Albert Einstein at School
by Patrick Pringle
About the Author
Author Name: Patrick Pringle
Born: 1917 (age 103 years), London, United Kingdom
Books: Jolly Roger: The Story of the Great Age of Piracy
Nominations: Edgar Award for Best Fact Crime
This biographical piece discusses the childhood of Albert Einstein, the famous physicist. The chapter starts with Einstein’s disagreement on rote learning with his history teacher. Einstein wanted to get away from the system of education followed in Munich. So, he decided to get a doctor’s certificate declaring that he has had a nervous breakdown and needs rest for six months. Only his maths teacher admired Einstein for his brilliance. But before Einstein could get an appointment with the head teacher to present the certificate, he was asked by the head teacher to leave the school due to poor conduct. So, he felt happy on leaving.
During his schooldays at Munich, he was not interested in the rote learning methods of school education and expressed his frank opinion. Nobody except his maths teacher recognised his genius. In the end he was expelled by the school authorities.
He was Einstein’s history teacher who believes in the rote learning system of education.
He was Einstein’s good friend and a very helpful person.
She was Einstein’s cousin who advised him that he will eventually succeed if he continues in his school.
Dr Ernst Weil: He was a newly qualified doctor who understands Einstein and helps him by giving the medical certificate which he required.
Mr Koch: He was Einstein’s maths teacher who understood his genius and gave him the reference he wanted.
Head Teacher: He is an administrator who simply takes the disciplinary action required by requesting Einstein to leave the school.
About the lesson
This chapter centres around Albert Einstein who is considered as one of the greatest physicists of all time. This extract describes the circumstances which lead to his expulsion from a German school.
When this chapter begins, we find Albert arguing with his history teacher over learning of dates. His teacher holds him responsible for being lenient and distracting others from studies. He even ridicules Albert for knowing all the things and calls him a disgrace in front of the whole class.
This incident makes Albert feel miserable when he leaves school that afternoon. He never wanted to study in such a school that emphasizes more on rote learning than understanding the concepts and ideas.
The narrator discusses his lodgings where Albert never wanted to leave. According to the narrator, his landlady was very ruthless who used to beat her children ruthlessly. Even the food, he was served there were dirt and squalor. In short, Albert never felt pleased living over there.
In those days, Albert used to have a friend namely Yuri who counselled him not to leave that school. Yuri and Edla (his cousin) try their level best to compare his life to the people worse than him but fail to make any difference. They Yuri gives him the best of the solution of getting a nervous breakdown certificate made from one of his doctor friends who had qualified last week. Albert agrees to it, an appointment is fixed, and he goes to see that doctor on his appointment day.
Doctor Ernst Weil knew everything beforehand as he was narrated each and everything by Yuri about Albert and his disliking about the school. While talking to him, the doctor realizes that Albert was seriously on the verge of being the victim of nervous troubles. Albert tells his plans to the doctor that he wants to go to Italy to get into an Italian College in order to learn mathematics. Having talked to him, Doctor Ernst Weil hands him over that certificate and certifies that he needs rest for six months which can help him in getting rid of his school forever.
Albert feels pleased after receiving that certificate. He goes to meet his mathematics teacher Mr Koch and later gives him a reference in writing so that he can get admission in a good college. His teacher calls him a prodigy and says that he cannot teach him anymore. He also praises Albert highlighting his quality of teaching his mathematics teacher.
Before Albert could go out to hand over his certificate to his head teacher, he is summoned to head’s room and ordered to leave the school as his presence disturbs others in the class and no serious work can be done when he is there. Albert and the headmaster both agree to former’s leaving the school without creating any mess.
Albert feels very pleased leaving that school and goes to the country wherein he wanted to build his dreams.
physicist – scientist who studies physics
expulsion – forced removal
unthinking – spontaneous
amaze – surprise
heavy sarcasm – mockery
flushed – became red in confusion
stay in – remain
lodgings – place of residence
squalor – filth
slum violence – fights in the poorest areas of the town
came drunk – became drunk
civilised – polite, well-mannered
duel – fight between two people
scar – injury mark
badge of honour – mark of pride
glumly – sadly
learning things by heart – remembering things perfectly
wailing – long and loud sound made by the violin
gets on one’s nerves – annoys
howling – crying
absurd – silly
turn out – end in the result that
gleamed – shone brightly
nervous breakdown – mental illness
Einstein in History Class
The narrative begins with Einstein being’ asked by his history teacher, Mr Braun, about the year in which the Prussians defeated the French at Waterloo. Einstein frankly replied that he did not remember, and he didn’t see any point in learning dates. Mr Braun was amazed that Einstein didn’t believe in learning facts. According to Einstein, learning facts was not education at all. He thought that ideas were more important than facts. The teacher asked him to explain ‘Einstein’s theory of education’. Einstein shyingly elaborated that he would be more interested in learning the reason why soldiers killed each other instead of learning years or dates, or which of the armies killed more men.
