The Net Advance of Physics RETRO:
Alexander Moszkowski:

Chapter Four


2014 May 26

Palace of Charles V. Photo by "Hismatness" [Wikipedia].

SOURCE: Einstein: Einblicke in seine Gedankenwelt -- Gemeinverständliche Betrachtegung über die Relativitätstheorie und ein neues Weltsystem entwickelt aus Gesprächen mit Einstein von Alexander Moszkowski [Hamburg: Hoffmann und Campe, 1921]
English translation: Einstein the Searcher translated by Henry L. Brose [New York: E. P. Dutton, 1922], with a few additions and modifications.

Moszkowski's words are in bold.


School Curricula and Reform of Teaching. --- Value of Language Study. --- Economy of Time. --- Practice in Manual Work. --- Picturesque Illustrations. --- Art of Lecturing. --- Selection of Talents by Means of Examinations. --- Women Students. --- Social Difficulties. --- Necessity as Instructress.

OUR conversation turned towards a series of pædagogic questions, in which Einstein is deeply interested. For he himself is actively engaged in teaching, and never disguises the pleasure which he derives from imparting instruction. Without doubt he has a gift of making his spoken words react on wide circles anxious to be instructed, composed not only of University students, but of many others quite outside this category. When, recently, popular lectures on a large scale were instituted, he was one of the first to offer his services in this sound undertaking. He lectured to people of the working class, who could not be assumed to have any preliminary information on the subject, and he succeeded in presenting his lectures so that even the less trained minds could easily follow his argument.

His attitude towards general questions of school education is, of course, conditioned by his own personality and his own work in the past. His first care is that a young person should get an insight into the relationship underlying natural phenomena, that is, that the curricula should be mapped out so that a knowledge of facts is the predominating aim.

Berlinisches Gymnasium zum Grauen Kloster (postcard, ca. 1910).

"My wish," Einstein declared to me, "is far removed from the desire to eliminate altogether the fundamental features of the old grammar schools, with their preference for Latin, by making over-hasty reforms, but I am just as little inclined to wax enthusiastic about the so-called humanistic schools. Certain recollections of my own school life suffice to prevent this, and still more, a certain presentiment of the educational problems of the future ... To speak quite candidly," he said, "in my opinion the educative value of languages is, in general, much over-estimated."

I took the liberty of quoting a saying that is still regarded as irrefutable by certain scholars. It was Charles V who said : "Each additional acquired language represents an additional personality" ; and to suggest the root of language formation he said it in Latin : "Quod linguas quis callet, tot homines valet." This saying has been handed down through the ages in German in the form : "Soviel Sprachen, soviel Sinne" (An added language means an added sense).

Einstein replied : "I doubt whether this aphorism is generally valid, for I believe that it would at no time have stood a real test. All experience contradicts it. Otherwise we should be compelled to assign the highest positions among intellectual beings to linguistic athletes like Mithridates, Mezzofanti, and similar persons. The exact opposite, indeed, may be proved, namely, that in the case of the strongest personalities, and of those who have contributed most to progress, the multiplicity of their senses in no wise depended on a comprehensive knowledge of languages, but rather that they avoided burdening their minds with things that made excessive claims on their memories."

"Certainly," said I, "it may be admitted that this gives rise to exaggeration in some cases, and that the linguistic sort of sport practised by many a scholar degenerates to a mere display of knowledge. An intellectual achievement of lasting merit has very rarely or never been the result of a superabundance of acquired linguistic knowledge. An instance occurs to me at this moment. Nietzsche became a philosopher of far-reaching influence only after he had passed the stage of the philologist. As far as our present discussion is concerned, the question is narrowed down considerably : it reduces itself to inquiring whether we do sufficient, too little, or too much Greek and Latin. I must remark at the very outset that, formerly, school requirements went much further in this respect than nowadays, when we scarcely meet with a scholar even in the upper classes who knows Latin and Greek perfectly."

It is just this fact that Einstein regards as a sign of improvement and a result of examining the true aims of a school. He continued : "Man must be educated to 'react delicately' ; he is to acquire and develop 'intellectual muscles' ! And the methods of language drill are much less suited to this purpose than those of a more general training that gives greatest weight to a sharpening of one's own powers of reflection. Naturally, the inclination of the pupil for a particular profession must not be neglected, especially in view of the circumstance that such inclination usually asserts itself at an early age, being occasioned by personal gifts, by examples of other members of the family, and by various circumstances that affect the choice of his future life-work.

"That is why I support the introduction into schools, particularly schools devoted to classics, of a division into two branches at, say, the fourth form, so that at this stage the young pupil has to decide in favour of one or other of the courses. The elementary foundation to the fourth form may be made uniform for all, as they are concerned with factors on education that are scarcely open to the danger of being exaggerated in any one direction. If the pupil finds that he has a special interest in what are called humaniora by the educationist, let him by all means continue along the road of Latin and Greek, and, indeed, without being burdened by tasks that, owing to his disposition, oppress or alarm him."

Geometry students, ca. 1310. [British Library Burney 275 f. 293 r.]

"You are referring," I interposed, "to the distress which pupils feel in the time allotted to mathematics. There are actually people of considerable intelligence who seem to be smitten with absolute stupidity when confronted with mathematics, and whose school-life becomes poisoned owing to the torment caused by this subject. There are many cases of living surgeons, lawyers, historians, and littérateurs, who, till late in life, are visited by dreams of their earlier mathematical ordeals.

