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Was Winston Churchill a Dunce at School?
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Last Friday I asked this question of Andrew Roberts, whose one volume biography “Churchill: Walking with Destiny” has been described as the best single-volume life of Churchill ever written. It is marvellous to be able to question someone who had actually read all Churchill’s school reports. On a broader front, Roberts had the benefit of recently released documents, including being the first Churchill biographer to be given unfettered access to the whole of the Queen’s late father King George VI’s wartime diaries. What did the King know, you may wonder? The whole lot, it seems. Churchill had an audience with the King every week during the entire war, and told him everything that was on his mind that week, including every single secret: the plans for D day, secret actions abroad, everything. The King wrote it all down in his diaries. Why was Churchill willing to disburse himself thus, when they were not exactly soul mates on many matters, including the Abdication? Churchill said he spoke to the King because he was the only man in Britain who was not after his job. He also judged, correctly, that the King would keep his trap shut.

I asked Andrew Roberts the question because so many people, possibly to attack the notion of intelligence or scholastic ability being predictive of later life success, revel in the notion that Churchill was a dunce at school. The moral of that story, it would seem, is that dunces rise as far as swots, so damn the swots, and exams count for nothing.

Was Churchill really no good at school?

Answer: he was in the top third of his class in all subjects, and towards the top in History and English. He was also a rebel, which caused him trouble, but was to stand him in good stead in his later political life.

Roberts writes (pages 16 following):

It is rare for anyone to depict themselves as less intelligent than they genuinely are, but Churchill did so in his biography “My Early Life” in 1930, which needs to be read in the context of his colourful self-mythologizing rather than as strictly accurate history. His school reports utterly belie his claims to have been an academic dunce. Those for St George’s Preparatory School in Ascot, which he entered just before his eight birthday in 1882, record him in six successive terms as having come in the top half or top third of the class.

Churchill was regularly beaten as St George’s, but this was not because of his work – his History results were always “good” “very good” or “exceedingly good” – but because his headmaster was a sadist described by one alumnus as “an unconscious sodomite” who enjoyed beating young boys on their bare bottoms until they bled. Ostensibly the reason for these fortnightly beatings derived from Churchill’s bad conduct, which was described as “very naughty” “still troublesome” “exceedingly bad” “very disgraceful” and so on. “He cannot be trusted to behave himself anywhere” wrote the headmaster, but “He has very good abilities.”

Churchill’s stay at St Georges was one long feud with authority. Churchill’s very good abilities included an excellent memory. He learned his Latin first declensions by heart.

His capacity for memorizing huge amounts of prose and verse stayed with him for life, and would continue to astonish contemporaries well into old age. Many were the occasions that he would quote reams of poetry or songs or speeches half a century after having learned them.

He was drawn to long Shakespeare soliloquies, but also to much of the repertoires of popular music hall performers. At his next school, in Hove, Churchill read voraciously, especially epic tales of heroic, often imperial, adventures. He came first in Classics, third in French, fourth in English, and near or at the bottom of the entire school for conduct. He remained unpunctual all his life.

Churchill claimed to have not learned any Latin or Greek at Harrow, but his school reports show that that was untrue. Furthermore, at fourteen he got a prize for reciting without error 1,200 lines of Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome. He could quote whole scenes of Shakespeare’s plays and had no hesitation in correcting his masters if they misquoted.

Why did Churchill underplay his abilities? The answer is simple: if you boast about your abilities people will hate you; if you claim to be a fool they will be charmed by your modesty and by the abilities they detect in you. Always help the voter believe himself to be brighter than he is.

Does this false modesty explain why palpably clever people often claim to be not much different from the average? Probably. Whenever some famous figure in science tries to cheer us all up by confessing that they failed at school, or developed very late, I wonder if they are simply showing that they are clever enough to realize that the clever thing to do is to avoid being judged “too clever by half”.

In the spirit of empirical enquiry, we should request their entire series of school reports, and any further test results and higher education achievements. Without those we have no need to believe stories simply designed to make us feel good.

 
• Category: Science 
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  1. Churchill is the epitome of the obsessively Anglo-American contingent in British politics, the sort who are most pro-Brexit. Boris Johnson is very much a continuation of that sort of mentality, he regards himself as something of an heir to Churchill. The reality is most Americans are not pro-British at all, just look at how Trump is treating the family of the man killed by the wife of an American “diplomat” in a hit and run. Trump is treating the UK no better than he would treat Iran or North Korea and Brexiteers think the US is the country that is going to give the UK a favourable trade deal? Absurd.

