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The Education of Winston Churchill

Lewis E. Lehrman

Winston Churchill was not a model student. He was smart but he did not apply himself. His education as a teenager was largely a failure by conventional standards of the time. "I was on the whole considerably discouraged by my school days," remembered the prime minister who would lead Britain through World War II.

Churchill's parents, who did not show a pressing interest in their first-born son, shipped him off to St. George's in Ascot when he was not yet eight years old. Winston escaped the school's brutality only when his governess implored his parents to remove him in 1883. Churchill did better in the less savage atmosphere of the smaller Brunswick School near Brighton where Winston languished for three years.

In many ways, young Churchill was a brat. He was rambunctious and willful, a prankster and a conscientious nonconformist. Even Churchill understood that his own bullheadedness tried his teachers and stymied his advancement. "My teachers saw me at once backward and precocious, reading books beyond my years and yet at the bottom of the form. They were offended. They had large resources of compulsion at their disposal, but I was stubborn. Where my reason, imagination or interest were not engaged, I would not or I could not learn."

At Harrow, where he spent six years, Churchill exhibited his strong stubborn streak. He was, in fact, a pain. "Although good-hearted by nature, he would deliberately court trouble and was a hugely unpopular, disruptive, impatient and undisciplined student, who was generally disliked and even despised by his contemporaries," wrote biographer Carlo D"Este.

"I had scarcely passed my twelfth birthday when I entered the inhospitable regions of examinations, through which for the next seven years I was destined to journey. These examinations were a great trial to me. The subjects which were dearest to the examiners were almost invariably those I fancied least. I would have liked to have been examined in history, poetry and writing essays. The examiners, on the other hand, were partial to Latin and mathematics. And their will prevailed," noted Churchill.

Winston had little aptitude for math and less for classical languages. He did, however, possess an amazing memory and memorized large chunks of Shakespeare. "I should have liked to be asked to say what I knew," recalled Churchill of his exams. "They always tried to ask me what I did not know. When I would have willingly displayed my knowledge, they sought to expose my ignorance."

Churchill's education at Harrow, however, was not a complete waste. Winston developed a strong interest in history, literature, and writing and excelled at fencing, horsemanship and swimming. Churchill recalled: "Mr. Somervell - a most delightful man, to whom my debt is great - was charged with the duty of teaching the stupidest boys the most disregarded thing - namely to write mere English. He knew how to do it. He taught it as no one else has ever taught it....I got into my bones the essential structure of the ordinary British sentence - which is a noble thing."

Nevertheless, his listless performance elicited his parents' displeasure. For the last three years of his Harrow education, Churchill was in the track to enter the army. His father, convinced that Winston lacked the capacity for a profession such as law, encouraged this occupation.

Historian Carlo D'Este wrote that Churchill "left Harrow in December 1892 having failed to acquire some of the appropriate skills - with the exception of fencing - requiring of a proper young English gentleman." Biographer William Manchester noted that Churchill's "name, not academic competence, got him through Harrow and Sandhurst." It took three tries to pass the necessary examination. At 18, Churchill entered Sandhurst where he showed particular skill with horses and graduated eighth in his class of 150.

"My education was interrupted only by my schooling," recalled Churchill. His real education only began after Churchill began his military career in India. He wrote his mother: "I find my literary tastes growing day by day - and if only I knew Latin and Greek - I think I would leave the army and try and take my degree in History, Philosophy and Economics."

Biographer Roy Jenkins noted that Churchill's new dedication to education set him apart from his fellow officers and set him on the path towards greatness. "Convinced that he was (or at least ought to be) a man of destiny, he had no desire to pass his days sharing the intellectual indolence of his fellow subalterns. There was also the insight to realize what he did not know."

As Churchill himself admitted: "I am always ready to learn, but I do not always like being taught."

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