The power of intellectual curiosity

YourLifeChoices’ 91-and-a-half-year-old columnist Peter Leith reflects on the importance of participating in your own education as early as possible.

Dad was born in 1897, in one of the more ‘disadvantaged’ areas of Greenock [Scotland], which was not itself an affluent city. On 24 November 1914, three weeks after his 17th birthday and after walking from Glasgow, Dad enlisted at Stirling Castle in the 2nd Battalion of the Argyle and Sutherland Highlanders.

Apart from patriotism, his motive was that if he survived the war, his ‘grateful country’ would give him the high school education he could not otherwise afford.

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After three-and-a-half years in the trenches, he was shot through the left lung but survived to go to accounting school.

Despite the stigma of mum’s illegitimacy on both of them, mum and her mother both trained and qualified to become bilingual (French/English) teachers at high school level. Both had to struggle with a shortage of money to get their education. 

Given their background, it is not surprising that mum and dad placed a high value on educating their sons John (Jack) and Peter (me), who were born in 1927 and 1929.

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Both boys were born in India, where their parents met and married. Given the parents’ attitude to education and the limited resources in India at that time, it was unsurprising that both boys were taught to read at a very early age. There was, quite simply, no other way to learn.

Long before their first voyage to school in England, both boys were reading (and speaking) well above their age-group norms. Neither parent encouraged or even accepted ‘baby talk’. 

The boys were given a 10-volume set of Arthur Mee’s The Children’s Encyclopaedia at a very early age.

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Questions such as, “Mummy, daddy, what is …?” were, most often, met with a tender but firm, “You know where the books are, go and look it up”. And we did.

Both the place in which we lived and the era contributed to the absolute need for ‘self education’ and reading was just about the only way of doing that.

Even telephones were a rarity. Radio was short-wave BBC only and even records were wind-up gramophone only.

Any and all other whizz-bang electronic communication mediums that bedevil us today were all decades and a couple of continents away.

Brother Jack and I were fortunate to discover, at an early age, Rudyard Kipling’s wonderful poem, I Keep Six Honest Serving-Men.

I keep six honest serving-men
(They taught me all I knew);
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who.
I send them over land and sea,
I send them east and west;
But after they have worked for me,
I give them all a rest.

Were you encouraged to be curious and self-motivated as a child? Or are you now? Do too many parents now entrust their children’s education solely to ‘the system’?

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Written by Peter Leith



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