Einstein Gets Scolded
Mr Braun was shocked and furious. He believed that Einstein had no desire to learn and was wasting his father’s money. Mr Braun did not agree with Einstein’s views on education. He punished Einstein by asking him to stay for an extra period in school. He also told Einstein that he was a disgrace to the school and ought to be ashamed of himself. The teacher suggested Einstein to call his father to take him away.
Einstein Hated the Atmosphere of Slum Violence
Einstein felt miserable that day. He wished his father would take him away. His father was not rich. So, Einstein lived in one of the poorest areas of Munich. He hated the slum violence there.
Einstein had no comfort there. The atmosphere was bad as his landlady beat her children regularly and every Saturday her husband, a drunkard, beat her. The only comfort for Einstein was when he played his violin, but that was also, stopped by his landlady because its sound disturbed her. All this made him miserable.
Einstein shared his pain with Yuri, his only friend in Munich. Yuri tried to convince by telling him that he was lucky to at least have his own room.
Yuri also told Einstein that he was sharing a room with students who were not civilised at all and they fought with each other. One of the students got killed the previous week in such a duel. The authorities did not take action and merely told them not to engage in such fights. Einstein got disgusted after hearing this account.
Einstein Met his Cousin Elsa
Einstein was doubtful about passing his exams for the school diploma. He told Elsa, his cousin, the same when she next came to Munich. She used to visit Einstein occasionally, but she lived in Berlin, where her father had a business. Elsa tried to counsel him. She told him that she knew a lot of boys who were more stupid than him and they all had passed the exam. She counselled him to continue his studies in the school. Einstein explained his helplessness by saying that he was no good at learning things by heart. He was reading a book on geology, which was not even a part of his diploma. Still, he was studying it because he liked it. Apart from books on science, his only comfort was playing his violin, until his landlady asked him to stop.
Einstein’s Plan to Get Away from School
Einstein thought that it was meaningless for him to stay on in Munich. It was no use wasting his father’s money and everyone’s time. Einstein suddenly got an idea. He met Yuri and asked him if he knew a doctor. Einstein wanted to get a medical certificate to show that he had a nervous breakdown and he should stop going to school. Yuri doubted that the doctor will believe Einstein. Einstein commented that he would have a real nervous breakdown to make matters easier for the doctor.
The Doctor Gives Einstein a Medical Certificate
Yuri found a recently qualified doctor, Dr. Ernst Weil. Yuri warned Einstein against trying to deceive Ernst, but to be frank and honest.
Einstein met Dr. Ernst the next day. Dr. Ernst informed him that Yuri had told him about his troubles. Einstein informed him about his plans to move to Milan. Dr Ernst gave him a medical certificate stating that Einstein was suffering from nervous breakdown and should stay away from school for six months. Einstein thanked the doctor and took Yuri for a meal.
Einstein Seeks a Reference
Einstein told Yuri that he would leave school forever as he never wanted to come back to that school. Yuri suggested him to take a reference letter from his maths teacher, to Mr. Koch, before going to the headmaster. Mr. Koch really admired Einstein for his brilliance and gave him the reference.
Einstein Summoned by Head Teacher
Before Einstein had a chance to give the medical certificate to the head teacher, he was summoned to the head teacher’s office. The head teacher told him that he was expelled from the school and he should leave immediately.
When Einstein wanted to know the reason, the head teacher told him that his presence disturbed the class so much that no teaching could be done.
Einstein Happy to Leave the School
When Einstein heard this, he felt sad that he had unnecessarily wasted time and effort in procuring a medical certificate. Einstein was tempted to tell the head teacher what he thought about the school or about the teachers but somehow stopped himself. But he did not feel ashamed of being expelled and walked out keeping his head high. He did not say goodbye to any teacher or student inside the school.
The only person he wanted to meet before leaving was Yuri, who wished him good luck and wished that he would be happier in Milan as it was a wonderful place.
The chapter opens in history class where Mr. Braun is asking Einstein a question related to dates. Einstein gives a frank reply that he does not remember the answer.
The conversation between Einstein and his history teacher Mr. Braun turns unpleasant when the teacher talks in a sarcastic manner about Einstein’s theory of education. The teacher calls him a disgrace and punishes him.