    A lot of British people naively believe that the Americans see us as a brother nation, but they are living in the past. Americans are at best completely indifferent to Britain and often hostile towards it, there are certainly very few Americans who feel any sense of kinship with England especially. It’s not a popular opinion these days but I believe that most Europeans respect Britain more and see Britain as an equal far more than America does. Some of the most rabidly anti-British rhetoric I’ve ever heard has been from Americans, the opinion of “Irish-Americans” has a lot of influence on mainstream American thought, especially in regards to the British.

    • Replies: @Dan Hayes
  2. res says:

    Was Churchill really no good at school?

    Answer: he was in the top third of his class in all subjects, and towards the top in History and English.

    Any thoughts on how selective his schools were? Top third of a population which is top ten percent itself is rather different from top third of everyone.

    • Replies: @James Thompson
  3. @res

    Considered a preparatory school for Eton, so posh, and reasonably selective.

    St George’s was founded in 1877 by The Reverend Herbert William Sneyd-Kynnersley as a boys’ Prep School, with 41 pupils housed in what is now Markham. Sneyd-Kynnersley is listed on the Plantagenet Roll as being of Royal Blood and was the son of a Birmingham magistrate. He taught Greek and Latin, publishing books on those subjects – ‘Greek and Latin for Beginners’ and ‘Latin Prose Composition‘ – both still available to buy now on the internet.

    From 1882 to 1884 Winston Churchill was a pupil at St George’s, starting at the tender age of seven. He refers to the school in his book ‘My Early Life’, as “one of the most fashionable and expensive in the country. It modelled itself upon Eton and aimed at being preparatory for that Public School. It was supposed to be the very latest thing in schools; only ten boys in a class; electric light; a swimming pond; spacious football and cricket grounds; a chapel of its own.”

    The school then consisted of only three rooms and, in one of them, Churchill was set the task of learning the declension of ‘mensa’ on his first day at St George’s. The Headmaster believed in cruel floggings, some of which were inflicted on young Winston and after a very unhappy two years his parents removed him from the school.

    • Replies: @res
    , @Gordo
  4. res says:
    @James Thompson

    Thanks! If I understand correctly from your article he went to St. George’s, then Hove: https://www.mybrightonandhove.org.uk/topics/topicedu/schools-2/schools-2
    then Harrow:
    https://winstonchurchill.org/publications/finest-hour/finest-hour-134/spencer-churchill-p-at-harrow-school-1888-1892/

    Any thoughts on how selective the latter two schools were? Looking at the second link, this seems notable to me:

    Scholastically his main achievement was to pass the preliminary exam for Sandhurst which, he was the first to admit, was owed to a colossal piece of luck. He knew he would be required to draw a map. He put the names of principal countries into a hat, and pulled out “New Zealand” memorizing its topography. The first question in the exam paper was, “Draw a map of New Zealand”! He failed the main exam twice and after leaving Harrow he had to go to a “crammer” in London in order to satisfy the Civil Service Commissioners.

    Leaving aside the “underplaying his abilities” intro, that seems like a decent way to bracket Churchill’s intelligence. Smart enough to pass the Sandhurst exam (any thoughts on what threshold that would be?), but not easily.

    This seems even more significant and contains some good detail:
    https://www.nationalchurchillmuseum.org/winston-churchills-military-career.html

    “For years I thought my father, with his experience and flair, had discerned in me the qualities of military genius. But I was told later that he had only come to the conclusion that I was not clever enough to go to the Bar.”

    For young gentlemen of Winston’s social class only certain professions were considered suitable. The university was the gatekeeper to all but the military, and Winston’s poor performance at school closed the university’s doors to him.

    Winston’s lack of attention to studies nearly ended his military career before it began. He took three attempts to pass the entrance exams for the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, scoring just enough points to be admitted to the Cavalry, but not the Infantry.

    Lord Randolph had hoped for at least an infantry career for his son, and was deeply disappointed.

    The Cavalry became a source of both joy and tension for Winston. Riding became a passion and he proved exceptionally good at it. However, since the British Officer had to pay for his own uniforms and horses, Cavalry service taxed his family’s financial resources.

