Nobles Parents' E-Newsletter

September 2017

Nobles Parents' Newsletter September 2017

"Learning From (and Living Like) a Genius" by Head of the Upper School Michael Denning

The aim [of education] must be the training of independently acting and thinking individuals who, however, see in the service to the community their highest life problem.
                                                                                                 —Albert Einstein, 1936

As I awaited the solar eclipse that dominated the imaginations of so many this summer, I became immersed in Walter Isaacson’s magnificent biography of Albert Einstein, Einstein: His Life and Universe. A brilliant storyteller, Isaacson brings to life this most influential of individuals—his joys, passions, triumphs, bad habits, struggles and shortcomings as a friend, father, colleague and partner. I picked up this work hoping to learn more about physics and Einstein’s theories, and I am grateful to Isaacson for making these complex ideas accessible. As I worked my way through this book, however, I found myself focusing on not only Einstein’s amazing ideas, but also Isaacson’s descriptions of Einstein’s character and what we can learn from the habits of heart and mind of Time magazine’s “Person of the Century.”

  • Self-confidence: Einstein believed in himself when many others did not. In 2005, we celebrated the 100th anniversary of Annus Mirabilis, Einstein’s four papers that revolutionized theoretical physics. In speaking for themselves, these works distract us from realizing that Einstein published these, not from an academic position at a university, but while working as a patent clerk in Bern, Switzerland. Einstein was turned down for one academic job after another, told he had neither the temperament nor the intellect to be a teacher and scholar. Thus, he spent days working at the job he could get, using his evenings and weekends to pursue his intellectual passions. Einstein persevered where others would have given up, changing the course of human history in the process.
  • Process Over Outcome: Einstein welcomed struggle, believing that short-term failures were essential elements of scientific advancement. Many of his most important discoveries came after working through countless roadblocks and backtracking from intellectual dead ends. These obstacles were immensely time consuming, but many of these, he believed, made later breakthroughs possible. In our quest to help students to do the right things, to master many skills and ideas, and to achieve in and out of our classrooms and in the college process, do we provide enough opportunities for them to learn through struggle, experimentation, risk-taking and trial and error, learning experiences we would all agree to be essential for innovation and new discoveries?
  • Willingness to Learn from Others and to Collaborate: While often recognized by lay people as being among the world’s greatest mathematicians, Einstein was, according to many scholars, significantly weaker in math than many of his peers. Indeed, while his genius was his ability to see complex theoretical constructs that others could not, he struggled to develop mathematical models that proved these ideas. Among physicists, however, it seems to be well known that Einstein often sought help from other supremely talented folks, including his first wife, Mileva Maric-Ajnštajn, as well as his friends at the Swiss Federal Polytechnical School in Zurich, Marcel Grossman and Michele Besso. Later in his life, Einstein relied heavily on the work of, and his relationships with, famed scholars such as Max Planck, Fritz Haber, Carl Friedrich Gauss, Max Von Laue and Bernhard Riemann, just to name a few.

    Einstein had a big ego, and we should not overstate a case regarding his collaboration. However, the years he spent working and engaging actively with others speak to his self awareness and knowledge of his limitations, as well as his ability to make his ego subservient to the needs of the work at hand. In an era when individual accomplishment seems to marr and prohibit effective teamwork, can talking about Einstein’s limitations and spirit of collaboration help us to teach students of the important role teamwork can play in their endeavors? If one of the 20th century’s brightest minds sought the help of others, shouldn’t we all try to do so, too?
  • Courage and Resilience: Einstein was enormously resilient. Along with experiencing great personal loss—some of which, one might argue, was of his own making—Einstein was also a European refugee who became stateless more than once and was deprived of his German citizenship by the Nazi regime. Indeed, while Einstein was a man of the world, he was more than once a man without a country or home, and his courage and adaptability in the face of those exceptional hardships is something to be emulated and taught.

    Einstein stood up for what he believed was right. With both strength and humility, he protested against war, nuclear weapons, antisemitism, fascism and other evils and injustices. While some of his positions might seem less courageous because of his fame, Einstein, we learn, was a person of principle long before he had either the reputation or economic stability to render his courageous positions less risky. Einstein took important stands when they mattered, regardless of how hard or expensive they might have been for him. In so doing, he reminds us of our obligations of citizenship.  

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