Einstein feels very miserable due to many factors: the school environment, the place where he lived etc.
The atmosphere where he lives is also depressing. He hates the atmosphere of ‘slum violence’ where the beating of children by their mother and the beating of a wife by a drunk husband is a regular feature.
Einstein discusses about all this with his friend Yuri who lives in a shared room.
Yuri says that his room was no better than Einstein’s, as students became violent over small matters.
Einstein discusses about the problems at school with his cousin Elsa who occasionally visited him.
Elsa thinks there is no reason that he cannot pass by remembering facts even though he does not understand them.
Einstein is greatly interested in reading books on science. Elsa points out to him that reading those books will not help him to pass his examination.
Einstein discusses with Yuri about getting a medical certificate from a doctor so that he can stay away from his school.
Yuri sends him to a newly qualified doctor, Ernst Weil. He is an understanding person and gives a certificate stating that
Einstein is close to a nervous breakdown and should keep away from school for six months.
Yuri suggests to Einstein to meet his maths teacher first for a reference before Einstein went to meet the head teacher with the medical certificate.
Einstein’s Maths teacher, Mr Koch, appreciates his brilliance. He gives a glowing reference to Einstein which can get him admission in a college or institute for higher education in maths.
Einstein is called by the head teacher who informs him that he is being expelled from the school. The head teacher tells him of his misbehaviour in class.
Einstein happily leaves the school with head held high. He does not bid goodbye to any teacher or student of that school,
Before leaving for Milan, he meets his best friend Yuri, who wishes him good luck for the future.
A.Reading with Insight
Question 1: What do you understand of Einstein’s nature from his conversations with his history teacher, his mathematics teacher, and the head teacher?
Answer: Exchanges between Einstein and History teacher show that Einstein is honest and truthful. He admits his shortcomings, frankly. He has firm and well-defined opinions. He explains precisely what he thinks. Thus, his basic intelligence, logical reasoning and lucid expression are highlighted. He showed the sparks of genius even at a young age. His maths teacher had a high opinion of him. He went to the extent of saying: “I can’t teach you more, and probably you’ll soon be able to teach me.” When Albert said that it was excessive praise, the teacher acknowledged that it was only the truth. He made the point by saying that Albert was ready immediately to enter a college or institute for the study of higher mathematics. Albert himself said, “I’ve learnt all the maths, they teach at school and a bit more.”
The head teacher told Albert that he was expelling him from school because his presence in the classroom made it impossible for the teacher to teach and other pupils to learn. No serious work could be done while he was in the class. Albert refused to learn, and he was” in constant rebellion.
For a moment Albert felt tempted to tell the head teacher what he thought of him and his school. Then he stopped himself. He didn’t say even a single word. Holding his head high, he went out with a sense of pride. Thus, he had a lot of self-control. Albert was not at all impolite. He addressed his teachers respectfully and answered the questions honestly.
Question 2: The school system often curbs individual talents. Discuss.
Answer: Albert Einstein’s miserable five years’ stay at school is a telling comment on the system of education prevailing then and existing even now. This system of education has no room for individual aspirations, brilliance, or aptitude. It discourages genius and originality and encourages mechanical dullards or the so called ‘average’ students. This system lays stress on facts and dates rather than ideas. It ignores originality and creativity, which lead to progress and development.
No wonder then that most of the students manage to pass the examination by cramming—learning things by heart and repeating it in the exams. This parrot like learning or learning without understanding may help to get the diploma but fails to enrich the mind or inculcate ideas.
The teachers and authorities insist on discipline and conformity. The history teacher and the Head teacher are sticklers for rules, pedagogy, and discipline. Brilliant students like Albert Einstein are considered dullard, stupid, incompetent, unfit rebels whose very presence makes it impossible for teacher to teach and other pupils to learn.
Question 3: How do you distinguish between information gathering and insight formation?
Answer: Learning the dates of battles or the details about victorious armies are facts. These details are part of knowledge which are content based. There is no point in spending precious years of student life on information gathering because dates or facts could be ascertained from the books any time by just looking them up. Learning facts or parrot-like learning i.e., learning without understanding is what we call information gathering.
Analysing the facts, ascertaining the causes that led to a certain incident such as an uprising or a war and learning the ideas that spring from such actions are part of insight information. It gives us a clear perception into the true nature of a thing. Such knowledge increases our logical reasoning, power of analysis interpretation and understanding and makes us think.
Short Answer Type Questions
Q1. Why was Einstein unhappy at school?
