A dunce with a Nobel Prize

An eminent British scientist provides a salutary lesson for education strategists.

Today's lesson: don't tell schoolchildren what they're good at. Sir John Gurdon has just been awarded this year's Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine. In 2006, he gave a revealing interview at the University of California, Berkeley that discussed epic fails in his education – fails that the Conservative party would do well to take into account when they discuss schools at this week's conference.

Despite a clear interest in science – as a child he grew thousands of moths from caterpillars, which greatly annoyed his biology teacher – Gurdon was told that he wasn't suited to the subject. "I have this rather amazing report which, roughly speaking, says I was the worst student the biology master had ever taught," he says. The report went on to say, "I believe Gurdon has ideas about becoming a scientist; on his present showing this is quite ridiculous."

Why? Because he wasn't motivated to learn facts. "If he can't learn simple biological facts he would have no chance of doing the work of a specialist, and it would be a sheer waste of time, both on his part and of those who would have to teach him."

As well as the fundamental ignorance of what scientists do (the myth that science is about knowing facts still persists today), it oozes the current ideology of school as a training-ground for future employment. We fail our students if we see education as nothing more than preparation for the workplace.

So, what happened? "For the rest of my school time I studied Latin and ancient Greek," Gurdon says.

This may have worked in his favour, however. During the interview he revealed that he put part of his later success down to avoiding the drudge of his school's science teaching: "you're better off not being taught a subject badly," he says. "I see it as an advantage to have not had to do the dreary kind of school science that people did have to do at that time."

The fact is, he was no good at Classics; Oxford University told him explicitly that he would not be allowed to attend to study the very subjects his school had "prepared" him for.

But if his parents hadn't shelled out for a year's private science tuition, he wouldn't have got into science at all. Gurdon gallantly blames all this on the privations of the post-war years, but are things very different today? Probably not, he admits: it would now be impossible to switch between classics and science so late: "nowadays my career would have been impossible," he says.

Early specialisation, obsession with rote learning, complete ignorance of the requirements of the workplace while nonetheless obsessed with training people for work...it all sounds rather familiar, doesn't it?

A slide from the Nobel Prize Committee shows John Gurdon's work. Photograph: Getty Images

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

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I'm playing sports again – but things just aren't cricket

I start the new season with red wine stains on my cap, a dodgy shoulder and a burnt nostril.

I’ve put my name up for the first match of the season, playing for that team of redoubtable cricketers, the Rain Men, named after their founder Marcus Berkmann’s book about a team of middle-aged and, er, “mixed-ability” players. The book was first published twenty years ago. Feel free to do some rudimentary maths.

I myself haven’t played for three years. I know this because when I go to get some new contact lenses – I don’t like the idea of running around in glasses, or having a cricket ball lodge them into my eyeballs – I am told I have not bought any since 2013. Yes, that would figure. I couldn’t play for much of 2013, and all of 2014, because two weekends a month I was busy with my children, and the other two I was busy with my lover. A game takes up a whole Sunday – one is committed, including travel and the post-match drink, for about ten hours, and that is too long to spend apart from your loved one, unless of course you are married or otherwise permanently settled and you see them all the time anyway.

In 2015 that restriction was lifted for me, but for some reason I spent that year being too sad to think about playing cricket and also far too unfit. I would occasionally walk long distances and do a few dozen desultory lifts of the dumb-bells in order to achieve even the beginnings of some kind of muscular definition, but in the end the lassitude took over and I thought that maybe the team, however ageing, could do without someone who gets a bit winded when walking down stairs.

Then a brief moment of optimism a couple of weeks ago, combined with a ray of what may possibly have been sunshine, inspired me to rejoin the fold. The team’s meticulously kept records, known among the members as “Sad Stats”, inform me that I have played only eight games for them; when one has played ten, one is eligible for a Rain Men cap, a properly made thing whose design and hooped colours are, in their air of having come from another age, seemingly designed specifically to enrage fast bowlers.

The cap I have says “Antigua, WI”. It’s a battered thing I bought on the island a few years ago, now stained, not sure how, with red wine, but which I will say is my own, fearlessly shed blood, should anyone ever ask. The idea is that, if I wear this cap, some idiot will think I have actually played for Antigua and am thus a force to be reckoned with. However, after a few deliveries, I suspect the opposition has decided that the “WI” stands for Women’s Institute rather than West Indies.

So I start my fitness training a week or so before the match. This involves a walk into town for dinner, followed by a single lift of the dumb-bells before I realise that The Thing That Is Wrong With My Right Shoulder is as bad as it was when it started, about a month ago. What is wrong with it? I can’t move my arm above shoulder height, but I can’t think of any strain I could have put on it. Can you get cancer of the shoulder?

Well, this rules out bowling, except bowling is already ruled out on the grounds that I can no longer bowl, even with a fully rotational shoulder joint. Which in our case we have not got, to quote Henry Reed’s “Naming of Parts”.

In the end, I confine my preparations to a few practice shots with the bat on the back terrace while listening to The Archers. Strangely, the bat seems to have put on a lot of weight since I last held it. I tried practising in front of the mirror in the living room, but as I can only see my head in it, this is not much use except for practising my face. On the terrace, I attempt a pull shot with a fag in my mouth, which clenches so as to make me burn my right nostril really rather badly. A week later, when I actually play, it is still sore to the touch.

As for the game . . . well, it’s an odd one. We manage to eke out a draw, and as for my own contribution, the less said about that, the better. But at least I don’t drop any catches and, even though it causes my shoulder agony, I stop a few balls in the field. The ground itself, however, is right in the shadow of the Didcot A power station, in whose ruins are still at least three bodies of the men who were caught there when it collapsed in February. Throughout the game, lorries tip their burdens of mangled metal on enormous scrapheaps. It puts things in perspective. But look in the other direction, and rapidly backwards and forwards the early bees are assaulting and fumbling the flowers. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 19 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Huckster