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Darragh McManus: Key to success is a first-class degree in the university of life

Science is supposed to be impeccably objective, but it turns out that one of its most famous practitioners, Lord Winston, is prejudiced. The doctor, academic and TV presenter admits discriminating against people with first-class degrees.

The huge-moustachioed star of 'The Human Body' prefers to employ those who developed other interests at university instead of burrowing into the books 24-7 like unusually ambitious moles with a steady supply of caffeine pills.

He says that becoming a rounded person is crucial, and has "produced a lot of useful science . . . that's much more important than almost anything else".

Of course, not everyone who got a first in college was an obsessive nerd with zero outside interests. Some of them are just really clever to the point where it's annoying how easily they balance swotting, socialising and various worthwhile hobbies.

The rest of us, meanwhile, seem to do nothing that might distract from our studies – literally, nothing – yet still end up cramming at exam time.

But statistically, His Lordship is probably right: most first-class honours come through focus, perseverance and endless hours spent bending over a book and sucking slow death through that leaking biro in your gob.

And, really, that's not what education is supposed to be about. You could probably programme a robot to intake and retain a big pile of information so that it'd get great exam marks. But we're not robots. We're people, and people are more than just biochemical cognitive machines.

This is not to downplay the value of education. Reading is probably the most important, rewarding and fundamentally human thing you can do. It's what separates us from the animals; it makes us smarter and better and simply more.

But Winston is right: college should be as concerned with developing the person as bulking up the mind. And you do that through a myriad of ways: some healthy, some not; some wise, some very dumb; but all worth doing.

It's about reading, talking into the night, solving the world's problems, pretending to enjoy and/or understand arty movies, alcohol, and sexual shenanigans.

It means eating nothing but rice and beans for a week because you'd blown two-thirds of your parents' generosity en route from train station to flat on Sunday night.

Buying second-hand jackets, semi-legally copying other people's albums, smuggling cans of cheap lager into nightclubs.

Figuring out how the hell you can live on £40 a week after the rent was paid (for younger readers, that funny-looking symbol before 40 stands for "punt". This was the unit of currency in Ireland before the troika-dollar).

I'm not saying this was overly clever behaviour. Indiscriminate romantic habits, skipping lectures and over-indulgence in unmentionable substances are clearly not smart.

But kids have always done silly things, and generally turn out okay for a finish. They experiment, mess around, make mistakes, overdo things, and normally stumble out the other end a little frazzled and a little regretful, but pretty well equipped for the adult world.

Want proof? Polymath superstar Hugh Laurie only got a third-class degree, as did Carol Vorderman, WH Auden and Christopher Hitchens. So lowly is its status, some universities don't officially award a third.

Many great achievers didn't even get that far. These are some people who left school early: Richard Branson, Kurt Cobain, Michael Caine, Kristen Stewart, John Major, Thomas Edison, Benjamin Franklin, Bill Gates, Princess Di, Walt Disney, Harper Lee, Charles Dickens, William Faulkner, Mark Twain, HG Wells and George Bernard Shaw.

Oh, and a certain scientist called Albert Einstein. He always looked like he knew how to enjoy himself, alright. Bet Lord Winston would hire that guy in a shot.

Irish Independent