"Their horror has a very real foundation, for, whereas the pupil who is bad at Latin yet manages to get an idea of the language, and he who is weak in history has at least a notion of what is being discussed, the one who is unmathematical by nature has to worry his way through numberless lessons in a subject which is entirely incomprehensible to him, as if belonging to another world and being presented to him in a totally strange tongue. He is expected to answer questions, the sense of which he cannot even guess, and to solve problems, every word and every figure of which glares at him like a sphinx of evil omen. Sitting on each side of him are pupils to whom this is merely play, and some of whom could complete the whole of school mathematics within a few months at express rate. This leads to a contrast between the pupils, which may press with tragical force on the unfortunate member throughout his whole school existence. That is why a reform is to be welcomed that sifts out in time those who should be separated from the rest, and which adapts the school curriculum as closely as possible to individual talents."

Einstein called my attention to the fact that this division had already been made in many schools in foreign countries, as in France and in Denmark, although not so exclusively as suggested by him. "Moreover," he added, "I am by no means decided whether the torments that you mentioned are founded primarily on absence of talent in the pupil. I feel much more inclined to throw the responsibility in most cases on the absence of talent in the teacher. Most teachers waste their time by asking questions which are intended to discover what a pupil does not know, whereas the true art of questioning has for its purpose to discover what the pupil knows or is capable of knowing.

"Whenever sins of this sort are committed -- and they occur in all branches of knowledge -- the personality of the teacher is mostly at fault. The results of the class furnish an index for the quality of the preceptor. All things being taken into consideration, the average of ability in the class moves, with only slight fluctuations, about mean values, with which tolerably satisfactory results may be obtained. If the progress of the class is not up to this standard, we must not speak of a bad year but rather of an inefficient instructor.

"It may be assumed that, as a rule, the teacher understands the subject with which he is entrusted, and has mastered its content, but not that he knows how to impart his information in an interesting manner. This is almost always the source of the trouble. If the teacher generates an atmosphere of boredom, the progress is stunted in the suffocating surroundings. To know how to teach is to be able to make the subject of instruction interesting, to present it, even if it happens to be abstract, so that the soul of the pupil resonates in sympathy with that of his instructor, and so that the curiosity of the pupil is never allowed to wane."

I replied, "That is in itself an ideal postulate. If we assume it to be fulfilled, how do you wish to see the subjects distributed in the curriculum ?"

"We must leave the detailed discussion of this question for another occasion. One of the main points would be the economy of time ; all that is superfluous, vexatious, and only intended as a drill must be dropped. At present the aim of the whole course is the leaving certificate. This test must be given up !"

"Is that serious. Professor ? Do you wish to do away with the examination for matriculation ?"

"Exactly. For it is like some fearful monster guarding our exit from school, throwing its shadow far ahead, and compelling teacher and pupil to work incessantly towards an artificial show of knowledge. This examination has been elevated by forcible means to a level which the violently drilled candidates can keep only for a few hours, and is then lost to sight for ever. If it is eliminated, it will carry away with it this painful drilling of the memory ; it will no longer be necessary to hammer in for years what will be entirely forgotten within a few months, and what deserves to be forgotten. Let us return to Nature, which upholds the principle of getting the maximum amount of effect from the minimum of effort, whereas the matriculation test does exactly the opposite."

"Yes, but who is then to be allowed to enter the university ?"

"Every one who has shown himself to be capable not only in a crucial test of an accidental kind, but in his whole behaviour. The teacher will be the judge of this, and if he does not know who is qualified, he again is to be blamed. He will find it so much the easier to decide who is sufficiently advanced to obtain a leaving certificate, in proportion as the curriculum has weighed less on the minds of the young people. Six hours a day should be ample --- four at school and two for home-work ; that should be the maximum. If this should appear too little to you, I must ask you to bear in mind that a young mind is being subjected to strain even in leisure hours, as it has to receive a whole world of perceptions. And if you ask how the steadily increasing curriculum is to be covered in this very moderate number of hours, my answer is : Throw all that is unnecessary overboard !

"I count as unnecessary the major part of the subject that is called 'Universal History,' and which is, as a rule, nothing more than a blurred mass of history compressed into dry tables of names and dates. This subject should be brought within the narrowest possible limits, and should be presented only in broad outline, without dates having to be crammed. Leave as many gaps as you like, especially in ancient history ; they will not make themselves felt in our ordinary existences. In nowise can I regard it as a misfortune if the pupil learns nothing of Alexander the Great, and of the dozens of other conquerors whose documentary remains burden his memory like so much useless ballast. If he is to get a glimpse of the grey dawn of time, let him be spared from Cyrus, Artaxerxes, and Vercingetorix, but rather tell him something of the pioneers of civilization, Archimedes, Ptolemy, Hero, Appolonius, and of inventors and discoverers, so that the course does not resolve into a series of adventures and massacres."

"Would it not be expedient," I interrupted, "to take some of the history time to branch off into an elementary treatment of the real evolution of the state, including sociology and the legal code ?"

Einstein does not consider this desirable, although he himself is deeply interested in all manifestations of public life. He does not favour an elementary political training received at school, presumably above all owing to the fact that in this branch the instruction cannot be removed from official influences, and because political questions require the attention of a mature mind. His picture of how a youth is to meet the requirements of modern life is something quite different, far removed from all theories. His whole efforts are directed at finding a means of counteracting the tendency to overburden one side of the youthful mind. "I should demand the introduction of compulsory practical work. Every pupil must learn some handicraft. He should be able to choose for himself which it is to be, but I should allow no one to grow up without having gained some technique, either as a joiner, bookbinder, locksmith, or member of any other trade, and without having delivered some useful product of his trade."

Prometheus the Fire-Bringer by Ivar Johnsson. (Nyköping, Sweden)

"Do you attach greater importance to the technique itself or to the feeling of social relationship with the broad masses of the people which it engenders ?"

"Both factors are equally important to me," said Einstein, "and others become added to these which help to justify my wish in this respect. The handiwork need not be used as a means of earning money by the pupil of the secondary school, but it will enlarge and make more solid the foundation on which he will rest as an ethical being. In the first place, the school is not to produce future officials, scholars, lecturers, barristers, and authors, but human beings, not merely mental machines. Prometheus did not begin his education of mankind with astronomy, but by teaching the properties of fire and its practical uses ..."