    But, at Sandhurst Winston finally hit his stride, applying himself to subjects that interested him and earning good marks. “I was no longer handicapped by past neglect of Latin, French or Mathematics. We had now to learn fresh things and we all started equal. Tactics, Fortification, Topography [mapmaking], Military Law and Military Fortification, formed the whole curriculum. In addition were Drill, Gymnastics and Riding.” Churchill found his work at Sandhurst exciting. He drew contoured maps of the hills in the area, designed paper plans for the advanced guards and rear guards, and even thought up simple tactical schemes. He learned how to blow up masonry bridges and make substitute bridges out of wood.

    Sandhurst’s eighteen months of practical studies concluded Winston’s formal education, and he graduated 20th out of 130.

    His Sandhurst performance sounds like the best guide. For judging someone’s intelligence I think it is best to look for a case where they are both interested and motivated.

    P.S. I am not sure exactly how to evaluate poshness and intellectual selectivity. My sense is they are correlated, but perhaps not as much as in today’s more test-centric environment (cf. Harvard then with today).

    • Replies: @res
    , @James Thompson
  5. res says:
    @res

    One other thing that comes to mind. When we talk about topics like “Churchill (or Feynman, who I think is an even better example) was only so smart yet accomplished all of this” I think it would be helpful to try to separate that into multiple components.
    1. How smart were they?
    2. How good/bad were various measures along their trajectory at detecting this?
    3. What other abilities did they possess and how might we be better at detecting those early?

    My thinking is that the limitations imposed by 2. are extremely important and speak to the desirability of having multiple opportunities during life to prove one’s abilities rather than testing once at age 6 (or even 16, though that would be better) and being restricted to that (either explicitly or implicitly–say by not being able to catch up because the poor assessment forecloses good enough education to catch up later). I think the US system is actually quite good for that. Even if one fumbles badly early it should still be possible to make it to some college and then through a combination of ability and hard work (if both present) there make it to a good grad school.

    The difficult issue I see with that decomposition is detecting the difference between 1. and 2. Was a 125 IQ a fair assessment for Feynman at that age, or was there an issue with the test (e.g. verbal biased), or his own performance (“bad day” or just inadequate education thus far).

    Another random thought. Do you think attempting to estimate physical maturity (e.g. height, dental status) and using that to normalize IQ test results rather than age would be more or less accurate? (accuracy being measured by correspondence with adult results)

    • Replies: @dearieme
  6. Churchill sounds somewhat dyspraxic. I read his autobiography decades ago. I thought that he was fond of maths, in particular algebra. Success is for intellectually adequate doers not brilliant thinkers.

    • Replies: @Kratoklastes
  7. Dan Hayes says:
    @Europe Nationalist

    Europe Nationalist:

    The good Hitchens, Peter, has documented the markedly subservient position of Britain vs-a-vis the United States starting in World War II. One interesting vignette was how Admiral Arleigh Burke was chomping at the bit to sink the British fleet during the Suez Crisis.

    On another matter. Contrary to what you state, whatever influence Irish-Americans had on America’s foreign policy essentially ceased with Ireland’s separation from England. Domestically, Irish-Americans retain influence, albeit diminishing.

    • Replies: @for-the-record
  8. @res

    For judging someone’s intelligence I think it is best to look for a case where they are both interested and motivated.

    Precisely.

    Thanks for these additional references. I was drawn by the biography into reading further and adding more, but felt I had made my point by covering his school achievements. Your additions are very helpful.

    The key point is to consider achievements, not predictive tests. “What did they achieve?” is the important question.

  9. he really screwed up in ww1 though

    • Replies: @gT
  10. dearieme says:

    Why did Churchill underplay his abilities?

    Politicians like to make claims that sound modest but also let them present themselves as triumphing over adversity. Churchill could hardly try the prolier-than-thou card so he played another.

    I understand that Lloyd George did play the prolier-than-thou card, his circumstances in childhood being much more comfortable than he claimed.

  11. dearieme says:
    @res

    Is there good reason to believe Feynman?

    • Replies: @res
  12. dearieme says:

    Dr T, a perhaps relevant question, if I may. I’ve remarked before that entry to the second highest stream at my secondary school required an IQ (we were told) of 118.

    It occurs to me to wonder whether the schools of that era might have tended to use IQ tests with standard deviation 18: did such exist?

    • Replies: @James Thompson
  13. @dearieme

    Don’t know. Most of them fell in line with sd 15 but there may have been exceptions. Of course, the standardisation sample can be set to 15, but what you find in real life is often lower. Perhaps standardisation samples are too kind to the extremes.

