Field of Science

Bridging the gaps: Einstein on education

This is my latest column for 3 Quarks Daily.

The crossing of disciplinary boundaries in science has brought with it a peculiar and ironic contradiction. On one hand, fields like computational biology, medical informatics and nuclear astrophysics have encouraged cross-pollination between disciplines and required the biologist to learn programming, the computer scientist to learn biology and the doctor to know statistics. On the other hand, increasing specialization has actually shored up the silos between these territories because each territory has become so dense with its own facts and ideas.

We are now supposed to be generalists, but we are generalists only in a collective sense. In an organization like a biotechnology company for instance, while the organization itself chugs along on the track of interdisciplinary understanding across departments like chemistry, biophysics and clinical investigations, the effort required for understanding all the nuts and bolts of each discipline has meant that individual scientists now have neither the time nor the inclination to actually drill down into whatever their colleagues are doing. They appreciate the importance of various fields of inquiry, but only as reservoirs into which they pipe their results, which then get piped into other reservoirs. In a metaphor evoked in a different context - the collective alienation that technology has brought upon us - by the philosopher Sherry Turkle, we are ‘alone together’.

The need to bridge disciplinary boundaries without getting tangled in the web of your own specialization has raised new challenges for education. How do we train the men and women who will stake out new frontiers tomorrow in the study of the brain, the early universe, gender studies or artificial intelligence? As old-fashioned as it sounds, to me the solution seems to go back to the age-old tradition of a classical liberal education which lays emphasis more on general thinking and skills rather than merely the acquisition of diverse specialized knowledge and techniques. In my ideal scenario, this education would emphasize a good grounding in mathematics, philosophy (including philosophy of science), basic computational thinking and statistics and literature as primary goals, with an appreciation of the rudiments of evolution and psychology or neuroscience as preferred secondary goals.

This kind of thinking was on my mind as I happened to read a piece on education and training written by a man who was generally known to have thought-provoking ideas on a variety of subjects. If there was one distinguishing characteristic in Albert Einstein, it was the quality of rebellion. In his early days Einstein rebelled against the rigid education and rules of the German Gymnasium system. In his young and middle years he rebelled against the traditional scientific wisdom of the day, leading to his revolutionary contributions to relativity and quantum theory. In his old age he rebelled against both an increasingly jingoistic world as well as against the mainstream scientific establishment.

Not surprisingly, then, Einstein had some original and bold thoughts on what an education should be like. He held forth on some of these in an address on October 15, 1931 delivered at the State University of New York at Albany. 1931 was a good year to discuss these issues. The US stock market had crashed two years before, leading to the Great Depression and mass unemployment. And while Hitler had not become chancellor and dictator yet, he would do so only two years later; the rise of fascism in Europe was already evident.

Some of these issues must have been on Einstein’s mind as he first emphasized what he had already learnt from his own bitter Gymnasium experience, the erosion of individuality in the face of a system of mass education, similar to what was happening to the erosion of individuality in the face of authoritarian ideas.

“Sometimes one sees in the school simply the instrument for transferring a certain maximum quantity of knowledge to the growing generation. But that’s not right. Knowledge is dead; the school, however, serves the living. It should develop in the young individuals those equalities 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 becomes 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 thinking and acting 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 not so hard to keep the school free from the worst of all evils. Give into the power of the teacher the fewest possible coercive measures, so that the only source of the pupil’s respect for the teacher is the human and intellectual qualities of the latter.”

Einstein also talks about what we can learn from Darwin’s theory. In 1931 eugenics was still quite popular, and Darwin’s ideas were seen even by many social progressives as essentially advocating the ruthless culling of ‘inferior’ individuals and the perpetuation of superior ones. Where Einstein came from, this kind of thinking was on flagrant display right on the doorstep, even if it hadn’t already morphed into the unspeakable horror that it did a decade later. Einstein clearly rejects this warlike philosophy and encourages cooperation over competition. Both cooperation and competition are important for human progress, but the times clearly demanded that one not forget the former.

“Darwin’s theory of the struggle for existence and the selectivity connected with it has by many people been cited as authorization of the encouragement of the spirit of competition. Some people also in such a way have tried to prove pseudo-scientifically the necessity of the destructive economic struggle of competition between individuals. But this is wrong, because man owes his strength in the struggle for existence to the fact that he is a socially living animal. As little as a battle between single ants of an ant hill is essential for survival, just so little is this the case with the individual members of a human community…Therefore, one should guard against preaching to the young man success in the customary sense as the aim of life. For a successful man is he who receives a great deal from his fellow men, usually incomparably more than corresponds to his service to them. The value of a man, however, should be seen in what he gives and not what he is able to receive.”

