Another early morning call from a distressed parent had me thinking about education again. Thankfully my own children are now most definitely adults and education problems have been long abandoned to the past - although replaced by other problems and difficulties that seem impossible to surmount. It has to be admitted that one of the most worrying aspects of parenting concerns the child said to have significant intellectual potential who stubbornly refuses to achieve at any level. Other, supposedly less able children win the maths prize, head the class in spelling and get stars on their progress charts whilst the chart of the child in question does not even get a smiley stamp for effort! And this failure in life may start very early. If you happen to be the parent you struggle endlessly to cope with failure. Not for you the baby who walks at ten months and speaks in sentences at one year, who sings in tune at the age of two, demands to be taught to read at three, and plays simple melodies on violin or piano at four. You become adjusted to the fact that your daughter’s abilities seem to be dismal and she is never going to cause awe and envy in the community. This was the problem discussed with today's caller. Never lose hope, however because she (and you - and I) are in very good company.
Edouard Manet was totally inattentive, showing no interest in anything that went on around him as a child, including art. Leonardo da Vinci seemed to be totally disinterested in what went on at his local school and therefore did badly. Sir Joshua Reynolds was thought to have no aptitude for art whatsoever, neither did he excel in any other area. Gauguin did not paint or draw at all as a child and was a very bad scholar. Picasso’s family were particularly worried about his failure at school and Van Gogh displayed no evidence of artistic ability.
Rossini was described as lazy, Beethoven’s composition tutor thought him hopeless and Verdi was rejected by the Conservatoire at Milan when he applied for entry. Sibelius was inattentive, Delius was lazy and disruptive and Sir Edward Elgar showed minimal promise.
So we dispensed briskly with art and music.
Her son was interested in science, she told me. A number of prominent scientists fared no better. Charles Darwin writes that he was considered by both school and family as a little below average in every area. Sir Isaac Newton was in the bottom form at the local grammar school for a number of years though he improved over time. James Watt was considered intellectually dull and as for Edison, he was always bottom of his class and described by one teacher as having an `addled brain’ – whereupon his furious mother removed him from school and taught him herself. Einstein as we all know was regarded as anything but bright and caused his father great distress with his poor school reports. Louis Pasteur was hard working but learned very slowly. Carl Jung’s teachers thought him idle and a trouble maker.
Writers and poets fare no better. Jonathan Swift did very badly at Trinity College, Dublin, failing most examinations. Oliver Goldsmith was described by school staff as `stupid’. Wordsworth made very slow academic progress and Sheridan was described by his parents as `an impenetrable dunce’. Thomas Chatterton was felt to be a dullard and better placed in a special school, Jean de la Fontaine was thought to have a nice nature but to be almost ineducable. At Harrow, Lord Byron only interested himself in sporting activities and Honore de Balzac was described as being `in an intellectual coma’. Thomas Carlyle failed to get his degree and Charles Thackeray was thought to be only mediocre. Dante Gabriel Rossetti is said to have been a bored and fearful schoolboy and Anthony Trollope said that the only satisfying thing that happened during his schooldays was getting into a fight with an older boy and beating him. Emile Zola was a very poor student, scoring zero for literature in one exam and Yeats was thought to be mentally subnormal because he found learning to read almost beyond him. Leo Tolstoy had numerous problems, his teacher saying of the three Tolstoy boys, `Sergei is willing and able, Dimitri is willing but unable – and Leo is both unwilling and unable!’
And what of statesmen, soldiers, politicians and religious leaders?
Napoleon achieved nothing whatsoever at school and Wellington made only moderate progress being placed fifty fourth out of eighty students in his final assessment. Joseph Chamberlain worked diligently but was thought to be only average and Cortez who later conquered Mexico was so difficult he was regularly threatened with expulsion. At Eton Gladstone showed no promise whatsoever. Winston Churchill was generally considered to be stupid, always being at the bottom of the lowest form at Harrow. Franklin Roosevelt was generally liked by his teachers but they did not feel he showed any great promise. Aneurin Bevan was kept back a year when he was nine years old and at his local Sunday school was thought to be such a trouble maker that one teacher said she would resign if she had to teach him. Thomas Cranmer was placed thirty fifth out of forty two in the Cambridge B.A. exam. Warburton was thought to be dull in the extreme and capable of little academic progress. Karl Marx was an average but certainly not brilliant student. Baden-Powell did not stand out in any way, hovering near the bottom of the class always though his conduct was considered to be satisfactory.
Lord Beaverbrook’s parents were told that he would never make a success of life because he had no ability to concentrate.
A surprising number of those who were to achieve greatness were expelled from schools and universities, among them were Hernando Cortez, William Penn, Shelley, Samuel Johnson, Edgar Allen Poe, James Whistler, Charles Makepeace Thackeray, William Rontgen, and Guy de Maupassant.
Parents of the to-be-great expressed considerable disappointment in their offspring. Wellington was thought by his mother to be a moron, Darwin’s father was bitterly disillusioned at his son’s lack of academic lustre. Louis Pasteur’s father miserably proclaimed that the boy would never make anything of his life. Mrs Shaw held low expectations for the future of George Bernard as she thought him incapable. Anxiety as to the future of their children was also voiced by the parents of Churchill, Yeats, Wordsworth, Richard Wagner, Schubert, Flaubert, Samuel Butler, Toulouse-Lautrec and Eleanor Roosevelt.
The woman on the end of the line listened to all this with considerable attention and asked at last whether I thought things were going to improve over time for her boy.
`It's absolutely possible,' I assured her and hoped I was right.