Ans. Einstein was a misfit at school and was unable to cope with the conventional system of education. As a student at Munich, he was different from other boys of his age. He hated the oppressive atmosphere of the school and was sure he would fail in the examinations.
Q2. Why was Mr. Braun speechless?
Ans. Mr. Braun was speechless because he asked Einstein in what year the Prussians defeated the French at Waterloo. Albert could not reply, when he (Braun) demanded the reason responsible for this he admitted that he did not learn the answer. Later he said that he could not see any point in learning dates which could be read in a book as well. This made Mr. Braun speechless.
Q3. What made Einstein’s life miserable in the slum where he lived?
Ans. Albert Einstein lived in a slum where his landlady made his life a hell. She most often beat her children and then occasionally she was beaten by her husband. She was so rude with Einstein that she didn’t allow him to play his violin for a relief from all this stress. Apart from this, he was constantly sad for the thought of having to go back to the school where he had not a friend.
Q4. What was Einstein’s theory about education?
Ans. Einstein believed that the then existing education method was incapable of meeting the purpose of education. He believed that learning facts and dates was not education. He was against learning facts and dates by heart. He was really disappointed that there was no effort of the teachers to make the students think and analyse the subject in his school.
Q5. How did the history teacher insult Einstein?
Ans. Mr. Braun, the history teacher remarked that Einstein was an ungrateful boy and that his output to be ashamed of himself. He should ask his father to take him away. He punished him by making him stay in for an extra period in the school that day.
Q6. Who was Yuri?
Ans. Yuri was the only friend Albert had in Munich. Yuri had great concern for Albert. It was Yuri who understood Albert’s helplessness in the school and his desire to go to Milan to join his family. Yuri was greatly helpful for Albert, especially in getting a medical certificate.
Q7. Why did Einstein not like the place where he lived?
Ans. Einstein lived in a rented room in one of the poorest quarters of Munich. He did not like the place because of the atmosphere of slum violence. His landlady beat her children regularly. Every Saturday her husband came drunk and beat her.
Q8. What was the problem faced by Einstein in passing the exams?
Ans. For passing the exams one didn’t have to know anything or understand what one was taught. One could easily pass the exams if one was able to repeat in the exams what one was taught. The problem with Einstein was that he was not good at learning things by heart.
Q9. What advice did Elsa give to Einstein to pass the examination?
Ans. Elsa is Einstein’s cousin who lived in Berlin where his father had a business. She thinks that just repetition of the lesson taught in the class during the examination is enough to pass the examination. No understanding is essential. Just learning something by heart may do the trick.
Q10. Why couldn’t Einstein think of going to Milan without a serious reason?
Ans. Einstein’s father was a struggling businessman in Milan. He had asked his son to return to Milan after completing his studies in Munich and was very stubborn about that. To go to Milan, therefore, Einstein needed a very strong reason to leave his school in Munich.
Q11. How did Albert feel at his lodging?
Ans. Albert was not at all happy in his lodging situated in the poor slum area. His room was in the poorest quarters of Munich. Even the atmosphere was quite miserable as the landlady used to beat her children. Her husband too returned on Saturday quite drank and beat her mercilessly. The atmosphere was full of noise and insanitary.
Q12. What for did Einstein require a medical certificate?
Ans. Einstein enquired his friend Yuri about a friendly doctor, who would certify him falsely for a nervous breakdown as he longed to escape from the school. Einstein hated the school at Munich and longed to escape. But he knew that if he left his studies and went to Italy to join his family, his father would get angry and send him back. One day he gets an idea. He decides to play a small drama. He would pretend that he has had a nervous breakdown. He would say that he has been advised by the doctor to discontinue studies. He asks his friend, Yuri, if he knows a kind and sympathetic doctor.
Q13. Why did the head teacher call for Albert?
Ans. Einstein got a false medical certificate and was about to go to the head teacher’s office to submit it. To his surprise, however, the headmaster himself sent for him and informed that the school had decided to rusticate him for his hostile presence in the school. The head teacher explained that all the teachers were troubled with his rebellious attitude and did not want him in the school any longer. He then suggested the simplest way out for Einstein to leave the school on his own.
Q14. Who was Mr. Koch? How did he help Einstein?
Ans. Mr. Koch was Einstein’s mathematics teacher. He was a great man, probably who was not jealous of Einstein’s knowledge. He admired Einstein’s knowledge and thought probably Albert would soon be able to teach him. Apart from this, Mr. Koch gave him a certificate that helped Einstein secure a seat in a university.
