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.

Albert Einstein? Amos Dolbear? Matthew Kelly? Apocryphal?

mudskipper02Dear Quote Investigator: The following saying is popular on Facebook where it is credited to Albert Einstein. I have also seen it on numerous websites:

Everyone 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.

Sometimes “everybody” is used instead of “everyone”. Did Einstein really say this?

Quote Investigator: There is no substantive evidence that Einstein made this statement. It does not appear in the comprehensive collection of quotations “The Ultimate Quotable Einstein” from Princeton University Press. 1

The earliest evidence of a close match known to QI appeared in 2004, and that is decades after the death of Einstein in 1955. The self-help book “The Rhythm of Life: Living Every Day with Passion and Purpose” by Matthew Kelly contained a chapter titled “Everybody is a Genius” which began: 2

Albert Einstein wrote, “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.” The question I have for you at this point of our journey together is, “What is your genius?”

This quotation alludes to a long-standing allegorical framework. It is inappropriate to judge an animal by focusing on a skill which the creature does not possess. A fish is specialized to swim superbly, and its ability to climb a tree is non-existent or rudimentary. In the domain of education this allegory has been employed repeatedly for more than one hundred years. Hence, this quotation is built on ideas that have been in circulation among educators for many decades.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Top lexicographical researcher Barry Popik pointed out the existence of tales about schools for animals that are very valuable for understanding the background behind the creation of this quote.

QI has identified an influential essay called “An Educational Allegory” that was written under the pen name “Aesop, Jr.” and published in the “Journal of Education” in 1898. The author was later identified as Amos E. Dolbear of Tufts, a prominent physicist and inventor. The essay emphasized the absurdity of using a single inflexible standard for assessing the achievement of each individual student. Note that excerpts are usually indented, but for the sake of readability this extended excerpt is not indented: 3

A long time ago, when the animal creation was being differentiated into swimmers, climbers, fliers, and runners, there was a school for the development of the animals. The theory of the school was that the best animals should be able to do one thing as well as another; and if there was an apparent aptitude in a given animal for doing one thing and an apparent inaptitude for doing other things, the time and effort should be spent upon the latter instead of the former.

If one had short legs and good wings, the attention should be given to running so as to even up the qualities as far as possible. So the duck was kept waddling instead of swimming, the pelican was kept wagging his short wings in the attempt to fly. The eagle was made to run and allowed to fly only for recreation, while maturing tadpoles were unmercifully guyed for being neither one thing nor another.

All this in the name of Education.

Nature was not to be trusted in her make up of individuals, for individuals should be symmetrically developed and similar for their own welfare as well as for the welfare of the community. The animals that would not submit to such training, but persisted in developing the best gifts they had, were dishonored, called narrow-minded and specialists, and special difficulties were placed in their way when they attempted to ignore the theory of education recognized by the school.

No one was allowed to graduate from that school unless he could climb, swim, run, and fly at a certain prescribed rate. So it happened that the time taken by the duck in learning to run the prescribed rate had so hindered him from swimming that he was scarcely able to swim at the prescribed rate, and in addition he had been scolded, threatened, punished, and ill-treated in many ways so as to make his life a burden, and he left school humiliated, and the ornithorhyncus could beat him either running or swimming. Indeed, the latter carried off the prize in two departments.

The eagle made no headway in climbing to the top of a tree. Though he showed he could get there just the same, the performance was counted a demerit, as it had not been done in the prescribed way.

An abnormal eel with large pectoral fins proved he could run, swim, climb trees, and fly a little; he was made valedictorian.

The excerpt ends here.

The cogency of this allegory was recognized by other instructors and academics. For example, the text was reprinted in a paper given by the President of the University of West Virginia at the annual meeting of the Southern Educational Association in December 1899. 4

Reader Deidree McMaster thoughtfully pointed out to QI the oddity of the following statement in the allegory: “the pelican was kept wagging his short wings in the attempt to fly”. The wings of a pelican are not particularly short, and the word “penguin” might make more sense than “pelican” in this context; however, the original text and numerous reprints of the tale used the word “pelican”, and QI decided to present the un-modified text.

In 1903 a newspaper in Illinois published a fable called “Jungle School Board” with animals in a scholastic setting, but the emphasis was different. The creatures were unable to construct a joint curriculum: 5

When the animals decided to establish schools they selected a school board consisting of Mr. Elephant, Mr. Kangaroo and Mr. Monkey, and these fellows held a meeting to agree upon their plans.
“What shall the animals’ children be taught in the animal school? That is the question,” declared Mr. Monkey.
“Yes, that is the question,” exclaimed Mr. Kangaroo and Mr. Elephant together.

