Almost sixty years after his death, Einstein’s name is still a very potent one. Advocates of this or that belief still feel that it is in some way a trump card to claim that Einstein supported their views. The implication is clear; if the world’s greatest brainbox agreed with me, who are you to argue? We see both theists and atheists using the great man’s name to support their positions on religion and Einstein is even quoted as a secret believer in such strange ideas as telepathy and ESP. Forty years ago, when Velikosky’s mad book Worlds in Collision enjoyed a vogue among the less well intellectually endowed, much was made by the publisher of the fact that when he died, Einstein had a copy of this book on his death; as though that in some way endorsed Velikovsky’s theories. Einstein’s name is even used to sell things. I am sure that some readers have come across the Baby Einstein products, designed for those who wish to accelerate their baby’s development.
It was inevitable that home educators would latch on to this trend and try and pretend that Einstein was one of their own! You will regularly see him in lists of famous people who were home educated and a company in America even sells a tee-shirt printed with the slogan, ‘Einstein was home schooled’. He wasn’t of course, but a few days ago we saw people here trying to show that Einstein was in fact an autonomous learner. This is true as far as it goes. Many bright children at school have always pursued interests outside the academic curriculum and this is still the case today. Those commenting though went a little further than this and suggested that Einstein learned most of his mathematics and physics at home by himself and that he was somehow a supporter of home education and an opponent of schools. This is less certain.
What we must bear in mind when considering Einstein’s views on schools is that he attended school in Germany during the 1880s and 1890s. This was not a good time for a restless and brilliant intellect to be in one of that country’s schools. The educational system was hugely restrictive and independent thought was discouraged. Einstein’s dislike of formal schooling was rooted deeper than that though. At the age of five he, a Jew, was sent to a Catholic primary school. There was a great deal of anti-Semitism about at that time in Germany and the child experienced the full brunt of it. During a lesson about Jesus’ life, for instance, the teacher handed round six inch long nails and asked the children to consider what it would be like to have these hammered through their ankles and wrists. He then told them that the Jews had caused this to be done to Jesus; whereupon all eyes in the class turned to the little Jewish boy. It is hardly to be wondered at that Einstein grew up with a bad feeling about school!
Like all children, Einstein’s home background played a great part in his later academic success. He was given a book on calculus at the age of twelve and his family used to talk a lot about various topics. There can be little doubt that this conversation served to stimulate the child and awaken his interest in mathematics and physics. Whether this would have been sufficient education in itself, without the teaching he received at school, is doubtful.
I was accused on the thread where this was being discussed of ignoring the points which were made, but this was only because I am not sure really what the points were. Einstein went to school and learned about mathematics and physics. He hated school and felt that his family stimulated his interest in these subjects more than the school did. This was without doubt true. It is still true today. The family attitude to education and learning is of far greater importance than the school attended. It is so and always has been.
I saw nothing controversial in what was said about Einstein and so did not feel the need to dispute any of it. If anybody feels that Einstein’s life, education or later opinions about the schooling which he received has anything useful to tell us about home education, then I would be pleased to hear it.