"This brings to my mind another analogy," I continued, "namely, that of the old Meistersinger, who were, all of them, expert smiths, tinkers, or shoemakers, and yet succeeded in building a bridge to the arts. And at bottom, the sciences, too, belong to the category of free arts. Yet, a difficulty seems to me to arise. In demanding a compulsory handicraft, you lay stress on practical use, whereas in your other remarks you declared science in itself as being utterly independent of practice."

"I do this," replied Einstein, "only when I speak of the ultimate aims of pure research, that is, of aims that are visible to only a vanishing minority. It would be a complete misconception of life to uphold this point of view and to expect its regulative effectiveness in cases in which we are dealing only with the preliminaries of science. On the contrary, I maintain that science can be taught much more practically at schools than it is at present when bookwork has the upper hand.

"For example, to return to the question of mathematical teaching : it seems to me to be almost universally at fault, if only for the reason that it is not built up on what is practically interesting, what appeals directly to the senses, and what can be seized intuitively. Child-minds are fed with definitions instead of being presented with what they can grasp, and they are expected to be able to understand purely conceptual things, although they have had no opportunity given them of arriving at the abstract by way of concrete things.

Students at the experimental Aspatria Agricultural College, Cumberland, 1905. Photo from the collection of Terry Carrick.

"It is very easy to do the latter. The first beginnings should not be taught in the schoolroom at all, but in open Nature. A boy should be shown how a meadow is measured and compared with another. His attention must be directed to the height of a tower, to the length of his shadow at various times, to the corresponding altitude of the sun ; by this means he will grasp the mathematical relationships much more rapidly, more surely, and with greater zeal, than if words and chalk-marks are used to instil into him the conceptions of dimensions, of angles, or perchance of some trigonometrical function.

"What is the actual origin of such branches of science ? They are derived from practice, as, for example, when Thales first measured the height of the pyramids with the help of a short rod, which he set up at the ultimate point of the pyramid's shadow. Place a stick in the boy's hand and lead him on to make experiments with it by way of a game, and if he is not quite devoid of sense, he will discover the thing for himself. It will please him to have discovered the height of the tower without having climbed it, and this is the first thrill of the pleasure which he feels later when he learns the geometry of similar triangles and the proportionality of their sides."

"In the matter of physics," pursued Einstein, "the first lessons should contain nothing but what is experimental and interesting to see. A pretty experiment is in itself often more valuable than twenty formulæ extracted from our minds ; it is particularly important that a young mind that has yet to find its way about in the world of phenomena should be spared from formulæ altogether. In his physics they play exactly the same weird and fearful part as the figures of dates in Universal History. If the experimenter is ingenious and expert, this subject may be begun as early as in the middle forms, and one may then count on a responsiveness that is rarely observable during the hours of exercise in Latin grammar."

"This leads me," said Einstein, "to speak in this connexion of a means of education that has so far been used only by way of trial in class-teaching, but from an improved application of which I expect fruitful results later. I mean the school cinema. The triumphal march of the cinematograph will be continued into pædagogic regions, and here it will have a chance to make good the wrongs in thousands of picture shows showing absurd, immoral, and melodramatic subjects. By means of the school-film, supplemented by a simple apparatus for projection, it would be possible firstly to infuse into certain subjects, such as geography, which is at present wound off organ-like in the form of dead descriptions, the pulsating life of a metropolis. And the lines on a map will gain an entirely new complexion in the eyes of the pupil, if he learns, as if during a voyage, what they actually include, and what is to be read between them.

"An abundance of information is imparted by the film, too, if it gives an accelerated or retarded view of such things as a plant growing, an animal's heart beating, or the wing of an insect moving.

"The cinema seems to me to have a still more important function in giving pupils an insight into the most important branches of technical industry, a knowledge of which should become common property. Very few hours would suffice to impress permanently on the schoolboy's mind how a power-station, a locomotive, a newspaper, a book, or a coloured illustration is produced, or what takes place in an electrical plant, a glass factory, or a gas-works. And, to return to natural science, many of the rather difficult experiments that cannot be shown by means of school apparatus may be shown with almost as great clearness on a film.

"Taken all in all, the redeeming word in school-teaching is, for me : an increased appeal to the senses. Wherever it is possible, learning must become living, and this principle will predominate in future reforms of school-teaching."

Berlin: Humboldt University, view from Kaiser-Franz-Joseph-Platz. Einstein had already been driven out when this photo was taken by Otto Hagemann. (German Federal Archives Bild 146-2006-0130)

University study was only touched on lightly during this talk. It has become known that Einstein is a very strong supporter of the principle of free learning, and that he would prefer to dispense entirely with the regular documents of admission which qualify holders to attend lecture courses. This is to be interpreted as meaning that as soon as anyone desirous of furthering his studies has demonstrated his fitness to follow the lecturer's reasoning by showing his ability in class exercises or in the laboratory, he should be admitted immediately.

Einstein would not demand the usual certificate of "general education," but only of fitness for the special subject, particularly as, in his own experience, he has frequently found the cleverest people and those with the most definite aims to be prone to one-sidedness. According to this, even the intermediate schools should be authorized to bestow a certificate of fitness to enter on a course in a single definite subject as soon as the pupil has proved himself to have the necessary ability. If he earlier spoke in favour of abolishing the matriculation examination, this is only an indication of his effort to burst open the portals of higher education for every one.

Nevertheless, I remarked that, in the course of university work itself, he is not in favour of giving up all regulation concerning the ability of the student --- at least, not in the case of those who intend to devote themselves to instruction later. He does not desire an intermediate examination (in the nature of the tentamen physicum of doctors), but he considers it profitable for the future schoolmaster to have an opportunity early in his course to prove his fitness for teaching. In this matter, too, Einstein reveals his affectionate interest in the younger generation, whose development is threatened by nothing so much as by incapable teachers : the sum of these considerations is that the pupil is examined as little as possible, but the teacher so much the more closely. A candidate for the teaching profession, who in the early stages of his academic career fails to show his fitness, his individual facultas docendi, should be removed from the university.

