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DD Phiri Insight: How much education do you need to succeed


In a recent advertisement for a group chief executive, applicants were required to have masters degrees or preferably PhD.

Those with bachelor’s degrees were assumed to be not capable enough to manage a conglomerate; yet when we probe history we find some of the greatest achievers started their working life with very little education. Those who were graduates had only third class first degree. A few samples will do for an article of this length.

Isaac Newton (1642-1727) is recognised as one of the most famous scientists whoever lived. Of him Benjamin Franklin wrote “God said let there be Isaac Newton and there was light”.


Newton’s earlier schooldays showed him to be a poor student. Some of his classmates laughed at him. However, by dint of hard work he managed to come out of Cambridge University with a third class BA degree.

Prodigious genius and prodigious energy are inseparable twins; when Newton was in his laboratory doing experiments he would even forget meals. He discovered the law of gravity, the law of motion and the differential calculus thereby making significant contribution to the study of optics.

Newton’s most famous publication Principia Mathematica laid foundation and direction of modern science.


Rosseau, Jean Jacques (1712-1778) a Swiss French left school at the age of 12.

He could not have attended the equivalent of modern high school yet he became one of the most famous men of letters of his time.

He was a philosopher, political theorist and novelist.

His most famous book The Social Contract influenced the people who staged the French Revolution of 1789. He wrote on a variety of subjects including education social inequality and an autobiography.

Shakespeare, William (1564-1616) English poet and playwright. At the beginning of the 21st Century English people were asked to vote who had been their greatest contributor to British History, Shakespeare came top of the lot.

What was Shakespeare’s education? There is a good deal of uncertainty. He seems to have obtained an equivalent of the present O-Level and failed to go to Oxford to study for a degree because his father a businessman became insolvent.

He went to London and became an actor and playwright.

He wrote a total of 37 plays which contributed to be regarded as the best in the English language. According to some people Shakespeare was the world’s largest playwright who ever lived.

Churchill Winston Spencer (1874-1965) British statesman, author and Prime Minister during World War II. English people voted Churchill the second greatest English person of the millennium that had just ended.

The son of a cabinet minister Randolph Churchill attended Harrow one of the Britain’s most famous public schools. He failed exams in classic and maths much to the disappointment of his father.

He however concentrated on the study of English and History. All the same, he failed to get admission to Oxford University. After schooldays, he served in the army going as far as India and Cuba.

He practised freelance journalism and the writing of biographies as well as histories.

He was keenly interested in politics.

After one or two false starts, he was elected to parliament.

After the British army had been driven off Dunkirk by Hitler, King George VI appointed Churchill as Prime Minister. This was in 1940.

He inspired the British people thus “We shall fight on the beaches… we shall fight in the hills, we shall never surrender”. In alliance with the United States and the Soviet Union, Britain eventually defeated Hitler’s Germany in 1845.

Franklin Benjamin born in 1706 in Boston, United States son of an immigrant tallow-chandler. Benjamin had only two years schooling.

But from the time he left school he devoted himself to self-education. He studied French, Latin, German Spanish, Mathematics, Science and many other things. Of him it was said he was a jack of all trades and master of some.

At the age of 15 he started writing articles for his brother’s paper. The New English courant. He later went and made permanent home in the city of Philadelphia, became a successful printer, owner of popular newspaper The Pennsylvania Gazette.

He published Poor Richards Almanac a calendar diary with poems and aphorism which sold 10,000 copies annually.

In 1748 he handed his business to a partner and turned to scientific and political activitries.He invented several modern devices including the lightning conductor.

He was one of the leaders of the American revolution and founding father of the United States. When asked the secrets of his success as a business man, he said “Remember that time is money. The way to wealth is as plain as the way to market…It depends chiefly on two words, industry and frugality.”

Though the people we have profiled left school or college without flying colours, they never stopped learning. It was not the humble education that gave them success but their life-long study. Whoever stops learning after taking his degree will be overtaken by those he left.

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