Tuesday, 1 May 2012

Correcting Einstein - Sorry about that

“Education is what remains after one has forgotten everything he learned in school.”
Albert Einstein
For someone with a physics degree, who has nothing but respect for the great man, attempting to improve on something that Einstein said is tantamount to heresy. But here’s what I want to do and my justification for it. In the quote above, I want to replace ‘learned’ with ‘remembered’ or ‘memorised’. I think it is useful to make a distinction between remembering and learning. We can all recall memorising (or failing to memorise in my case!) lists of foreign language vocabulary for the next test. But how much good did it really do us? What percentage of the words on those lists is still with us now – or was even still with us a week after the test? The truth is that although we remembered the words on the list for the test – and some of us may have even passed the tests – we had learned little or nothing.

Now I know there will be someone reading this who says ‘but I still know the words on those vocabulary lists’ – and good for you, I say. But I’ll also wager that you had opportunities to hear and use those words in context and thus turned remembering into learning. You also probably mixed up tenses, conjugated verbs wrongly, and generally sounded like a foreigner in whatever language you were learning. And so you should – because that’s how you learn! You try something, you make mistakes, you learn and you do it better next time.

My other point is that while forgetting something memorised is as simple and as natural as breathing in and out - once something is truly learned, it cannot be forgotten.

So here’s what I think Einstein meant to say:

“Education is what remains after one has forgotten everything remembered in school”
and perhaps blame the anonymous reporter who misheard what the great man had to say.

Education is – or at least should be – the sum of all we learn in the course of our lives. Some of this comes from schools, though sadly, in my opinion, not nearly enough. But much of it comes from new experiences, from interaction with others and from the mistakes we make. Einstein summed it up himself when he said:

“Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.”


First posted on August 28, 2011

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