Einstein Never Said That, Either

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“Albert Einstein Head Cleaned N Cropped” by Photograph by Oren Jack Turner, Princeton, N.J. This image is available from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID cph.3b46036.

I recently posted about a quote that has mistakenly been  attributed to Einstein. While researching that mistaken attribution, I came across another that I felt compelled to address. This one has been shared in staff development at my school, and was also mistakenly attributed to Albert Einstein. This one has always rubbed me the wrong way, and the fact that it in NOT from Einstein brings me a twisted sense of satisfaction.

So, if you have ever suffered this one, you can now correct the author/speaker who lays this at the feet of Einstein:

Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.

While it may be some comfort to folks to believe that each of us is a genius in our own right, the notion is patently absurd. Perhaps this piece of tripe rose out of the mis-directed “Self-Esteem” movement that gained a lot of traction during the 1980’s. If you want to see hundreds of instances of this misquote, look it up in Google Images. You will see nearly countless “inspirational” images featuring this quote, and almost always attributed to Einstein.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that schools often do a poor job of identifying and nurturing the genuine talents and interests of many of our students. However, the notion that each of us is an unrecognized genius is not laughable, it is actually counter-productive.

I, for one, am NOT a genius. The things that I have accomplished were not so much the result of the way in which my neural networks aligned, but rather they were the product of curiosity and tenacity. If you want to share a genuinely inspiring (and GENUINE) Einstein quote in the context of education, I contend that the choice ought to be:

It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.

Lets teach students the value of tenacity. Want to be good at math? Work at it. Want to perform brilliantly on a musical instrument? Be prepared to spend hours practicing, and be willing to work at your deficits. Want to get to Medical School? Be prepared to outwork an army of similarly talented young persons, almost none of whom are geniuses.

No doubt there are geniuses. I believe that I have encountered several in my years as a teacher. We should take comfort in their relative rarity – it means that we have a greater role to play in the lives of young people. We are not simply traffic cops directing our myriad genius students to their pre-destined appointments with greatness. We have our subjects to teach, but as important is teaching them “to stay with problems longer.”

I am the owner-developer of Sciencegeek.net and a science teacher at El Diamante High School in Visalia, CA.

Posted in Teaching