  14. gT says:
    @grey enlightenment2

    As Churchill said “Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm”. Its only good backing which allows that to happen.

    • Replies: @dfordoom
  15. res says:
    @dearieme

    Is there good reason to believe Feynman?

    First, a detailed reference for the story. The story appears in No Ordinary Genius (I have seen it attributed to Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! but have been unable to find it there).
    https://www.amazon.com/No-Ordinary-Genius-Illustrated-Richard/dp/039331393X

    Here is the IQ story in context. It appears on page 25 and is in the index as “IQ of” under the entries for both Feynman and his sister.

    Did he ever speculate on where he got his ability? (this appears to be a question from an interview with his sister)
    No. He thought it was just from doing a large number of problems over and over. But a couple of days before his death we were talking about this—the fact that when he did physics it turned out right, and when he wrote a book it became a best-seller, how no matter what he did it seemed to just happen like that. I said to him, “You know, there is a possible solution to this which we have never seriously considered.” He said, “What’s that?” “That you really are smarter than other people.” And he looked shocked. Oh, no! That he would not consider. You know, he had a normal IQ. When I was a kid, I sneaked off and got into the files and looked up our IQs. Mine was 124, and his was 123. So I was actually smarter than he was!

    This part says a great deal: “That he would not consider.” But the IQ test results story does appear credible to me. If a bit too pat from the joking sibling rivalry point of view.

    I do think it possible (likely even) that Feynman took multiple IQ-type tests (e.g. college and graduate school admissions tests) and he and/or his sister found it amusing to focus on the lowest.

    And of course, we have no details about the actual test circumstances (e.g. the ceiling). But best guess is it was administered fairly early and was verbally biased.

    • Replies: @dearieme
    , @Budd Dwyer
  16. Svevlad says:

    He’s also a lil shit who threw us under the bus in probably the most convoluted scheme ever

    https://thesaker.is/the-wests-long-war-against-serbia-the-paradoxes-of-yugoslav-history/

  17. dearieme says:
    @res

    I sneaked off and got into the files and looked up our IQs.

    What files? Was it usual in the US for someone (their father/mother?) to keep a file of IQ results? I can’t say that I find the anecdote convincing but then I’m a furriner so my instincts may well be wrong on this.

    The only IQ tests I did as a child were for streaming purposes at school. The results were confidential – property of the County Education Committee, I assume – apart from what you could deduce from the stream you were assigned to. I have no reason to think that any of us knew our score or that any of our parents did.

    By contrast our exam results at university were public knowledge – pinned to noticeboards for passersby to look at, and – some of them – published in the newspapers.

    Maybe only because I am familiar with it, but I think that’s a pretty good balance between what should be private and what should be public.

    • Replies: @res
    , @James J. O'Meara
  18. res says:
    @dearieme

    What files?

    Presumably they were school files. I thought I read that somewhere else but am unsure if it was speculation or knowledge.

    There is a bit of a myth surrounding “the permanent record” in the US which may affect how this is thought about.
    https://study.com/blog/debunking-the-myth-of-the-permanent-record.html

    Wikipedia says it was a high school test and the result was 125.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Feynman#Education
    They cite Gleick’s biography of Feynman. But I find the reference there even less convincing than the anecdote from Joan I referenced above (note the 123/125 discrepancy, not sure if they are talking about the same or different tests):

    And when he started high school, he came home upset by the apparent triviality of Algebra 1. He went into his sister’s room and asked, “Joanie, if 2^x is equal to 4 and x is an unknown number, can you tell me what x is?” Of course she could, and Richard wanted to know why he should have to learn anything so obvious in high school. The same year, he could see just as easily what x must be if 2^x was 32. The school quickly switched him into Algebra 2, taught by Miss Moore, a plump woman with an exquisite sense of discipline. Her class ran as a roundelay of problem solving, the students making a continual stream to and from the blackboard. Feynman was slightly ill at ease among the older students, but he already let friends know that he thought he was smarter. Still, his score on the school IQ test was a merely respectable 125.

    That “he was smarter” bit makes an interesting contrast with the other account.

    Back to you.

    The only IQ tests I did as a child were for streaming purposes at school. The results were confidential – property of the County Education Committee, I assume – apart from what you could deduce from the stream you were assigned to. I have no reason to think that any of us knew our score or that any of our parents did.