There can be no doubt but that Einstein has a claim to be heard as an authority on these questions. There are few in the realm of the learned in whose faces it is so clearly manifest that they are called to excite a desire for knowledge by means of the living word, and to satisfy this desire. If great audiences assemble around him, if so many foreign academies open their arms to him to make him their own, these are not only signs of a magnetic influence that emanates from the famous discoverer, but they are indications that he is far famed as a teacher with a captivating personality.

Let us consider what this signifies in his profession. Philosophers, historians, lawyers, doctors, and theologians have at their disposal innumerable words which they merely need to pronounce to get into immediate contact with their audiences. In Einstein's profession, theoretical physics, man disappears ; it leaves no scope for the play of emotion ; its implement mathematics --- and what an instrument it is ! --- bristles with formal difficulties, which can be overcome only by means of symbols and by using a language which has no means of displaying eloquence, being devoid of expression, emotion, and regular periods.

Yet here we have a physicist, a mathematician, whose first word throws a charm over a great crowd of people, and who extracts from their minds, so to speak, what, in reality, he alone works out before them. He does not adhere closely to written pages, nor to a scheme which has been prepared beforehand in all its details ; he develops his subject freely, without the slightest attempt at rhetoric, but with an effect which comes of itself when the audience feels itself swept along by the current. He does not need to deliver his words passionately, as his passion for teaching is so manifest. Even in regions of thought in which usually only formulæ, like glaciers, give an indication of the height, he discovers similes and illustrations with a human appeal, by the aid of which he helps many a one to conquer the mountain sickness of mathematics.

His lectures betray two factors that are rarely found present in investigators of abstract subjects ; they are temperament and geniality. He never talks as if in a monologue or as if addressing empty space. He always speaks like one who is weaving threads of some idea, and these become spun out in a fascinating way that robs the audience of the sense of time. We all know that no iron curtain marks the close of Einstein's lecture ; anyone who is tormented by some difficulty or doubt, or who desires illumination on some point, or has missed some part of the argument, is at liberty to question him. Moreover, Einstein stands firm through the storm of all questions. On the very day on which the above conversation took place he had come straight from a lecture on four-dimensional space, at the conclusion of which a tempest of questions had raged about him. He spoke of it not as of an ordeal that he had survived, but as of a refreshing shower. And such delights abound in his teaching career.

It was the last lecture before his departure for Leyden (in May 1920), where the famous faculty of science, under the auspices of the great physicist Lorentz, had invited him to accept an honorary professorship. This was not the first invitation of this kind, and will not be the last, for distinctions are being showered on him from all parts of the world. It is true that the universities who confer a degree on him honoris causa are conferring a distinction on themselves, but Einstein frankly acknowledges the value of these honours, which he regards as referring only to the question in hand, and not the person. It gives him pleasure on account of the principle involved being recognized, and he regards himself essentially only as one whom fate has ordained as the personal exponent of these principles.

What this life of hustle and bustle about a scientist signifies is perhaps more apparent to me, who have a modest share in these conversations, than to Einstein himself, for I am an old man who -- unfortunately -- have to think back a long way to my student days, and can set up comparisons which are out of reach of Einstein. Formerly, many years ago, but in my own time, there was an auditorium maximum which only one man could manage to fill with an audience, namely, Eugen Dühring, the noted scholar, who was doomed to remain a lecturer inasmuch as he went under in his quarrels with confrères of a higher rank. But before he made his onslaught against Helmholtz, he was regarded as a man of unrivalled magnetic power, for his philosophical and economical lectures gathered together over three hundred hearers, a record number in those times. Nowadays, in the case of Einstein, four times this number has been surpassed, a fact which has brought into circulation the playful saying : "One can never miss his auditorium ; whither all are hastening, that is the goal !"

To make just comparisons, we must take account of the faithfulness of the assembled crowd, as well as its number. Many an eminent scholar has in earlier times had reason to declare, like Faust [I, 624] : "I had the power to attract you, yet had no power to hold you." Helmholtz began regularly every term with a crowded lecture-hall, but in a short time he found himself deserted, and he himself was well aware that no magnetic teaching influence emanated from him.

There is yet another case in university history of a brilliant personality who, from similar flights of ecstasy, was doomed to disappointment. I must mention his name, which, in this connexion, will probably cause great surprise, namely, Schiller ! He had fixed his first lecture in history at Jena, to which he was appointed, and had prepared for an audience of about a hundred students. But crowd upon crowd hustled along, and Schiller, who saw the oncoming stream from his window, was overcome with the impression that there was no end to it. The whole street took alarm, for at first it was imagined that a fire had broken out, and at the palace the watch was called out -- yet, a little later in the course, there was a depressing ebb of the tide, after the first curiosity had been appeased ; the audience gradually vanished into thin air, a proof of the fact that the nimbus of a name does not suffice to maintain the interest between the lecturer's desk and the audience.

I mentioned this example at the time when Einstein's gift for teaching had gradually increased the number of his hearers to the record figure of 1200, yet I did not on this occasion detect any inordinate joy in him about his success. I gained the impression that he had strained his voice in the vast hall. His mood betrayed in consequence a slight undercurrent of irritation. In an access of scepticism he murmured the words, "A mere matter of fashion." I cannot imagine that he was entirely in earnest. It goes without saying that I protested against the expression. But, even if there were a particle of truth in it, we might well be pleased to find such a fashion in intellectual matters, one that persists so long and promises to last. The world would recover its normal healthy state if fashions of this kind were to come into full swing. It is, of course, easy to understand on psychological grounds that Einstein himself takes up a sort of defensive position against his own renown, and that he occasionally tries to attack it by means of sarcasm, seeing that he cannot find serious arguments to oppose it.

