Letter: Degree of respect

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The Independent Culture
Sir: Oliver James's questioning of the worth of a first-class degree ("Let's put some first things last", 8 September) seems to be based on a rather feeble mixture of personal prejudice and spurious research.

So someone who attains a First can be safely dismissed as a teacher's pet with no mind of their own? In which case should the call go out to all high-achieving students halfway through their courses to ease off and "get a life", before their psychologically unhealthy efforts at learning dampen their independent spirits?

Oliver James leaps from a reasonable premise - "the academic grading system is not successful in bringing out the best in many people" - to a quite unreasonable conclusion - "a first-class degree is therefore nothing special and, indeed, even to aim for one risks compromising your development as an adult". He backs this up with statistics which show that a large proportion of first-class graduates choose academic rather than business careers and consequently "do not have particularly distinguished careers".

This is nonsense. The award of a First is a recognition of special achievement, often of an originality of argument which goes beyond the primary need to demonstrate adequate understanding of a subject. It therefore encourages the very independence of mind that Oliver James holds dear. Unfortunately it is often those who had, as he puts it, "an unhealthy impulse to please adults", who deny themselves the mental flexibility and autonomy required to produce genuinely first-class work. This certainly applied to me at university in spite of the indifference I liked to affect in the face of exams, and it probably applies to most young people with expectant parents.

Rather than disparage the efforts of those who get the top marks at university, we should devote our attention to the age-old question of how, through the teaching system, the child's natural desire to learn can be kept stronger than its equally natural desire to impress.


Helensburgh, Dunbartonshire