Letters & Essays
Lucid dreaming
Charles McCreery
Fabian Tassano
Founders of the IPR

‘State education should be abolished.
If it could ruin my education and my life,
it could ruin anybody’s.’



Part 1

I was a precocious child, offspring of a Polish immigrant father and British mother, both from families of notable ability which had come down in the world. When I first went to school at five I had already read what would be a respectable amount for a fairly bright child to get through in its entire primary education. I was equally good at all subjects and my education might have been relatively plain sailing if my parents had been a little better off, or a little more ambitious on my behalf, so that they had taken care only to send me to private schools. My ability was spectacular enough to arouse hostility and obstructionism in egalitarian local authorities. My father, as headmaster of a primary school in the state system, could not escape the pressures placed upon him to oppose and frustrate me. If intelligence is not genetic, as many wish to believe, it is fair enough to blame precocity on a father's "pushing".

The crucial turning-point in my education came when I was thirteen. Legislation was passed against the taking of O-levels before the age of 16. I was about to take the exam before the legislation, which would have left me free to take O and A-levels "ad lib", as I had every intention of doing. I estimated that I should be able to get a distinction in any O-level subject within a fortnight starting from scratch, six weeks for A-levels. Maybe a bit more in the case of totally unknown languages. I considered it to be almost too late to be taking this exam, since I could have taken it when I was eight if allowed to have textbooks and a year for preparation, but it was not quite too late to enjoy it, and it was the gateway to all my future exam-taking.

My father rashly attracted the attention of local educational "experts" and was threatened with the loss of his job if he did not prevent me from taking the exam. He prevented me. The happiness of my life abruptly ended.

From then on my education consisted of a series of appalling arrangements imposed on my by the local authority, which constantly induced my father to oppose the plans and arrangements which I made for myself. My unhappiness, which must have been noticeable, was blamed as usual on overwork and my "pushing" father. The relative protection provided earlier by a direct grant Ursuline convent school which I attended from the ages of 10 to 14 broke down because it had little provision for sixth form work.

Eventually I got the top scholarship to Somerville College at the normal age. It would have been better for me if it had been younger, both because it would have been easier to be identified with taking a first degree at 19 than 21 (and even easier to be identified with taking it at 15) and because I would have had fewer nightmarish years behind me which gave the work negative associations.

Part 2

It may be said that I got the Somerville scholarship after attending schools that scarcely ever got Oxbridge scholarships, or even entrances. I was taking maths as my main subject, in which I was virtually self-taught. Such teaching as I had had might be regarded as a negative factor, since it had been combined with a good deal of personal hostility. Also choosing maths as my main subject had been the result of bad advice from older people; if one were only allowed to take one degree at a time and couldn't, say, take degrees in physics and Russian simultaneously, then I would have chosen physics, which was what I wanted to do research in.

A relatively simple solution would have been possible when I first got to Somerville if I had changed to physics, which would have been my first choice anyway. I found physics much easier than maths to do in negative circumstances. But I did not realise until too late that changing one's subject after arriving at Oxford was not too uncommon. Maths was what I least liked doing under stress, and doing a first degree so late made it very stressful. My education lay ruined behind me, and it was too late to salvage it, but now, to save my life, I had to get through to taking a degree at 21 well enough to get a research scholarship so that my future career of research within the academic world would still be open to me. As it turned out, I wasn't able to. Why? It is a lot easier to work for reward than to avoid punishment; and the punishment to be avoided, of exclusion for life from the academic world, was unthinkably great.

So I got a Second and no research scholarship, and was left empty-handed at the end of my education with no way ahead. Nevertheless I was someone who needed to be in the academic world, so I immediately proposed to take another degree, maybe in physics, supporting myself if necessary and living as cheaply as possible, so that I could get a First and continue my academic career, a few years late as an ironic penalty for precocity. This, it turned out, was not acceptable, I suppose because doing this would have made it too obvious that I thought there had been something wrong with the education for which the state had paid. The educational authority encouraged my father to oppose my plans; nothing was acceptable but that I should give up all thought of returning to the academic world and set about earning a living in whatever way a Second Class degree made possible.

At about that time, my father's health broke down. He had been blamed throughout my education, first for my happiness and then for my unhappiness, and now he was blamed for my Second and for my lack of acceptance of it. He was encouraged to believe (or at least I gathered this from what he transmitted to me) that he had a weak and wicked daughter who had betrayed her ability and the money spent upon her by depravity unspecified, but whom he must now force to accept that she was really no good and never would be good for anything.

Part 3

There seemed to be an inconsistency in the opposition to my trying to take a second degree: if (as was implied) my degree result was not due to a lack of ability but to some avoidable failure to work, for which I was to blame, then why should I not be allowed to redeem myself by taking another degree, if I could find a way of paying for it, so that I could have the sort of academic career I wanted and for which I was eminently suited. Quoted remarks had (as at other times) a ring of personal hostility. "She has to learn that she can't have everything she wants just when she wants it." Were they not aware that frustration had been the order of the day throughout my education?

Whether or not I would have been able to secure any support from my father for my plans to take another degree as soon as possible, and get back into the academic world, now he certainly could not give it. He had to retire early on a breakdown allowance and spent the next twenty years in bed. I have often thought I should be able to sue the state educational system for loss of academic earnings as well as the loss of my father's earnings and his reduced pension until he died caused by the breakdown of his health before normal retirement age.

My Second was supposed to be significant in a way it was not and not significant in the way it was. It was terribly important as a bar to an academic career, which was the only kind I could have, but all it proved about my ability was how anomalous a result you could produce by frustration. I had not been able to motivate myself to take a degree in that particular subject at that particular age with my past life having been as it was. It had very little bearing on my ability to teach or do research.

Partly as a result of feeling cheated of so much that I might have got out of exam-taking, and partly because if my life had followed a normal course I would probably have been giving tutorials, I took to helping people at Somerville who were in difficulties preparing for their exams. I don't think I ever failed to produce an improvement of at least one class over what they were expected to get, sometimes with less than a dozen hours spent on identifying and teaching them key areas. I taught maths among other things, but never bothered whether I had prior knowledge of the subject.

As for my ability to do research, I thought I would do well as head of a research department or organisation in any field, since although I would not at first know anything in detail, I would rapidly perceive the intellectual structures involved and identity the key areas in which the most significant progress could be made. This view is, I know, greatly at variance with the modern emphasis on training and experience, but it does provide a context in which to understand my attitude to the field of work I actually entered.

Celia Green

Copy of a letter about Celia Green's early life