Walter Isaacson on the Einstein Myth

Walter Isaacson on the Einstein Myth

A recent biographer shares some of Einstein's views on education.







 

Recently, I had the opportunity to hear Walter Isaacson speak about the life and legacy of Albert Einstein. Isaacson is the president and CEO of the Aspen Institute, former chairman of CNN and former managing editor of Time. He is also the author of the recent best seller Einstein: His Life and Universe.


I was struck by Isaacson's insight into Einstein's impact on contemporary education. Paradoxically, Einstein's iconic image and eccentric personality made the great scientist seem accessible while simultaneously leading laypeople to conclude that science was inaccessible to them. The Einstein myth suggests that science is "hard," that scientists are unlike us and do their work outside the mainstream of society.


Einstein's own education and personal views on learning contradict such conventional wisdom. Isaacson details the role Einstein's attendance in a school built upon the principles of Pestalozzi played in the great scientist's development. Pestalozzi (1746-1827), a major figure in the history of experiential education, advocated play, freedom, spontaneity and direct observation as central to learning.


While many suggest that our current educational system is out of balance and we confront seemingly in surmountable challenges, Einstein's life, as presented by Walter Isaacson, offers some timely perspective. - Gary Stager, senior editor


For all of his popular appeal and surface accessibility, Einstein also came to symbolize the perception that modern physics was something that ordinary laymen could not comprehend, "the province of priest-like experts," in the words of Harvard professor Herschbach. It was not always thus. Galileo and Newton were both great geniuses, but their mechanical cause-and-effect explanation of the world was something that most thoughtful folks could grasp. In the 18th century of Benjamin Franklin and the 19th century of Thomas Edison, an educated person could feel some familiarity with science and even dabble in it as an amateur.


A popular feel for scientific endeavors should, if possible, be restored, given the needs of the 21st century. This does not mean that every literature major should take a watered-down physics course or that a corporate lawyer should stay abreast of quantum mechanics. Rather, it means that an appreciation for the methods of science is a useful asset for responsible citizenry. What science teaches us, very significantly, is the correlation between factual evidence and general theories, something well illustrated in Einstein's life.


In addition, an appreciation for the glories of science is a joyful trait for a good society. It helps us remain in touch with that childlike capacity for wonder, about such ordinary things as falling apples and elevators, that characterizes Einstein and other great theoretical physicists.


That is why studying Einstein can be worthwhile. Science is inspiring and noble, and its pursuit an enchanting mission, as the sagas of its heroes remind us. Near the end of his life, Einstein was asked by the New York State Education Department what schools should emphasize. "In teaching history," he replied, "there should be extensive discussion of personalities who benefited mankind through independence of character and judgment." Einstein fits into that category.


At a time when there is a new emphasis, in the face of global competition, on science and math education, we should also note the other part of Einstein's answer. "Critical comments by students should be taken in a friendly spirit," he said. "Accumulation of material should not stifle the student's independence." A society's competitive advantage will come not from how well its schools teach the multiplication and periodic tables, but from how well they stimulate imagination and creativity.


Therein lies the key, I think, to Einstein's brilliance and the lessons of his life. As a young student he never did well with rote learning. And later, as a theorist his success came not from the brute strength of his mental processing power but from his imagination and creativity. ... As he once declared, "Imagination is more important than knowledge." (From Walter Isaacson, Einstein: His Life and Universe [New York: Simon & Schuster, 2007], 5-7. Excerpted with permission of the author.)


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