The lazy and difficult student

At a time where lack of knowledge is sometimes revered, and where a common baseline of reality is not there, Stephen Hawking exemplified reason, modesty and humanity

Lazy and difficult is not exactly how you would describe one of the most prominent figures of the past hundred years. But that is exactly how Stephen Hawking’s school tutors described him. He would go on to reach the pinnacle of modern science, becoming an almost cult icon to the science community and inspiring many young people to consider it as a path.

His parents were academics and valued education, however young Stephen was not on track in the traditional sense. His early schooling was disappointing and he took some time to learn to read and write. He would later blame it on a strict and inflexible education system.

In a public lecture a few years back he reminisced: “I was unexceptional in school. My sister was much smarter than me. My school work was untidy and my hand-writing was the despair of teachers. I’d been incredibly lazy while at university and had barely worked for an hour a day. I’m not proud of this. I’m just describing my attitude at the time, which I shared with most fellow students; boredom and feeling nothing was worth making an effort for.”

His fortunes turned around in secondary school through a mathematics teacher, Dick Tartar. He would go on to make mathematics his focus in his post-secondary schooling. The rest, as they say, is history.

It’s remarkable that such an incredible mind still found barriers early on his schooling. He was, in every sense of the word, a very clever young boy but the inability to follow the rigid dynamic of an education system still proved a challenge.

Of course, the real adversity started years later when he was diagnosed with motor neurone disease. Despite being a genius, he still had the fragility of a human being and the emotions tied with such a rough and devastating barrier. What followed after that though is an example of human defiance against all odds. The refusal to lie down and take it, and to move on with life.

“My advice to other disabled people would be, concentrate on things your disability doesn’t prevent you doing well, and don’t regret the things it interferes with. Don’t be disabled in spirit as well as physically” he once said.

His ambition was to work on explaining what many at the time defined as unexplainable, the universe or endless theatre of life. His dedication was to rational thought and logic as opposed to human weaknesses of empowered ignorance. He was one of the pioneers who changed the notion of the scientist from a bleak and dreary ‘lab coat’ machination to a romantic one, injecting an element of coolness and flair to a remarkable profession.

At a time where lack of knowledge is sometimes revered, and where a common baseline of reality is not there, Stephen Hawking exemplified reason, modesty and humanity. He was a scientist but he was a human-being before everything, perhaps due to him growing up at a time when people saw the horrors of science being used against humanity.

Academics will remember his work. Scientists will remember the dose of passion he brought to the subject. Millions of others will remember him as a defiant person, who didn’t allow his condition to stop him from achieving his goals. Someone who inspired many and aspired to do more everyday. In a world where role models are decreasing, he was invariably one.


Evarist Bartolo is minister for employment and education

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