Einstein’s letter on education

I came across this letter from Albert Einstein that was published in the New York Times on October 5, 1952 and am reproducing it because it mirrors my own views that those who view education purely because of its utility value are missing something profound about it.


Albert Einstein

It is not enough to teach man a specialty. Through it he may become a kind of useful machine but not a harmoniously developed personality. It is essential that the student acquire an understanding of and a lively feeling for values. He must acquire a vivid sense of the beautiful and of the morally good. Otherwise he – with his specialized knowledge – more closely resembles a well-trained dog than a harmoniously developed person. He must learn to understand the motives of human beings, their illusions, and their sufferings in order to acquire a proper relationship to individual fellow-men and to the community.

These precious things are conveyed to the younger generation through personal contact with those who teach, not – or at least not in the main – through textbooks. It is this that primarily constitutes and preserves culture. This is what I have in mind when I recommend the “humanities” as important, not just dry specialized knowledge in the fields of history and philosophy.

Overemphasis on the competitive system and premature specialization on the ground of immediate usefulness kill the spirit on which all cultural life depends, specialized knowledge included.

It is also vital to a valuable education that independent critical thinking be developed in the young human being, a development that is greatly jeopardized by overburdening him with too much and with too varied subjects (point system). Overburdening necessarily leads to superficiality. Teaching should be such that what is offered is perceived as a valuable gift and not as a hard duty.

For example, with so-called ‘hard’ subjects like mathematics that requires people to put in considerable effort into working out things for themselves, people try to coax students to put in the effort by arguing that it will be useful to them in the future. While that argument has some merit, what really makes people give of their best is to be interested in something for its own sake, because it sparks their curiosity or passion. That is what good teaching should aim for.

While I love science and mathematics, I have been greatly concerned about the downgrading in US schools of the humanities and the arts and even just recreation as disposable ‘luxuries’, to be included only if time and resources permit. All those things should be considered integral parts of any educational system.


  1. says

    @Marcus #1
    A few days ago Adam Lee published “The Secret of Scandinavian Socialism’s Success”

    “Liberals like me often hold up the Scandinavian states as a model to which the United States should aspire. There’s a lot to like about them: they’re highly equal societies with strong progressive taxation, little poverty or crime, and comprehensive welfare states. As a result of these policies, countries like Iceland, Denmark, Sweden and Norway consistently rank near the top on human-development indexes that track markers of progress like democracy, gender equality, secularism, and freedom of speech. They even lead the pack on global happiness surveys.

    What makes it so easy for these nations to do this, while the same outcome seems so unattainable in the U.S.? …”

  2. Roj Blake says

    When I look back at my education, I did best in those subjects that interested me (English, History) and those where the teacher was engaged and enthusiastic (Geography, Economics).

    For example, with so-called ‘hard’ subjects like mathematics that requires people to put in considerable effort into working out things for themselves, people try to coax students to put in the effort by arguing that it will be useful to them in the future.

    I always struggled with maths beyond basic arithmetic. Algebra was a foreign country, logarithms were a foreign language, trigonometry may has well have come from Mars.

    15 years after leaving school, I discovered computers (Apple IIE was my first) and I self taught BASIC. I sat down at work and wrote a BASIC program for products we imported. It calculated exchange rates, shipping costs, taxes, added a margin and provided a final sell price. Tested and working 100%. Feeling pleased with myself, I sat back with a celebratory beer when it hit me -- that program was Algebra. I don’t understand Algebra. Amazing what the mind can accomplish, as you say, with a combination of need and enthusiasm.

    A little later I began to study accountancy at night school as part of a marketing qualification. Each lesson began with the teacher outlining what we would do that night and where we would end up after the lesson. It was a great learning experience. Half way through, the teacher was replaced by another who began each lesson with “Good evening” and launched in to Teaching. At the end of the lesson, it was good night. My enthusiasm waned, as did my outcomes.

    I continued my self teaching of computing, the company I worked for employed a contractor to write specific software in one of those new fangled 4GLs (Dataflex) while I continued my work in sales and marketing. Along the way I picked up enough knowledge of Dataflex to be able to make minor modifications to the contractor’s code after they left and to create smaller Dataflex applications.

    All this resulted in me being the unique candidate a software start up was looking for -- they sought a Marketing Manager with a good grounding in accounting and 4GLs as their product was written in TAS+. Over the next 4 years we developed the company from 2 owners, one programmer and me to offices in every state of Australia and the number 3 small business accounting software package.

    Not bad for a kid from the working class west of Melbourne with no University Degree, but a passion for learning the things that interested me.

    Now I am 65 and have found anew passion -- photography. Not very good yet, but slowly improving.

    A good, broad education that lays the foundations andf ignites a passion for life long learning is the gold standard we should seek

  3. says

    Rob Grigjanis@#2:
    Yep. It’s a really good piece -- I particularly like how he avoids any “because I’m Albert Einstein” -- he lays it all out very neatly.

    I do wonder how much it hurt his standing. Rawls and Dewey both got tagged as being socialistic and suddenly their philosophy was not so popular any more. There’s a lot of suppression of socialist thought in this country, almost like it’s a threat to the establishment.

  4. Silentbob says

    Einstein’s views were probably influenced by personal experience. Many sources report he felt stifled by his early education, for example in Wikipedia:

    His father intended for him to pursue electrical engineering, but Einstein clashed with authorities and resented the school’s regimen and teaching method. He later wrote that the spirit of learning and creative thought was lost in strict rote learning.

    That was around the age of 15.

  5. Callinectes says

    The curriculum should be focusing a lot more on subjects that computers and machines cannot perform better than humans. A student trained to compete with machines is a student trained to fail in life.

  6. brucegee1962 says

    I’ve been thinking about this a lot in terms of history. My daughter’s high school history homework always seems to consist of “read this chapter in the textbook, take notes, and turn them in.” As a result, of course, she despises history.

    If I taught history, I’d want to swap breadth for depth. Choose a person or event that interests you, and spend the next three weeks doing a project that forces you to learn everything you can. I wouldn’t even care what the project was — the times I’ve been most motivated to learn about history were when I was writing a short story set in a specific period.

    But if that was the method I used, I’d be judged a terrible teacher. My students might end up fascinated with history and highly motivated to learn about it, but they’d also do poorly on the all-important tests.

    So what should teachers’ end result be? Broad knowledge, or instigating a love of the subject? Well, I know which one I’d prefer.

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