"One of the party-leaders of the many would-be authorities on languages who have influence among us" : Prof. Eduard Engel in 1901.

Whether Einstein's ideas and proposals concerning educational reform will be capable of realization throughout is a question that time alone can answer. We must make it clear to ourselves that, if carried out along free-thinking lines, they will demand certain sacrifices, and it depends on the apportionment of these sacrifices as to what the next, or the following, generation will have to exhibit in the way of mental training.

An appreciable restriction will have to be imposed on the time given to languages. It is a matter of deciding how far this will affect the foundations that, under the collective term humaniora, have supported the whole system of classical schools for centuries. The fundamental ideas of reform, which, owing to the redivision of school-hours and the economy of work, no longer claim precedence for languages, indicate that not much will be left of the original Latin and Greek basis.

We have noticed above that Einstein, although he does not, in principle, oppose the old classicism, no longer expects much good of it. But nowadays the state of affairs is such that it is hardly a question of supporting or opposing its retention in fragmentary form. Whoever does not support it with all his power strengthens indirectly the mighty chorus of those who are radically antagonistic to it. And it is a remarkable fact that this chorus includes many would-be authorities on languages who have influence among us because they are champions of the cause of retaining languages.

They do not wish to rescue languages as such, but only the German tongue ; they point to the humaniora of classical schools, or to Humanisterei, as they call it, as the enemy and corrupter of their language. In what sense they mean this is obvious from their articles of faith, of which I should like to cite a few in the original words of one of their party-leaders :

"Up to the time of the hazardous enterprise of Thomasius (who first announced lectures in the German language in 1687) German scholars as a body were the worst enemies of their own tongue. --- Luther did not take his models for writing German from the humanistic mimics who aped the old Latins. In the case of many, including Lessing and Goethe, we observe them making a definite attempt to shake themselves free from the chaos of humanistic influences in Germany. --- The inheritance of pseudo-learned concoctions of words stretches back to pretentious humanism as do most of essential vices of learned styles. --- The far-reaching and lasting corruption of the German language by this poisonous Latin has its beginnings in the humanism of the sixteenth century."

[The quotations are from Deutsche Stilkunst by Eduard Engel (1911). A philologist who also wrote popular works on wide-ranging topics, Engel led an extremely visible campaign for the use of clear and "pure" German without foreign influence in the 1910s and '20s. Despite his role as a promoter of Teutonic nationalism in the Weimar Republic, he was persecuted by the Nazis as a Jew, and his memory was so completely erased that a plagiarised 1943 version of Deutsche Stilkunst by Nazi party-member Ludwig Reiners remained in print under Reiners's name until the 1990s.]

And, quite logically, these heralds extend their attacks along the whole academic front. For, according to their point of view, the whole army of professors is deeply immersed in the language slime of the traditional humanism of the Greeks and Latins. "The whole language evil of our times," so these leaders say, "is at bottom due to scientists, who, in the opinionated guise of a language caste, and without enriching our conceptions in the slightest, seek by tinkling empty words to give us the illusion of a new and particularly mysterious occult science, an impression which is unfortunately often produced on ignorant minds ... However many muddy outlets official institutions and language associations may purge and block up, ditch-water from ever new quagmires and drains pours unceasingly into the stately stream of our language."

Thus the attack on the Latin and Greek language foundation in schools identifies itself with the struggle against the academic world as a whole, and a scholar who does defend the classical system of education with all his might finds himself unconsciously drifting into the ranks of the brotherhood which in the last instance is seeking his own extermination.

This danger must not be under-estimated. It is just this peril, so threatening to our civilization, that moves me to show my colours frankly here. I am not a supporter of bookworm drudgery in schools, but I feel myself impelled to use every effort in speech and writing to combat the anti-humanists whose password, "For our language," at root signifies "Enemies of Science !"

We must put no weapons into their hands, and the only means to avoid this is, in my opinion, to state our creed emphatically and openly after the manner of almost all our classical writers.

This creed, both as regards language and substance, is to be understood as being based on the efficacy of the old classical languages. It is the luminous centre of the life and work of the men who caused Bulwer to proclaim our country the country of poets and thinkers. The superabundance of these is so excessive that it is scarcely fair to mention only a few names such as Goethe, Lessing, Schiller, Wieland, Kant, and Schopenhauer. Our literature would be of a provincial standard and not a world possession if this creed had not asserted its sway at all times.

If the question is raised as to where our youth is to find time for learning ancient languages under the present conditions of crowded subjects, the answer is to be furnished by improved methods of instruction. My personal point of view is that even the older methods were not so bad. Goethe found himself in no wise embarrassed through lack of time in acquiring all sorts of knowledge and mental equipment, although even as a boy of eight years he could write in Latin in a way which, compared with the bungling efforts of the modern sixth-form boy, seems Ciceronian. Montaigne could express himself earlier in Latin than in French, and if he had not had this "Latin poison" injected into his blood he would never have become Montaigne !

It seems to me by no means impossible that the cultured world will one day in the distant future return to the once self-evident view of classical languages, and indeed just for reasons of economy of time, unless the universal language so ardently desired by Hebbel --- not to be confused with the artificial patchwork called Esperanto --- should become a reality. ["If language had been the creation not of poetry but of logic, we should only have one." (Hebbel: Tagebuch, 5634)]

But even this language, at present Utopian, but one which will help to link together the nations, will disclose the model of the ancient languages in its structure. Scientific language of the present day shows where the route lies ; and this route will be made passable in spite of all the efforts of Teutonic language-saints and assassins of humanism to block it.