Q15. “Albert felt the medical certificate almost burning a hole in his pocket”. What does the author mean?
Ans. The author means to say that Einstein has worked so hard to get the certificate from the doctor, and then he was willing to show the certificate to the headmaster and see how he would react. However, the certificate had then become unnecessary as he was being expelled without its production.
Q16. Did Einstein succeed in leaving school? How?
Ans. Yes, finally Einstein got rid of his school. With the help of his friend, Yuri, Einstein found a doctor who was kind and understanding. The doctor gave a certificate stating that Einstein needed rest for six months because he was under extreme stress. In a dramatic turn, Einstein was called to the head teacher’s room and was told that the school had decided to expel him from the school.
Q17. Express your views on the prevailing system of education.
Ans. Education is in fact a process which brings out the best from within. But it’s an irony that the present system of education kills originality. It prompts a child to be more commercial and self-centred. It encourages him to compete more and more without letting the original personality blossom the present system of education cultivates one sided personality. It stifles creativity and originality.
Long Answer Type Questions
Q1. What made Einstein unhappy at school?
Ans. This lesson describes Einstein’s suffering at school in a moving way. It shows how a creative genius like Einstein was ridiculed by his teachers and expelled from school for daring to be different. Einstein was a misfit at school and unable to cope with the conventional system of education. As a student at Munich, he was different from other boys of his age. He hated the oppressive atmosphere of the school and was sure he would fail in the examinations. He liked to study only the subjects which interested him. He believed that there was no point in memorizing facts. Thus, on being asked when the battle of waterloo took place. Einstein replied frankly that he had forgotten the date. Moreover, he added, he did not see why one should learn dates as they could easily be looked up in a book. Einstein’s honesty is mistaken for arrogance. He is punished and told that he is disgrace to the school. Einstein thus, felt miserable at school and longed to escape.
Q2. Did Einstein succeed in leaving school? How?
Ans. Einstein hated the school at Munich and longed to escape. One day he gets an idea and discusses it with his friend, Yuri. He decides to play a small drama. He would pretend that he has had a nervous breakdown. He would say that he has been advised by the doctor to discontinue studies. With the help of his friend, Einstein is able to find a doctor who is kind and understanding. The doctor gives a certificate stating that Einstein needs rest for six months. But even before Einstein can submit the certificate, he is called by head Teacher. The head teacher tells Einstein that all the teachers are troubled with his rebellious attitude and want him to leave the school. Einstein realizes that there is now no need to show the medical certificate. He cheerfully walks out of the school which has been his prison for the last five years.
Q3. What were Einstein’s views regarding rote learning? Why is mere rote learning useless?
Ans. As a student at Munich, Einstein was different from the other boys of his age. He was unable to cope with conventional system of education which lays a lot of emphasis on rote learning. Einstein believed that the then existing education method was incapable of meeting the purpose of education. He believed that learning facts and dates was not education. He was against learning facts and dates by heart. Facts, he felt, could easily be looked up in books. Thus, on being asked when the Battle of Waterloo takes place, Einstein replied frankly that he had forgotten the date. He added that it would be more interesting to find out why soldiers had killed one another, rather than to memorize the number of soldiers killed in the battle. He was really disappointed that there was no effort of the teachers to make the students think and analyse the subject in his school.
Q4. Do you think that the teacher’s role should be primarily to make students think?
Ans. In the Conventional System of Education the aim of the student is to get a degree and take up a job. The task of the teacher, in such a system, is mostly to impart fact-based knowledge and help the student to do well in the examination. For this purpose, the teacher may dictate notes, mark important questions and repeatedly “drill” students. Such a system crushes the creative genius like Einstein. But in Reality, the role of a teacher is not to teach facts but to impart skills which can make the student think. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the teacher shows the student how to think and not what to think. The true teacher encourages the individual to be inquisitive and to analyse the various facts and implications of an issue. The aim of education, therefore, is to produce learning individuals, not necessarily learned ones, in an environment of freedom and creativity. Otherwise, the very purpose of education would be lost.
Q5. Today’s school system curbs personal talents and ignores the genius in students, imposing a teacher-school centered approach upon the students. Discuss.
Ans. Einstein studied in a school in Munich, where he was unhappy with the teaching. He was particularly averse to the idea of learning facts by heart. When his history teacher asked him when the battle of war was fought, Einstein was unable to give the answer. The history teacher scolded him for this and said he should know the answer as it had been mentioned many times in the class. Einstein replied that he did not believe in memorizing facts. He was more interested in answering the ‘why’ questions rather than ‘how’ and ‘when ‘questions.