juvenal and Livy. The aim was admirable for anyone who wanted to correspond with foreigners, since Latin was used by all educated Europeans; Milton was appointed 'Latin secretary' to Cromwell when he became lord protector, in order to compose diplomatic correspondence for him in that language. Pepys was a good scholar, able to read Latin for pleasure all his life; and that very skill may have helped to leave his English free and uncluttered for the Diary, the language of life as opposed to the elaborately constructed formulations of the classroom and study.

I guess that in all sorts of places around the world of now, there must be young people experiencing something similar, but this time it is English that is to them what Latin was to young Sam Pepys. English now being the official public language of large tracts of the world.

There is something more about Pepys' education here.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:01 PM
Category: Famous educationsHistory
January 28, 2004
Christopher Columbus – learning the job by doing it and by reading in his spare time

I'm very fond of these short biographies that they do nowadays. If you can have short stories, why not short summaries of great lives? But for Brian's Education Blog purposes such books can be tantalisingly insufficient. That Lenin book I quoted from yesterday is a foot crusher if dropped, or it would have been when it first came out in hardback. Which is why it went into such fascinating detail about the nuances of the man's education. Christopher Columbus by Peter Rivière, on the other hand, one of the Pocket Biographies series done by Sutton Publishing, is only 111 pages long.

So this is all it says (in paragraph one of Chapter One, "The Early Years", on page 8) about the education of its hero:

Christopher Columbus was born in Genoa in 'about 1451. His father, Domenico, was a weaver, and his mother, Susanna Fontanarossa, also came from a weaving family. We know of a sister, Bianchinetta, and two younger brothers, Bartolome and Diego, who were to be his companions and supporters throughout Us life. He received little in the way of formal education and the claim that he attended the University of Pavia, where he is meant to have studied geography, astronomy and geometry, is almost certainly not true. If later in life he was recognized for his knowledge of these subjects it was because he was self-taught. As a young bov he was engaged in his father's business, although at an earlv age he started going to sea. This was not altogether surprising since, along with Venice, Genoa was the great trading city of the Mediterranean.

And with that Columbus immediately sets to and discovers America, or whatever it was he actually did to it (see Introduction).

Still, for those who prefer short postings …

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:59 PM
Category: Famous educationsLearning by doing
January 27, 2004
Lenin's education: "... a formidable and often a traumatic experience ... "excellent" in every subject"

If my scanner worked better I would probably do more postings based on the early lives of celebrities. I should do more anyway, because they are interesting to read, I think.

They can also be very interesting to do. Today, for instance, I was rootling about in chapter one of Adam B. Ulam's book, Lenin and the Bolsheviks (first published as The Bolsheviks in 1965). Did you know that Lenin had an elder brother, Alexander, who joined in a terrorist plot to assassinate the Tsar and who was hanged when Lenin was seventeen? Maybe you did, but I didn't.

Ulam then describes (p. 19 of my 1975 Fontana Library paperback) what was happening with Lenin's education while all that was going on:

While Alexander was awaiting first the trial and then the execution, Lenin was finishing his eighth and final year in the Simbirsk gymnasium. Graduation from high school was, for a European adolescent, a formidable and often a traumatic experience. It required not only a successful completion of what corresponded to the American senior year of the school, but also in addition a special examination in several subjects. This examination, the so-called "test of maturity", consisted of written and oral questions and exercises prepared not by the local teachers but by the ministry of education or by the professors of the regional university. Nothing was spared to endow the occasion with awe and tension. The strict secrecy about the content of the examination, the barricaded rooms where it took place, the virtual impossibility of beginning professional training if one failed a subject, make the most strenuous American and English academic tests appear innocent and relaxing in comparison. Nervous breakdowns were not uncommon among the students, most of whom were, after all, not older than eighteen or nineteen.

With the earlier noted exception of logic, Lenin completed his high school course with the grade of "excellent" in every subject, including religion. The high school certificate included also such categories as "behaviour in class", "interest in studies", etc. In all these respects his conduct was adjudged "exemplary". The final written examinations took place in the week of his brother's execution. Lenin passed them with the highest distinction, being awarded the gold medal of the Simbirsk gymnasium (both Alexander and Anna [Lenin's parents – BM] had received the same award) as the first student in the class.

It makes you wonder whether all the would-be Al-Qaeda suicide bombers whom the Americans are now hunting to death have younger brothers, and if so, what they might get up to in the future.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 04:16 PM
Category: Famous educationsHistory