The working out of ideas by research scientists leads to enrichment of language. And since, as is quite natural, they draw copiously on antique forms of expression, they are really the trustees of an instruction that makes these expressions intelligible not merely as components of an artificial language like Volapük but as organic growths. That is how they proceed when they carry on their research, or describe it and lecture on their own subject.

But if they are to decide how the school is to map out its course in actual practice, the problem of time again becomes their chief consideration --- that is, they feel in duty bound to give preference to what is most important. Hence there results the wish to reduce the hours apportioned to the language subjects as much as possible.

On this matter we have a detailed essay by the distinguished Ernst Mach mentioned earlier, who exposes the actual dilemma with the greatest clearness. He treats this exceedingly important question in all its phases, and arrives at almost the same conclusion as Einstein. At the outset he certainly chants a Latin psalm almost in the manner of Schopenhauer. Its lower tones represent an elegy lamenting that Latin is no longer the universal language among educated people, as it was from the fifteenth to the eighteenth century. Its fitness for this purpose is quite indisputable, for it can be adapted to express every conception however modern or subtle it may be.

What a profusion of new conceptions was introduced into science by Sir Isaac Newton, to all of which he succeeded in giving correct and precise Latin names ! The natural inference suggests itself to us that young people should learn the ancient classical tongues -- and yet a different result is coming about ; the modern child is to be content with understanding words with a world-wide currency, without knowing their philological origin.

It is not necessary to be a schoolmaster to feel the inadequacy of this proceeding. It is true that without knowing Arabic we can grasp the sense and meaning of the word "Algebra," and in the same way we can extract the essence of a number of Greek and Latin expressions without digging at their etymological roots. But these expressions are to be counted in hundreds and thousands, and are increasing daily, so that we are put before the question whether, merely from the point of view of time, it is practicable to learn them as individual foreign terms or as natural products of a root language with which we have once and for all become familiar.

It is scarcely necessary for me to point out that Einstein himself is not sparing in the use of these technical expressions, even when he is using popular language. He assumes or introduces terms of which the following are a few examples : continuum, co-ordinate system, dimensional, electrodynamics, kinetic theory, transformation, covariant, heuristic, parabola, translation, principle of equivalence, and he is quite justified in assuming that every one is fully acquainted with such generally accepted expressions as : gravitation, spectral analysis, ballistic, phoronomy, infinitesimal, diagonal, component, periphery, hydrostatics, centrifugal, and numberless others which are diffused through educated popular language in all directions. Taken all together these represent a foreign realm in which the entrant can always succeed in orientating himself when he receives explanations, examples, or translations, whereas with a little preliminary knowledge of the ancient languages he immediately feels himself at home with them ; in this we have not even taken into consideration the general cultural value of this training in view of the access it gives to the old literature and to Hellenic culture.

Perhaps I am going too far in adopting the attitude of a laudator temporis acti towards Einstein's very advanced opinion. We are here dealing with a question in which nothing can be proved, and in which everything depends on disposition and personal experiences. In my own case this experience includes the fact that at a very early age, in spite of the very discouraging school methods, I enjoyed the study of Latin and Greek, and that I learned Horatian odes by heart, not because I had to, but because they appealed to me, and finally that Homer opened up a new world to me. When Einstein expresses his abhorrence of drill, I agree with him ; but these languages need not be taught as if we are on parade. We see thus that it is a question of method and not of the subject involved. Einstein gives the subject its due by recommending a double series of classes. He allows the paths to diverge, giving his special blessing to the group along the one without setting up obstacles to prevent the other pilgrims from attaining happiness in their own way.

At the Natural Sciences Department, University of Novi Sad. Photo by "Micki", 2011.

We spoke of higher education for women, and Einstein expressed his views which, as was to be expected, were tolerant, and yet did not suggest those of a champion of the cause. It was impossible to overlook the fact that in spite of his approval he had certain reservations of a theoretical nature.

"As in all other directions," he said, "so in that of science the way should be made easy for women. Yet it must not be taken amiss if I regard the possible results with a certain amount of scepticism. I am referring to certain obstacles in woman's organization which we must regard as given by Nature, and which forbid us from applying the same standard of expectation to women as to men."

"You believe, then, Professor, that high achievements cannot be accomplished by women ? To keep our attention on science, can one not quote Madame Curie as a proof to the contrary ?"

"Surely only as one proof of brilliant exceptions, more of which may occur without refuting the statute of sexual organization."

"Perhaps this will be possible after all if a sufficient time for development be allowed. There may be much fewer geniuses among the other sex, but there has certainly been a concentration of talent. Or, in other words, totally ignorant women have become much rarer. You, Professor, are fortunate in not being in a position to compare young women of to-day with those of forty or more years ago ! This I can do, and just as once I found it natural that there should be swarms of little geese and peacocks, I never recover from my astonishment nowadays at the amount of knowledge acquired by young womanhood. It requires a considerable effort on my part very often to avoid being completely overshadowed by a partner at dinner. The more this stratum of talent increases, the more we have reason to expect a greater number of geniuses from them in the future."

"You are given to prognostication," said Einstein, "and calculate with probabilities which sometimes are lacking in foundation. Increased education and even an increase of talents are quantitative assumptions that make an inference regarding higher quality reaching to genius appear very bold."

A passing look of ominous portent flashed over his face, and I noticed that he was preparing to launch a sarcastic aphorism. So it was, for the next words were :

"It is conceivable that Nature may have created a sex without brains !"

I grasped the sense of this grotesque remark, which was in no way to be taken literally. It was intended as an amusing exaggeration of what he had earlier called the reason for his failing expectation : the organic difference which, being rooted in the physical constitution, had somewhere to express itself on the mental plane, too. The soul of woman strong in impulse shows a refinement of feeling of which we men are not susceptible, whereas the greatest achievements of reason probably depend on a preponderance of brain substance. It is this plus beyond the normal amount that gives promise of great discoveries, inventions, and creations. We can just as little imagine a female Galilei, Kepler, and Descartes, as a female Michelangelo or Sebastian Bach.