    I’m actually not sure what they used to stream us (and streaming is fairly verboten in the current year here). I always assumed standardized tests (subject, not IQ, taken at variable intervals, resolution about 1%–at least published, not sure if higher ceiling raw data was available) but had the impression there was some “discretion” involved there (mainly occasional grumbles about parental influence, or lack thereof for the lower tracks) . The results of most standardized tests were given to the parents and students (and we compared them, of course), but I don’t think they were public.

    I took a test (I think IQ type) very early in school. I think that was standard for my school but not sure if it was (or is) typical for the US. Pretty sure they told my parents the results (if only in vague terms). Not sure if that was typical either. The reaction of my parents was kind of weird. Didn’t tell me the results (I should ask now, never did then, or at least never got a straight answer ; ) but from the tone and oblique comments I think I hit the ceiling (I don’t think it was that high) which may have affected the whole process. Part of the reason I seem ignorant about the process above is because I got a pretty big dose of “this isn’t to be talked about” regarding all of this.

    By contrast our exam results at university were public knowledge – pinned to noticeboards for passersby to look at, and – some of them – published in the newspapers.

    That’s interesting. This was by name? When they posted university exam results for us publicly (typically on the office door of the professor) they did it by numerical code (I can’t remember what they used though). I believe the only reason they posted the results was to avoid dozens (or hundreds for some classes) of calls asking “how did I do?”

    Maybe only because I am familiar with it, but I think that’s a pretty good balance between what should be private and what should be public.

    It seems reasonable. I think there could be some benefit from telling parents the early IQ results (if only in vague terms) but could see possible downsides as well. Pretty sure some in the US would object to the public exam results. I think the British are (were?) a bit more practical about things like that than Americans are. The “equality” idea is strong here.

    P.S. Your instincts may very well be right. To be more nuanced in my view, I find the anecdote plausible enough to not be worth arguing about without additional evidence (better to focus on other data IMHO). But I am also skeptical enough that I would not want to base any kind of important conclusion on its accuracy.

  19. dearieme says:

    That’s interesting. This was by name?

    Oh yes. Nowadays there has been a reaction against the habit – students (or attendees) don’t want even their classmates to know their exam results. So in future there will presumably be much more lying about university performance because nobody will be able to pipe up “that’s not what it said on the class list”.

    There has been one improvement since my time as an undergraduate: student examination scripts are anonymised so that the examiners don’t know which script is which candidate’s – short of fraud or connivance anyway. Or, to be precise, that had become the system in my last university job.

    We also had the arrangement that questions would be set and scripts marked by people who had not taught the course in that academic year. The advantage of that custom is pretty obvious. And in spite of massive pressure from the central admin, we managed to beat back the nagging to make a much larger proportion of marks depend on “continuous assessment” rather than traditional examination.

    What we did not do was put up much of a struggle against “grade inflation”. It was the result of departments and universities competing in a market that itself makes no sense – unlike a conventional market in, say, potatoes. You know where you stand with potatoes.

  20. res says:

    Thanks.

    students (or attendees)

    LOL. Is attendees going to become a new catchphrase here? I’m sure you remember the association, but for future reference:
    http://www.unz.com/tsaker/south-africa-and-the-gold-standard/#comment-3500241

    P.S. I had not noticed this before. Why is that article showing up under tsaker rather than jthompson?

  21. @Dan Hayes

    One interesting vignette was how Admiral Arleigh Burke . . . whatever influence Irish-Americans had on America’s foreign policy . . .

    Interestingly, it seems his grandfather changed his Swedish name Björkgren to the Irish name Burke to make it sound more American.

    • Agree: Dan Hayes
  22. @dearieme

    My memory is a little fuzzy on the circumstances, but in my Catholic grade school back in the 60s, we were given an IQ test and the results were either given to each student in confidence but subsequently bragged about or hidden in shame, or someone stole the results. Either way, I learned my supposed IQ which, I’m glad to say, seems to have been a bit higher than Feynman’s.

    Also, unlike Feynman, I’ve take a few IQ tests and must report that I get the same number, which is either proof of a massive conspiracy or proves the reality of IQ as a measurable entity.

  23. He was a drunk at school.

    A despicable POS.

    • Replies: @Tony
  24. dfordoom says: • Website
    @gT

    As Churchill said “Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm”. Its only good backing which allows that to happen.

