I was on the job the other day and passed by this ubiquitous billboard that I’m sure you’ve seen somewhere too (at least in LA that is):
There are a few things that are interesting to note here. The first thing has to do with the fact that the billboard uses the face of German-born theoretical physicist, Albert Einstein, to promote its cause by relying on the oft-repeated legend of Einstein not being a successful student. And if you’re like many people, including myself, you’ve probably already got in your head the anecdotal story of Einstein failing specifically in mathematics as a young student. Now, on any other day I would have passed by this billboard and not really gave it much more thought than: “Yeah. Einstein was a genius. So what?”. But recently I have been reading Walter Isaacson’s 2007 biography of the man. One of the first things that struck me while reading the book is that this legendary “fact” is in reality, False (notice the capital “F”?). Here are some humorous passages:
One widely held belief about Einstein is that he failed math as a student, an assertion that is made, often accompanied by the phrase “as everyone knows,” by scores of books and thousands of websites designed to reassure underachieving students. It even made it into the famous “Ripley’s Believe It or Not!” newspaper column.
Alas, Einstein’s childhood offers history many savory ironies, but this is not one of them. In 1935, a rabbi in Princeton showed him a clipping of the Ripley’s column with the headline “Greatest Living Mathematician Failed in Mathematics.” Einstein laughed. “I never failed in mathematics,” he replied, correctly. “Before I was fifteen I had mastered differential and integral calculus.”
In fact, he was a wonderful student, at least intellectually. In primary school, he was at the top of his class…As for math, far from being a failure, he was “far above the school requirements.” By age 12, his sister recalled, “he already had a predilection for solving complicated problems in applied arithmetic,” and he decided to see if he could jump ahead by learning geometry and algebra on his own…Not only did he learn the proofs in the books, he tackled the new theories by trying to prove them on his own. “Play and playmates were forgotten,” she noted. “For days on end he sat alone, immersed in the search for a solution, not giving up before he had found it.” (pg. 16 – 17)
So that’s kind of an important misbelief to squash here. Einstein was pretty much exhibiting signs of his Einstein-ness even as a young student. The second thing that struck me while reading Isaacson’s book is that one of the qualities he points out as critical to Einstein’s “genius” has a lot more to do with his unabashed questioning of authority/establishment/tradition/status-quo than it does with this nebulous value of “confidence” that the billboard is promoting. Another passage:
His slow development was combined with a cheeky rebelliousness toward authority, which led one schoolmaster to send him packing and another to amuse history by declaring that he would never amount to much. These traits made Albert Einstein the patron saint of distracted school kids everywhere. But they also helped to make him, or so he later surmised, the most creative scientific genius of modern times.
His cocky contempt for authority led him to question received wisdom in ways that well-trained acolytes in the academy never contemplated. And as for his slow verbal development, he came to believe that it allowed him to observe with wonder the everyday phenomena that others took for granted. “When I ask myself how it happened that I in particular discovered the relativity theory, it seemed to lie in the following circumstance,” Einstein once explained. “The ordinary adult never bothers his head about the problems of space and time. These are things he has thought of as a child. But I developed so slowly that I began to wonder about space and time only when I was already grown up. Consequently, I probed more deeply into the problem than an ordinary child would have.” (pg. 8 – 9)
Now, I’m not pointing all this out to deny that “confidence” isn’t an important quality to have or that Einstein didn’t have that. But I think the people behind this billboard campaign are dumbing down the truth to fit their agenda. A more accurate statement of values would probably read something like “Question Established Authority” or even “Imagination” or “Creativity” as the tagline. And that’s the last thing I want to point out here about this billboard. The problem in society isn’t that students aren’t more confident about their abilities and that’s why they’re dropping out of school. The problem has something more to do with the ways in which our society measures intelligence and determines who is capable and who is not. And so while it may be a fact that Einstein wasn’t received well in school by some of his teachers, this really had nothing to do with his lack of intelligence, but rather, his lack of respect for authority. I’ll leave you with one last passage which comes at the end of chapter one:
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. He could construct complex equations, but more important, he knew that math is the language nature uses to describe her wonders…That approach required him to embrace nonconformity. “Long live impudence!” he exulted to the lover who would later become his wife. “It is my guardian angel in this world.” Many years later, when others thought that his reluctance to embrace quantum mechanics showed that he had lost his edge, he lamented, “To punish me for my contempt for authority, fate made me an authority myself.” … His success came from questioning conventional wisdom, challenging authority, and marveling at mysteries that struck others as mundane. This led him to embrace a morality and politics based on respect for free minds, free spirits, and free individuals. Tyranny repulsed him, and he saw tolerance not simply as a sweet virtue but as a necessary condition for a creative society. “It is important to foster individuality,” he said, “for only the individual can produce the new ideas.” (pg. 7)
Long live impudence. Imagine that on a billboard.