But when we think of these extreme cases, let us also recall the balance on the other side : although a woman could not create the differential calculus, it was she that created Leibniz ; similarly she produced Kant if not the Critique of Pure Reason. Woman, as the author of all great minds, has at least a right of access to all means of education and to all advancement that is proffered by universities. And in this connexion Einstein expressed his wish clearly enough.

[Not quite the Einstein one might wish ! While such sentiments were common enough among male intellectuals, even politically radical ones, in the early 1900s, Einstein's extreme language --- the much older and unabashedly sexist Moszkowski calls it "grotesque" --- probably owes its venom as much to events in his personal life as to blind acceptance of the social status quo. Einstein's bitter divorce from the physicist Mileva Marić was finalised in February of 1919 ; in June of the same year he married his far more traditional cousin Elsa Löwenthal. The contempt for intelligent women in the paragraphs above is nothing compared to that expressed in some of Einstein's letters to Marić during the collapse of their relationship.]

One of the most discussed themes in matters touching school education is at the present time : "the selection of gifted pupils." It has developed into a principle that is generally recognized by the great majority, the only point of disagreement being in respect to the number that is to be selected.

The idea running through it is that derived from Darwin's theory of selection : man completes the method of selection practised by Nature. He sifts and chooses, and allows those that are more talented to come to the fore more rapidly and more decidedly ; he favours their advancement and makes easy their ascent.

This principle has really always been in existence. It started with the distribution of prizes in ancient Olympia and reaches to the present-day examinations that are clearly intended as a means of selecting talents. A greater discrimination based on a systematic search for talents was reserved for our own day.

It was scarcely a matter of doubt to me what attitude Einstein would take up towards this matter. I had already heard him say hard words about the system of examinations, and knew his leaning towards allowing each mind to develop its power freely and naturally.

In effect, Einstein declared to me that he would hear nothing of a breeding of talents in a sort of sporting way. The dangers of the methods of sport would creep in and lead to results that had only the appearance of truth. From the results so far obtained it was impossible to come to a final decision about it. Yet it was conceivable that a selective process conducted along reasonable lines would in general prove of advantage in education, particularly in the respect that many a talent that would ordinarily become stunted owing to its being kept in darkness would now have an opportunity of coming to light.

This resolved itself into a talk bearing on many questions, and of which I should like to state the main issue here. It was specially intended to make clear the gambling method that Einstein repudiates, and the danger of which seems still more threatening to me than to him.

If certain pædagogues, whose creed is force, were to have their way, the "most gifted " pupils would be able, or would be compelled, to rush through school at hurricane speed, and, at an age at which their fellows were still spending weary hours at their desks, they would have to clamber to the top-most branches of the academic tree. All things are possible, and history even furnishes cases of such forced marches. Luther's friend Melanchthon qualified at the age of thirteen to enter the University of Heidelberg, and at the age of seventeen he became a professor at Tübingen, where he gave lectures on the most difficult problems of philosophy, as well on the Roman and Greek writers of classical antiquity. This single instance need only be generalized, and we have the new ideal rising up before our astonished gaze : a race of professorial striplings whose upper lips are scarcely darkened with the down of youth ! It is a mere matter of making an early discovery of the most gifted, and then raising the scaffolding up which the precocious know-alls can climb as easily as possible.

(Interposed query : Where are these discoverers of talent, and how do they prove their own talent ? There was a good opportunity for them in a case which I must here mention. Einstein told me in another connexion that, as early as 1907, that is, when he was still very young in years, he had not only succeeded in successfully representing the Principle of Equivalence, one of the main supports of the General Principle of Relativity, but had even published it ; yet it made not the slightest impression on the learned world. No one suspected the far-reaching consequences, and no one pointed out this flaming up of a new talent of the highest order. And just as this was able to remain concealed from the learned Areopagus of the world at that time, so a similar lack of understanding may easily be possible on a smaller scale at school. We know actually that among the recognized great men of science, there were many who did only moderately well at school ; as, for example, Humphry Davy, Robert Mayer, Justus Liebig, and many others. Wilhelm Ostwald goes so far as to affirm : "Boys ordained to be discoverers later in life have, almost without exception, been bad at school ! It is just the most gifted young people who have resisted most strongly the form of intellectual development prescribed by the school ! Schools never cease to show themselves to be the bitter, unrelenting enemies of genius !" --- in spite of all efforts at selection which have always been in vogue in the guise of advancement into higher forms.)

But the new mode of selection is intended to prevent mistakes and oversights. Is this possible ? Do not the traces of previous attempts inspire distrust ? There was once a very ideal selection that had to stand the test of one of the most eminent bodies in existence, the French Academy. Its duty was to discover geniuses on an incomparably higher plane. It, however, repudiated or overlooked : Molière, Descartes, Pascal, Diderot, the two Rousseaus, Beaumarchais, Balzac, Béranger, the Goncourts, Daudet, Emile Zola, and many other extremely gifted people, whom it should really have been able to find.

The only true, and at the same time necessary as well as sufficient, breeding is carried out by Nature herself in conjunction with social conventions, which promise the more success the less they assume the character of incubators and breeding establishments. If you wish to apply tests to discover pupils of genius in any class, examine as much as you like, excite interest and ambition, distribute prizes even, but not for the purpose of separating at short intervals the shrewd and needle-witted heads from the rest ; and do not lose sight of the fact that, among those who appear as the sheep as a result of these systematized tests to discover ingenuity, there are many who, ten or twenty years later, will take up their positions as men of eminent talent.