    Churchill’s colleagues and contemporaries never thought of him as stupid. They thought of him as treacherous, utterly lacking in principles and possessed of appallingly bad judgment.

    What made Churchill so dangerous and such a disastrous political leader was the fact that he combined being treacherous, unprincipled and possessed of appallingly bad judgment with being fairly intelligent.

    Intelligence is not a particularly important ingredient in a good political leader.

    • Replies: @CanSpeccy
  25. Always help the voter believe himself to be brighter than he is.

    Honolulu politician Hiram Kawasaki taught his son Guy, the venture capitalist, always to dress better than the audience, to show them respect.

  26. @res

    Not that it is indicative of verbal intelligence but Feynman also sounded like a cab driver out of 1950’s Brooklyn, not William F. Buckley, Jr (Btw, WFB’s first language was Spanish, not English). I recall Buckley confessing (interview/book?) that his quick mind was mistaken for intelligence. If you’ve been around Irish you will know that they have great verbal dexterity and quick and clever minds. Yet they score low on IQ tests. Buckley, btw, was Irish.

    Ron Unz article:

    First, Lynn was hardly unique among leading IQ experts in characterizing the Irish as being low IQ. For example, Hans Eysenck, one of the foremost IQ researchers of the 20th century said exactly the same thing in his 1971 book “Race, Intelligence, & Education,” claiming that the Irish IQ was very close to that of American blacks, and that the Irish/English IQ gap was almost exactly the same size as the black/white gap in the U.S., being roughly a full standard deviation. Eysenck’s stated position unsurprisingly caused a considerable furor in the British media, including all sorts of angry responses and even (facetious) threats of violence. So the huge and apparently well-designed 1972 study of 3,466 Irish schoolchildren which placed the mean Irish IQ at just 87 hardly seems an absurd outlier…

    https://www.theamericanconservative.com/2012/08/14/raceiq-irish-iq-chinese-iq/

  27. Tony says:
    @Robert Dolan

    Sounds like the pot calling the kettle black (an irishman accusing someone else of being a drunk). Churchill was a great man You couldnt even shine his shoes.

  28. @Philip Owen

    Success is for intellectually adequate doers not brilliant thinkers.

    I kind of agree, if “success” is measured in dollars or political power. Genuinely smart people aren’t that interested in either; all the ‘driven’ people are in the second decile, at best.

  29. CanSpeccy says: • Website
    @dfordoom

    What made Churchill so dangerous and such a disastrous political leader was the fact that he combined being treacherous, unprincipled and possessed of appallingly bad judgment

    During the 1930’s Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin declaimed in the House of Commons Winston Churchill’s political epitaph:

    When Winston was born lots of fairies swooped down on his cradle with gifts–imagination, eloquence, industry, ability–and then came a fairy who said ‘No one person has a right to so many gifts,’ picked him up and gave him such a shake and twist that with all these gifts he was denied judgment and wisdom.

    But then Churchill became Prime Minister and proved Baldwin wrong by being correct in his judgement of the key issues, both prior to the second world war, and in his direction of Britain’s war with Germany, namely:

    The threat posed by German rearmament and the need for Britain to undertake a massive build-up of the air-force: a policy that was adopted by the Chamberlain`s government and which enabled Britain to defeat theLuftwaffe onslaught during the battle of Britain;

    The necessity (for Britain and France) of bringing the US into the war, an eventuality that Churchill assiduously promoted by, among other things, establishing a lengthy correspondence with FDR long before his return to government;

    The need to retain control of the ME oil fields, to which end Churchill directed Britain’s major WW2 military campaigns prior to D-day;

    The need to delay formation of a Western front until Russia and Germany had bled one another near to death, then to ensure that the victor in the East would face overwhelming resistance should they transfer all of their forces to the Western front in a drive to the Atlantic coast. In this, Churchill angered both Stalin and the Americans, but it was a policy that minimized British casualties, while allowing for the massive Anglo-American build-up to the Normandy landings, which ensured their success and thus the containment of the Soviet Union.

    So for all the blunders during his first decades in government, beginning in 1905, Churchill’s direction of British policy during WW2 was, contrary to Ron Unz’s absurd exposition, exemplary. Churchill’s career thus demonstrates a general principal, which is that experience counts, and very long experience counts most of all. And, in the case of Churchill, long experience was combined with an extraordinary gift for motivating communication, a gift that was clearly evident from Churchill’s early school days and acknowledged by his teachers, including in letters to his parents by Reverend Welldon, the Headmaster of Harrow.