In other words, with malice toward none, with charity toward all.

And what about the teachers themselves? What kinds of characters need to populate the kind of school which imparts a liberal and charitable education? Certainly not the benevolent dictators that filled up German schools in Einstein’s time or which still hold court in many schools across the world which emphasize personal authority over actual teaching.

“What can be done that this spirit be gained in the school? For this there is just as little a universal remedy as there is for an individual to remain well. But there are certain necessary conditions which can be met. First, teachers should grow up in such schools. Second, the teacher should be given extensive liberty in the selection of the material to be taught and the methods of teaching employed by him. For it is true also of him that pleasure in the shaping of his work is killed by force and exterior pressure.”

If Einstein’s words have indeed been accurately transcribed, it is interesting to hear him use the words “grow up” rather than just “grow” applied to teachers. I have myself come across stentorian autocrats who inadvertently reminded students that their charges were in fact the adults in the room. They definitely need to grow up. Flexibility in the selection of the teaching material is a different matter. To do this it’s not just important to offer as many electives as possible, but it’s more important to give teachers a wide berth within their own classes rather than constantly being required to subscribe to a strictly defined curriculum. Some of the best teachers I had were ones who spent most of their time on material other than what was required. They might wax philosophical about the bigger picture, they might tell us stories from the history of science, and one of them even took us out for walks where the topics of discussion consisted of everything except what he was ‘supposed’ to teach. It is this kind of flexibility in teaching that imparts the most enriching experience, but it’s important for the institution to support it.
What about the distinction between natural science and the humanities? Germany already had a fine tradition in imparting a classical education steeped in Latin and Greek, mathematics and natural science, so not surprisingly Einstein was on the right side of the debate when it came to acquiring a balanced education.

“If a young man has trained his muscles and physical endurance by gymnastics and walking, then he will later be fitted for every physical work. This is also analogous to the training of the mental and the exercising of the mental and manual skill. Thus the wit was not wrong who defined education in this way: “Education is that which remains, if one has forgotten everything he has learned in school.” For this reason I am not at all anxious to take sides in the struggle between the followers of the classical philologic-historical education and the education more devoted to natural science.”

The icing on this cake really is Einstein’s views on the emphasis on general ability rather than specialized knowledge, a distinction which is more important than ever in our age of narrow specialization.

“I want to oppose the idea that the school has to teach directly that special knowledge and those accomplishments which one has to use later directly in life. The demands of life are much too manifold to let such a specialized training in school appear possible. Apart from that, it seems to me, moreover, objectionable to treat the individual like a dead tool. The school should always have as its aim that the young man leave it as a harmonious personality, not as a specialist. This in my opinion is true in a certain sense even for technical schools, whose students will devote themselves to a quite definite profession. The development of general ability for independent thinking and judgement should always be placed foremost, not the acquisition of special knowledge. If a person masters the fundamentals of his subject and has learned to think and work independently, he will surely find his way and besides will better be able to adapt himself to progress and changes than the person whose training principally consists in the acquiring the detailed knowledge.”

One might argue that it’s the failure to let young people leave college as ‘harmonious personalities’ rather than problem-solvers that leads to a nation of technocrats and operational specialists of the kind that got the United States in the morass of Vietnam, for instance. A purely problem-solving outlook might enable a young person to get a job sooner and solve narrowly defined problems, but it will not lead them to look at the big picture and truly contribute to a productive and progressive society.

I find Einstein’s words relevant today because the world of 2018 in some sense resembles the world of 1931. Just like it did because of the Great Depression then, mass unemployment because of artificial intelligence and automation is a problem looming on the short horizon. Just like it had in 1931, authoritarian thinking seems to have taken root in many of the world’s governments. The specialization of disciplines has led colleges and universities to increasingly specialize their own curricula, so that it is now possible for many students to get through college without acquiring even the rudiments of a liberal arts education. C. P. Snow’s ‘Two Cultures’ paradoxically have become more entrenched, even as the Internet presumably promised to break down barriers between them. Meanwhile, political dialogue and people's very world-views across the political spectrum have gotten so polarized on college campuses that certain ideas are now being rejected as biased, not based on their own merits but on some of their human associations.

These problems are all challenging and require serious thinking and intervention. There are no easy solutions to them, but based on Einstein’s words, our best bet would be to inculcate a generation of men and women and institutional structures that promote flexible thinking, dialogue and cooperation, and an open mind. We owe at least that much to ourselves as a supposedly enlightened species.


  1. Another from 1990s

  2. Great blog, I am going to spend more time reading about this subject Personal Skill development


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