Albert Einstein, while developing his theories of the universe and time, also gave much thought to the notion of education. He once wrote:
“The school has always been the most important means of transferring the wealth of tradition from one generation to the next. This applies today in an even higher degree than in former times, for through modern development of the economic life, the family as bearer of tradition and education has been weakened. The continuance and health of human society is therefore in a still higher degree dependent on the school than formerly.
Sometimes one sees in the school simply the instrument for transferring a certain maximum quantity of knowledge to the growing generation. But that is not right. Knowledge is dead; the school however, serves the living. It should develop in the young individuals those qualities and capabilities which are of value for the welfare of the commonwealth. But that does not mean that individuality should be destroyed and the individual become a mere tool of the community, like a bee or an ant. For a community of standardized individuals without personal originality and personal aims would be a poor community without possibilities for development. On the contrary, the aim must be the training of independently acting and thinking individuals, who, however, see in the service of the community their highest life problem.
To me the worst thing seems to be for a school principally to work with methods of fear, force and artificial authority. Such treatment destroys the sound sentiments, the sincerity, and the self-confidence of the pupil. It produces the submissive subject. It is no wonder that such schools are the rule in Germany and Russia.
…the desire for the approval of one’s fellow-man certainly is one of the most important binding powers of society. In this complex of feelings, constructive and destructive forces lie closely together. Desire for approval and recognition is a healthy motive; but the desire to be acknowledged as better, stronger, or more intelligent than a fellow being or scholar easily leads to an excessively egoistic psychological adjustment, which may become injurious for the individual and for the community. Therefore the school and the teacher must guard against employing the easy method of creating individual ambition, in order to induce the pupils to diligent work”. (Einstein)
My real education began for me at the age of 11 years old. It came unexpectedly and was delivered to our home in 2 large boxes filled with beautifully leather bound books. It was a complete set of the 1960 new edition of Compton’s Encyclopedia. My father had purchased the set, which was at the time a very expensive item, to add to the family room’s bookshelf. I spent many hours propped up with my legs hanging over one of the oversized worn chair in the family room, turning each page in every volume learning something that fed my curiosity about the world I lived in.
I was an average student in school, did lots of daydreaming in the classroom and was more interested in cars and girls during this time than my studies. I found that many of the things taught in school didn’t spark any interest and was presented in such a way that daydreaming was a more productive way of spending time in the classroom. I would think about some of the things I learned reading the encyclopedia that was in our family room. It’s interesting now to think that my lazy afternoons or evenings spent going through random volumes of the encyclopedia gave me more pleasure in learning than sitting all day in a classroom, being told what to read and then quizzed on my ability to retain the information. My father was a self-taught man. He attended school up the age of 11 years, but then had to quit school to work to help support his family. He worked in a bakery and in addition to his meager pay was allowed to bring home each day a loaf of bread, which was needed for daily meals in his home. It’s interesting to think that the purchase of the encyclopedia occurred when I was 11, the same age my father had to quit school to help support his family. Perhaps it was his way of having some completion of his own education or provide some insurance to his family that learning will always be available no matter what. My father was a steelworker for 25 years and moved up the ranks as a metallurgist for the largest steel plant west of the Mississippi. Not bad for someone with only a 5th grade education. He would make jokes about how he was training new employees with college degrees how to do his job.
Perhaps, Einstein was on to something when he wrote: “The only thing that interferes with my learning is my education.” The notion of learning should be seen from various perspectives, the ability to use critical thinking skills for determining a “truth” within ourselves as well as a responsibility of giving back what we learn in bettering the society in which we live.
My father would frequently ask me two questions when he came home from work; what did you learn today and how are you going to use what you learned? Our teaching should incorporate these 2 questions. Information can be useless unless it’s applied to something. Perhaps this should be a given in making sure each course objective should always include the ability to apply what we learn and use it in bettering our lives as well as bettering the world we live in. Thanks Dad for providing me with that direction.
Sal, I really liked what you shared from Einstein and your personal experience. It resonates with my own learning!