    • Replies: @CanSpeccy
    , @dearieme
  30. CanSpeccy says: • Website
    @CanSpeccy

    In speaking of Ron Unz’s absurd exposition, I was referring to his Understanding WWII, wherein, with a very large amount of very breathless prose he asserts with very great confidence and very many too many adjectives, especially the very ineffective amplifier “very,” not only that Winston Churchill was the cause of everything evil that happened in World War II, thereby demonstrating Churchill’s very low IQ and very bad morals, but also asserting in the comments section an extraordinary and quite untenable view of my own mental capacity, thereby proving that having an IQ of 214 doesn’t mean very much at all when it comes to grappling with the complexities of historical reality.

    • LOL: AaronB
    • Replies: @AaronB
  31. dearieme says:
    @CanSpeccy

    My father, who fought in WWII, once cautioned me not to join the Churchill worshippers.

    He did emphasise, though, that Churchill was the man for the hour in 1940.

    Without getting near to worshipping him I will point to Churchill’s excellent decision, before WWI, to convert the Royal Navy from coal to oil.

    • Replies: @CanSpeccy
  32. CanSpeccy says: • Website
    @dearieme

    My father, who fought in WWII, once cautioned me not to join the Churchill worshippers.

    Likewise, my father served in WWII, but never, that I recall, uttered a word of approval for Churchill. In his case, and that of many others of your father’s generation, Churchill’s aggressive action to crush the power of striking coal miners in Wales immediately prior to WW1 and his equally aggressive posture toward unionized labor during the general strike was the cause of everlasting distrust.

    In hindsight, however, Churchill seems to have been right in principal. By the early years of the 20th Century unionized labor had achieved close to monopoly power over industry, as spelled out in George Dangerfield’s The Strange Death of Liberal England. When the Welsh miners struck in 1910-11, they were backed by other unions with the power to bring much of the British economy to a standstill.

    The question of the proper limits to labor union power was shelved as a consequence of the First World War, and did not re-emerge as a key question until the 30’s when, again, Churchill took a lead in the fight to limit labor union monopoly power.

    The General Strike was followed by a period of relative labor:management truce, in part due to legislative action, which lasted throughout the war and through the third Churchill administration (1951-55), the latter a period of broad concessions to labor that greatly undermined Britain’s economic competitiveness.

    But the issue of labor monopolism was not resolved in Britain until Margaret Thatcher broke the miners’ strike, after which, the decline of British industry was so far advanced that powerful industrial unions had ceased to exist.

    Without getting near to worshiping him I will point to Churchill’s excellent decision, before WWI, to convert the Royal Navy from coal to oil.

    In which connection it should be noted that Churchill was instrumental in the creation of British Petroleum out of the financially failing Anglo-Persian Oil Company.

  33. dearieme says:

    Oh, Churchill’s attitude to the unions was one of the things he got right. You have to remember that in both world wars the miners went on strike whenever it suited them. Hell, some of the dockers refused to load ships for the Normandy invasion.

    Indeed many unions set out to impede the war effort while Hitler was Stalin’s ally – it was only when the two ogres were fighting each other that the tendency to trouble declined. Perhaps the dockers in ’44 were out to impede the war effort again in hopes of Stalin driving on to the Channel coast.

    I’m not suggesting that all union members behaved on political grounds but that their officials often did. It took a brave man to defy union officials especially in the sort of industry where an industrial “accident” could kill you.

    No, the trouble with Churchill was that he was erratic, disloyal, consumed by ambition, hot-headed, and frequently lacked judgement. It was a stroke of luck that he had calmed down with age before he became PM.

  34. CanSpeccy says: • Website

    he was erratic,

    Meaning he did not have a one track mind but was capable of reviewing and revising both his aims, and his mode of operation

    … disloyal

    In politics, there are no friends. That is axiomatic, and Churchill was a life-long political animal.

    consumed by ambition

    There’s no evidence that Churchill was “consumed” by anything (including alcohol, of which he said “I have got more out of it that it has got out of me”), but sure he was ambitious. How else would he have achieved so much: ten million published words, the Nobel Prize for literature, participation in wars in Latin America, Asia, the Middle-East (where, in the Mahdist War, he rode in the last cavalry charge by British forces), Africa, and Europe, First Lord of the Admiralty (twice), Chancellor of the Exchequer, a fine artist, Prime Minister, Knight of the Garter (a dukedom declined), and a state funeral.

    hot-headed

    Meaning what exactly? I would say decisive and almost totally inner directed. Essential qualities in an effective leader.

    frequently lacked judgement

    Easy to say with hindsight. In reality, he earned for himself positions of power which he deployed without deference to conventional opinion, leading critics to label him lacking in judgment whenever his judgement proved counterproductive.

