Don’t lose heart if your teacher in school thinks you are a failure, says Nobel laureate Sir John Gurdon, for his teacher thought so too.

On two afternoons last week the University Commonwealth Society held its customary tea parties, designed to welcome students from a wide variety of Commonwealth countries who have just arrived in Cambridge at the beginning of the academic year. If you wanted a good demonstration of the international nature of the University of Cambridge, you could hardly find a better example. Students from a large number of countries, and representing a wide range of academic disciplines, gathered in a pleasant room in one of the colleges, to enjoy that essentially English phenomenon: tea, sandwiches and cakes.

These welcoming tea parties are organised by the Society every year, and they provide a good opportunity, at the beginning of the academic year, for newly arrived students to meet others, from different countries, and also meet some of the existing student body, there as hosts.

The Society, which has been in existence for more than 20 years, is run by students (with two “permanent” Cambridge residents providing continuity, which students, for obvious reasons, cannot do).

There are two reasons why I am writing about the tea parties and the Society. One is that, each year, they provide an encouraging reminder of the hugely international nature of Cambridge University. It is probably the most international of all United Kingdom universities. This international quality is certainly one of the greatest strengths of the university, particularly in an age when scholarship is never constrained by national boundaries. The manifest ability of the students coming each year from all over the world is a reminder that the scholarly base is being continually renewed.

The second reason is that the tea parties also provide an important reminder of the fact that one of the great strengths of a collegiate university is that people from all academic disciplines are able to meet, and challenge, each other. Those attending the tea parties have an early opportunity to meet not just fellow students from many different countries, but also fellow students from many different academic disciplines.

They are, of course, social occasions, not occasions for solemn academic discussion, but they do encourage the newly arrived students to be aware of this feature of sharing widely varied academic backgrounds.

By interesting coincidence, in the same week there was an impressive reminder of the academic distinction of Cambridge, with the announcement by the Nobel Assembly of the award of a Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine to distinguished Cambridge scientist, Professor Sir John Gurdon (a prize shared with the Japanese Professor Shinya Yamanaka). The prize is for work, over half a century, on cells, work which the Nobel Assembly said had “revolutionised our understanding of how cells and organisms develop”.

Give up? never

Sir John’s entry to the world of scientific research was not straightforward. When he was 15 his teacher (at Eton College) was scathing about his scientific ambitions, describing them as “quite ridiculous”. (Sir John still keeps a framed copy of that report in his office.) In an interview he advised people not to be disheartened by initial failures at school. He declared: “If you’re really interested in something, keep going – don’t give up”.

Sir John’s school experience suggests another truth: views and predictions by “experts” should never be treated as if they were sacrosanct. Experts can be wrong. I am not of course suggesting that experts should automatically be disbelieved. That would be ridiculous. Their expertise is important, and it should clearly always be taken seriously. The point that I am making is that in considering what experts say, it is important not to close one’s mind. It is important to consider not just the views but the evidence for them. It is important to examine things critically. That does not of course mean that one should be sceptical.

As I thought about all this, my mind was drawn back to the tea parties. They are a celebration of the academic and intellectual strength of Cambridge. This is not to suggest that the people attending are future Nobel prize-winners. It is possible that the tea party gatherings may have included a future Nobel prize-winner. It is certainly likely that a number of the tea party people will go on to distinguished careers – academic and otherwise – in their various countries.

Talking to them, and seeing how they were relating to each other, provided good evidence that they are people with critical minds. That is why they were selected to study in Cambridge. That is why these annual tea parties are such an encouraging social ritual.

Bill Kirkman is an Emeritus Fellow of Wolfson College Cambridge, UK.


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