There is no essential difference between the forced promotion of such pupils and the breeding of super-men according to Nietzsche's recipe as exemplified by his Zarathustra. Assuming that super-men are justified in existing at all, they will come about of themselves, but cannot simply be manufactured. Workmen, taken as a class, represent super-men more definitely than an individual such as Napoleon or Cæsar Borgia. So the "super-scholar" exists perhaps already to-day, not as an individual phenomenon, but as a whole, representing his class. Whoever has had experience in these things will know that nowadays there are difficult subjects in which it is possible to apply to pupils of fifteen years of age tests that are far above the plane of comprehension of pupils of the same age in former times, provided that the average is considered, that no accidental or artificial separation has occurred, that no pretentiously witty questions have had to be answered, and that there has been no systematic and inquisitive search for talent.

Carl Spitzweg: Der arme Poet, 1839.

Let us rest satisfied if we find that the sum-total of talent is continually on the increase. On the other hand, it is by no means proved that we are doing civilization a service by persisting in the impossible project of abolishing from the world the struggle for existence prescribed by Nature. It is an elementary fact, and one that is easy to understand, that many talents perish unnoticed. On the other hand, observe the long list of eminent men who fought their way upwards out of the lowest stages of existence only to recognize that the difficulties that have been overcome are mostly necessary accompaniments of talent, that is, that Nature's way of selection is to oppose obstacles and raise difficulties in order to test their powers.

In the case of the poor lens-grinder Spinoza and many others ranging to Béranger, who was a waiter, what a chain of desperate experiences, yet what triumphs ! Herschel, the astronomer, was too poor to buy a refracting telescope, and it was just this dispensation of poverty that made him succeed in constructing a reflecting type composed of a mirror. Faraday, the son of a blacksmith without means, made his way for years as a bookbinder's apprentice. Joule, one of the founders of the mechanical theory of heat, started as a beer-brewer. Kepler, the discoverer of the planetary laws, was descended from a poverty-stricken innkeeper. Of the members in Goethe's circle, Jung-Stilling, of whom Nietzsche was so fond, was a tailor's apprentice ; Eckermann, Goethe's intimate associate, was a swine-herd, and Zelter was a mason. We could add many recent names to this list, and very many more if we continue the line backwards to Euripides, whose father was a publican and whose mother was a vendor of vegetables. This might serve as a basis for many reflections about the "upward course of the talented," and about its less favourable reverse side. For one might put the apparently paradoxical question whether a soaring career for many or all talents is a necessity for our civilization, or whether it would not be better to have a substratum interspersed with talent, to cultivate a mossy undergrowth which is to serve as nourishment for the blooming plants of the upper layer.

Maximum is not equivalent to optimum, and we learned elsewhere that Einstein is far removed from identifying them. In the previous case it was a question of the problem of population ; and in the course of the discussion he mentioned that we are subject to an old error of calculation when we regard it as a desirable aim to have a maximum number of human beings on the earth. It seems, indeed, that this false conclusion is already in process of being corrected. A beginning is being made with new and very active organizations and unions whose programme is to reduce the number so that an optimum may be attainable by those left.

If we extend this line of reasoning still further, we arrive at the depressing question whether too much might not be done for talent, not only as regards breeding it, but also in favouring the greatest number. It is quite possible that in doing so, we might overlook, or take insufficient account of the harm that might be done to the lower stratum, in that we should be depriving it of forces which, according to the economy of Nature, should remain and act in concealment.

This fear, as here expressed, is not shared by Einstein. However brusquely he repudiates breeding, he speaks in favour of smoothing the way for talent. "I believe," he said, "that a sensible fostering of gifts is of advantage to humanity generally and prevents injustice being done to the individual. In great cities which give such lavish opportunities of education, this injustice manifests itself less often ; but it occurs so much the more in rural districts, where there are certainly many cases of gifted youths who, if recognized as such at the right age, would attain to an important position, but who, together with their gifts, become stunted, nay, go to ruin, if the principle of selection does not penetrate to their circle."

This brings us to the most difficult and most dangerous point. The spectre of responsibility is rapping at the portals of society, and is reminding us insistently that it is our duty to see that no injustice be done to any talent that may be among us. And this duty is but little removed from the demand that it should be disburdened of the worries of daily life, for, so the moral argument runs, talent will ripen the more surely the less it has to combat these ceaseless disturbances of ordinary life.

But this thesis, so evident on moral grounds, will never be proved empirically. On the contrary, we have good reason to suppose that necessity, the mother of invention on the broader scale, will often in the case of the individual talent prove to be the mother of its best results. Goethe required for his development an unchallenged life of ease, whereas Schiller, who never emerged from his life of misery, and who, up to the time when he wrote Don Carlos, had not been able to earn sufficient with his pen to buy a writing-desk, required distress to make his genius burst into flower. Jean Paul recognized this blessing of gloomy circumstances when he glorified poverty in his novels. Hebbel followed him along this path by saying that it is more fruitful to refuse the most talented person the necessities of life than to grant them to the least gifted. For among a hundred who have been chosen by the method of sifting, there will be only one on the average who will receive the certificate of excellence in the test of future generations, for the latter use entirely different methods of sifting from that practised by a committee of examiners who expect ready answers to prepared questions.

This projects us on to the horns of a severe dilemma that scarcely allows of escape. The consciousness of duty towards the optimum expresses itself only in a maximum of assistance, and overhears the whispered objection of reason that Nature has also coarser means at her disposal to attain her ends; in her own cruelty of selection she often enough proves the truth of Menander's saying, which, freely translated, says : to be tormented is also part of man's education.

The fact that Einstein -- with certain reservations -- favours the giving of help to the selected few, it is for me a proof, among many others, of his love towards his fellow-men, which fills his heart absolutely, all questions of relativity notwithstanding.

Einstein at age 14.


  1. Phenomena of the Heavens
  2. Beyond our Power
  3. Valhalla
  4. Education
  5. The Discoverer
  6. Of Different Worlds
  7. Problems
  8. Highways and By-ways
  9. An Experimental Analogy
  10. Disconnected Suggestions
  11. Einstein's Life and Personality