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School Experiences
While Peter was still in grade school, the family moved back to England and lived in an apartment in suburban London. Soon thereafter, his mother and father returned to Rio and left Peter and his brother in an English boarding school. Many people think of English boarding schools as an elite educational experience, preparing students for premier English colleges such as Oxford or Cambridge. In  Peter Medawar's day, however, many such boarding schools had low standards, poorly qualified teachers, and run-down facilities. The students came from average families, not wealth. Such was the case with Peter and his boarding school.

His favorite teacher was a middle-aged, bald, language teacher who loved drinking his ale and was an avid football (soccer) fan. Reading and writing quickly became major activities for Peter. In later years, Peter became famous for the quality of his writing, not only in his scientific papers, but also in his essays on a variety of topics.

When he was thirteen, Peter's mother thought he should attend a "public" boarding school. Such schools in England were designed to train boys for leadership in the home civil service or for colonial administration and the foreign service. Peter hated his experience at the public boarding school. The school building itself had a prison-block design. The people were snobbish. Every boy had to take a cold bath every morning, even on the coldest days. The bathrooms were scrawled with dirty graffiti. Whippings were common. A great deal of authority was given to the boys themselves, who abused the privilege by bullying the boys with lesser authority. In addition to the usual abuse, Peter endured further harassment because his Middle Eastern facial features led others to assume that he was Jewish.

Peter was also disappointed because of his lack of athletic skills. If a boy did not have the talent to do well in sports, he was banished from sports and ridiculed around school. Just as today, a lot of emphasis was put on students' athletic talents when it came to winning approval and popularity.

Peter did encounter a teacher he admired--a biology teacher who inspired two other boys at the school to become university professors. He was a crude and aggressive man who was hired, Peter thought, to discredit science so that students would become more adept in other subjects which were deemed more relevant for leadership and government service.

So why did Peter, and the other boys too, like this man? Maybe it was because he did not put on airs, as did so many other teachers. Peter never figured out why he and the other students were inspired by this teacher. In any case, Peter quickly realized that he wanted to study biology in college.

Oxford Education
Peter Medawar applied for a scholarship to Oxford, but failed. He did, however, score well enough on the tests to be admitted as a "commoner," which is what the British call the regular undergraduate student. A new and much more civilized world opened for Peter at Oxford. At Oxford, students are grouped and housed as social units called "colleges." His college was Magdalen. Peter did not fit in well with many of those in Magdalen, but he did get along well with students who shared his interests in music and biology. The administrators of Magdalen College did not recruit students for their scholarship, but rather they wanted "regular guys" who would bring distinction to the college through sports and leadership activities. Thus, Peter encountered far too many of the same types of social snobs that he had lived with at boarding school. Despite the situation, Peter loved Oxford, for it was full of stimulating people of substance and high achievement.

In those days, Oxford had a 1:1 student teacher ratio. Teaching was administered through one on one tutoring. Students met their tutor once each week, while studying, completing lab and learning exercises, and writing papers between sessions. The tutor did not "lecture," nor provide factual information. The tutor's role was to guide students to the right books and papers, to set standards, to inspire a love for the subject, and to judge the adequacy of student achievement. Tutors had to be generalists in their subjects. Biology students, for example, did not go to a physiologist to learn physiology, an anatomist to learn anatomy, or a geneticist to learn genetics, etc. One tutor guided the learning in all aspects and specialties. Peter was lucky enough to have as one of his tutors, John Young, a famous neurobiologist, who helped him appreciate the breadth and inter-relatedness of all biology. Shortly after graduation, Peter himself became a tutor and found it to be "about the hardest work" he'd ever done.

As much as Peter generally enjoyed his tutoring experiences, he was quick to point out the problems. He summarized the problems as follows: "Some tutors are dull in themselves and a cause of dullness in others.... some tutors were lazy and self-indulgent."

 

 

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