Want to be a genius? Then only the best school will do

By GUEST WRITER Alexanders School*

What makes a genius?

Let’s face it, no-one ever wishes they were less intelligent. Less fat, less anxious, maybe – but never less brainy. ‘If I were smarter, I’d be happier and more successful’. Who doesn’t aspire to be more accomplished and out of the ordinary? (Except those of us who are already geniuses, of course.)

Philosophers have spent an awful lot of time arguing about what makes a genius. We can all name a genius – da Vinci, Shakespeare, Darwin, Newton, Einstein – but what makes them so? The ability to fundamentally change our understanding of the world, certainly. Being better at something than any other human being living or dead is another way. But on a deeper, molecular level, is there a secret to superhuman cleverness or is it just a freak of nature?

A strong romantic myth linking madness to genius has existed for centuries, that the gifts of a genius come with grave consequences – mental illness and personal trauma. You never hear anyone invite Van Gogh to a fantasy dinner party, do you? I will accept geniuses exist outside normal experience. They see things differently, that’s the whole point. But not because they are disturbed or genetically abnormal. There are lots of very successful people, and many geniuses, who have lead stable, secure lives.

The unspoken truth about successful people is that even the smartest man in the world only got to where he was through hard work and knowledge. When it comes to success, motivation and training is almost as important as talent. How do I get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice, my friend.

In Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book – Outliers – he estimates that the secret to mastering any skill is to put in at least 10,000 hours of work. That’s it. No gifts from God, just dogged, relentless self-discipline. Genius should not be seen as something you’re born with – it’s something you learn, something you obsessively devote your life to. For example, Gladwell argues that the success of Chinese math geniuses is not to do with genetics but to their harder studies and greater patience in problem-solving, stemming from a work ethic gained from long days of work in rice paddies as children. He also argues Bill Gates’ success was not only the product of intelligence but of social advantage: as a child, Gates had unique access to high-end computer technology that few others had.

The importance of education

It is unfashionable and politically incorrect to say this, but those of us fortunate enough to have the social and economic opportunities to learn new skills, work hard and develop our potential will tend to come out as more successful. Gladwell is one of many contemporary thinkers who are starting to make the case that people’s opportunity to move the world and excel, while partly driven by talent, is largely structured by opportunities provided externally.

In 2002, the BBC took a list of 100 Greatest Britons as voted for by the public. Do you know what is interesting about this list? Well over half – from Winston Churchill to David Bowie – were privately taught at boarding and preparatory schools, and educated to a university level, often either Cambridge or Oxford. An extraordinary statistic. What links these people is not just talent, but a particular circumstance – they were all given an extraordinary education and used it to improve their lives.

The role of our schools has been the driving force of much of our celebrated history as a nation. For three hundred years the officers of the British Empire sent their sons to boarding schools in preparation for a life in the military or as diplomats and high-ranking government administrators. Later, boarding schools prepared most of our finest soldiers, diplomats and intelligence officers, without whom we would have lost both world wars. Even today, boarding schools continue to have extensive contemporary influence, particularly in politics and modern business.

Do the best schools produce more geniuses?

Yes, although don’t say it loudly – it’s not a popular fact. An overwhelming share of our national heroes – Isaac Newton, Charles Dickens, William Morris, virtually every Prime Minister in our history – were privately educated at our best schools, many of them boarding schools. Their success is not exceptional or mysterious – it’s simple cause and effect. Today’s bright stars are unaccountably grounded in the network of advantages they inherited as part of their education. Of course, some of these people deserved these advantages, some not.  But that’s beside the point. What’s key is that there is no science underlying any of their achievements, apart from one: they worked hard and went to good schools.

But let’s look at the bigger picture. Are British schools better than, say, the schools in France? Well, the British education system is still widely considered the best in the world. It is sometimes too easy to forget this. Our schools have influenced similar systems all around the world, particularly former colonies of the British Empire and many Commonwealth countries. And as the global network grows larger and more interconnected, our principles gain in influence. The right to an education (arguably a British idea) is now so integral to the modern world that to be uneducated is considered a major form of deprivation, akin to torture.

However, the values and benefits of schools our system has inspired abroad – whilst a considerable legacy – are still not quite comparable to the UK. Every year more and more international students arrive on our shores. There is a long historical pedigree for this. Many of the world’s most famous artists, scientists and politicians – Sylvia Plath, Raymond Chandler, Karl Marx, and Gandhi – studied in the UK at some point.

The importance of a British education as a catalyst for personal achievement and success is so clear that is recognised by almost everyone the world over. Behind the US, the UK is the second most popular destination for international students. Part of this is because of a growing demand for English language instruction (see below), but more importantly, Britain has a unique historical precedent in assimilating other nationalities as part of its culture and curriculum.

The UK is one of the most permissive, multi-faith, multi-cultural nations in the world. It prides itself on the breadth of its social opportunities for students. International students in the UK often speak openly about how easy it is to integrate themselves and participate. There are some schools – such as the Alexanders school – that even specialise in teaching international students exclusively.

International students also learn the value of learning English. English is increasingly seen as the language with the most cultural and social benefits, and fast becoming the standardised language of business and an essential skill for aspirational professionals.

A life-long ticket to success

Many students who choose to study at the UK from a young age make no excuses in being in it for the long haul. Very few come on a whim or as a holiday – a classic boarding school education is a life-long ticket to greater success in life. They know what they want to accomplish and then set out with certainty to accomplish this. They want to put in their 10,000 hours. And who are we to stop them?

Luckily, applying to a boarding school is simple, provided you can afford the fees. Private education is expensive, but it is an investment – and compared similar institutions in other countries – extremely affordable. For international students – the British system abounds with services to make the transition easy. Immigration control in the UK is hardly lax, but much more permeable than the US, and our visa application process is considerably more streamlined. These services will help students settle in quickly and get the most from their educational experience.


* The opinions expressed by the Alexanders School and those providing comments are theirs alone, and do not reflect the opinions of the School Choice International or any employee thereof. School Choice International is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the Guest Bloggers.


5 Responses to Want to be a genius? Then only the best school will do

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  4. Siegfre Nibelung says:

    Great article thanks for the read, and keep it up!

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