    It was a stroke of luck that he had calmed down with age before he became PM.

    Rather, I would say it was fortunate that the man who was Britain’s prime minister during WW2 possessed such a vast range of experience of government, communications and war.

    • Replies: @CanSpeccy
    , @James Thompson
  35. CanSpeccy says: • Website
    @CanSpeccy

    An aspect of the wisdom Churchill derived from his extraordinary career prior to becoming Prime Minister is reflected in the toast that he made at dinner at home with his family on the day he became Prime Minister: “Here’s to hoping I don’t bugger it up.”

  36. CanSpeccy says: • Website

    Agree.

    Glad that we have one point of agreement — probably among others.

    I believe you had some association with H.J. Eysenck who, in the last years of his life, was the world’s most cited living psychologist. As a teenager during the late Fifties, when I read not critically but to furnish my mind, I read several of Eysenck’s popular accounts of psychological research, and found them both readable and interesting. I also read his Journal of Consulting Psychology review article that found Freudian psychotherapy to be ineffective in the treatment of neurotic illness. That assessment was criticized here and no doubt elsewhere, but it persuaded me t0 delete the works of Sigmund Freud from my reading list, with a resultant saving of mental energy that has left me with a positive regard for Eysenck’s memory.

    Somewhat more recently, I read of Eysenck’s claim that smoking and cancer were related by virtue of one or more pleiotropic genes. This seemed remarkable to me having, as an accomplished teenage smoker, read the 1952 Doll and Hill epidemiological study covering 40,000 UK physicians, which showed a strong relationship between cigarette smoking and lung cancer.

    At the time, I assumed that Eysenck was making a cynical bid for tobacco-industry research funding. However, as you are probably aware, a more critical view has emerged, based in part on allegations of data fraud, and resulting in demands for the retraction of 61 journal articles of which Eysenck was author or co-author. If this critique of Eysenck’s later work is generally accepted, he could thus become the world champion of bad science.

    This seems a fascinating development in the history of psychology. I wonder if you have considered writing on the topic.

    • Replies: @James Thompson
  37. AaronB says:
    @CanSpeccy

    Funny on multiple levels.

    • Replies: @CanSpeccy
  38. CanSpeccy says: • Website
    @AaronB

    Funny…

    I guess I was being rude to our estimable host. Still he started it. The name calling, I mean. Said I was “an ignorant buffoon,” which seemed an extreme response to my saying his prose was rotten — I was only trying to be helpful. A publisher needs to know the technical side of the business, which includes editing, if he’s gonna earn money rather than burn it. So, as I said, he should drop every one of those superfluous”verys” (is that the correct plural of very), which are the literary equivalent of the er’s and ums of spoken discourse.

    As for being identified as a “buffoon,” that’s OK. The great Richard Feynman, no less, was widely regarded as a buffoon, albeit a magician as well. But “ignorant”? Ignorant of the events of World War II through which I lived? True, I had not long been conceived when my father assumed the uniform of a Royal Air Force cadet. Still, I’ve read the books, most anyhow, just not all of those that Ron Unz swears by.

  39. @CanSpeccy

    He was a great influence on me and my attitudes to psychotherapy research. I was in the PhD room of Eysenck’s department for two years, but not working for him. I had had a personal interview with him shortly after graduating, discussing research I was doing on the pursuit rotor task, and that might have helped him agree to my having my precious 24 inches of carrel desk space.

    He was a distant figure, but sometimes came to discuss analytic points with his direct researchers. He was not verbose. “Try rotating the factors” was a typical comment.

    I also knew his first wife slightly, his second wife, and his son by his first wife, with whom I worked on some PhD exams, and liked very much.

    I have discussed his legacy with other researchers who knew or worked with him, and the general feeling was that his early career was best, and then the tobacco late period very weak, if not worse.p
    No plans to write him up. Better to do modern work on personality, and intelligence.

    • Replies: @CanSpeccy
  40. CanSpeccy says: • Website
    @James Thompson

    Thanks for the interesting personal note.

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