LEADING CHURCHILL MYTHS: FINEST HOUR 124, AUTUMN 2004
“He was a Dunce at School”
This long-running canard, like X his alleged abuse of alcohol (Myth 1, 7// 111:33) mainly began with Churchill’s writings, chiefly in his autobiography My Early Life, where he recounts his school travails. His intent was apparently to illustrate that even one who had done badly at school could make something of himself; but he exaggerated his failures.
The best rebuttal to this long-running myth is Jim Gotland’s Not Winston, Just William? (Harrow: Herga Press 1988). The book is a revisionist account of Churchill’s Harrow schooldays—revisionist in that it proved that he was not the dunce he and others said he was.
Golland notes, for example, that anyone who could recite 1200 lines of Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome, or write a credible prediction of an attack on Russia which presaged what actually happened in World War I, could not be stupid.
Golland also considered it highly unlikely that Churchill had entered Harrow without knowing any Latin, as WSC implies in My Early Life, where he says the only marks on his Latin paper were his name and a large blob of ink. Latin at Harrow was a prerequisite, even for Lord Randolph Churchill’s son.
The bottom line is that Churchill was mediocre at what bored him, and very good at what interested him: English and History, for example. Once he left Harrow for the Royal Military College at Sandhurst, which emphasized subjects that really captivated him, like military history, tactics and strategy, he finished near the top of his class.