Lessons from Einstein

Albert Einstein detested rote learning. Students returning to schoolnext week might be encouraged to know that the renowned physicist whounlocked mysteries of the universe was no genius in the classroom.

Albert Einstein detested rote learning. Students returning to school next week might be encouraged to know that the renowned physicist who unlocked mysteries of the universe was no genius in the classroom.

At 15 he was ushered out of one school owing to undistinguished performance and impudence. Later, at Zurich Polytechnic, he flunked a course in physics of all things, scoring the lowest grade possible. He graduated, but near the bottom of his class.

The reason for Einstein’s early scholastic mediocrity was that teachers — as many still do today — rewarded regurgitation as opposed to imagination. His strength was the latter. In his engaging biography of Einstein, Walter Isaacson shows how his contrarian, independent nature made his breathtaking discoveries possible. He was always resisting conventional wisdom and always standing up against what was known in German as zwang. It means compulsion, coercion, having to submit.

For Einstein’s liking, too many mechanically obedient automatons walked the halls. In their rush to conform they left their brains behind. Conformists were losers. Their “foolish faith” in authority was “the worst enemy of truth.”

Today’s teachers, especially if they’re the enforcer types (we’ll call them zwangers), might not like Einstein’s pedagogical theories making the rounds. No telling what a rash of independent thinking might do.

In Einstein’s day, zwang held sway at the student and the political level (Nazis). He left Europe for the freedom of Princeton University, a freedom that was interrupted by McCarthyism. His non-conformist passions, the key behind his theory of relativity, extended to politics in his continuing campaigns against nationalism and in his promotion of pacifism.

His example, as Isaacson points out, is vital today. Conformists in the centres of learning, conformists in politics, are still dominant. We see how pressures accumulate on Barack Obama to water down his promise of universal health care and other planks in his change agenda. We see how Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff, a creative, independent thinker, has been muted by pressures to conform and is criticized for spending too much time learning abroad.

In too many disciplines, today’s leaders are consensus seekers as opposed to consensus changers. The key in schools, in politics, is to foster an environment that is creative. “I have no special talent,” Einstein once said. “I am only passionately curious.”

Let the mind roam, he advised and keep it roaming. Indolence, he told his unemployed son, is a killer.

“Life is like riding a bicycle,” he said. “To keep your balance you must keep moving.”

 
 
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