“They should be taught to climb trees,” said the monkey, positively. “All my relatives will serve as teachers.”
“No, indeed!” shouted the other two, in chorus. “That would never do.”
“They should he taught to jump,” cried the kangaroo, with emphasis. “All of my relatives will be glad to teach them.”
“No, indeed!” yelled the other two, in unison. “That would never do.”
“They should be taught to look wise,” said the elephant. “And all of my relatives will act as teachers.”
“No, indeed!” howled the other two together. “That will never do.”

“Well, what will do?” they asked, as they looked at each other in perplexity.
“Teach them to climb,” said Mr. Monkey.
“Teach them to jump,” said Mr. Kangaroo.
“Teach them to look wise,” said Mr. Elephant.
And so it was that none of them would yield, and when they saw there was no chance to agree, they all became angry and decided not to have any animal schools at all.

In 1907 the 1898 allegory was reprinted in the annual report of a school system in Massachusetts. The introductory paragraph gave the name of the fable’s author: 6

On the folly of trying to run all kinds of children through the same mold, with the vain hope of bringing all to the same standard of uniformity, nothing better has been written than that which appeared some time ago in the “Christian Endeavor World,” from the pen of New England’s greatest scientist, Prof. Amos E. Dolbear of Tufts College.

In 1920 the allegory was reprinted in a newspaper in San Diego, California, and the introduction pointed to yet another periodical that had reprinted the work. This 1920 instance was not an exact reprint, but the alterations were minor: 7

In looking over some old magazines the other day I came across an article In The World’s Work, by Arthur D. Dean, in which he quoted a story, a satire of conditions of affairs as told by the late Prof. Dolbear of Tufts college.

By the 1940s some significant alterations to the tale had been made, e.g., a squirrel had been added. Also, the name of the original author, Dolbear, apparently had been lost. The following instance was published in the Boston Herald in May 1946: 8

The following treatise upon the higher education comes to me by way of an MIT professor, but whether the authorship is his, I don’t know. It says: One time the animals had a school. The curriculum consisted of running climbing, flying and swimming, and all the animals took all the subjects.

The Duck was good in swimming—better, in fact, than his instructor—and he made passing grades in flying, but he was practically hopeless in running. Because he was low in this subject, he was made to stay after school and drop his swimming class in order to practice running. He kept this up until he was only average in swimming, but average was passing so nobody worried about that except the duck.

The Eagle was considered a problem pupil and was disciplined severely. He beat all others to the top of the tree in the climbing class, but he always used his own way of getting there.

The Rabbit started at the top of the class in running, but he had a nervous breakdown and had to drop out of school on account of so much make-up work in swimming.

The Squirrel led the climbing class, but his flying teacher made him start his flying from the ground up instead of from the top down, and he developed charley horses from overexertion at the takeoff and began getting C’s in climbing and D’s in running.

The practical Prairie Dogs apprenticed their offspring to the Badgers when the school authorities refused to add digging to the curriculum.

At the end of the year, an abnormal Eel that could swim well and run, climb and fly a little was made Valedictorian.

In December 1947 a version of the fable that was similar to the one above was printed in “The Education Digest” which acknowledged an issue of “Better Teaching” that was published in May 1947. No name was given for authorship. 9

In 1967 a version of the fable that was similar to the instances in the 1940s was printed in the Rockford Morning Star of Rockford, Illinois. The tale appeared in a “Letter to the Editor” from an unidentified “Rockford Reader”. 10

Another thread of development existed for the phrase “Everybody is a genius” that is present in the quotation under investigation. In 1974 an interview with the famous modern dancer and choreographer Martha Graham was published in which she credited a remark about ubiquity of genius to a noted composer: 11

Edgar Varese, the composer, said, “Martha, everyone is born with genius, but some people only keep it for a few minutes.” That is the demand — to keep it.

In 1977 a humorous saying about the prevalence of genius appeared in a Virginia newspaper in a section called “Quotable Quotes”: 12

“Everyone is a genius at least once a year. The real geniuses simply have their bright ideas closer together.”         G. C. Lichtenberg

In 1983 a syndicated newspaper column presented a jape about genius in Hollywood: 13

Thanks for passing along Erskine Johnson’s definition of Hollywood “Where everyone is a genius, until he has lost his job.”

In 2004 the author Matthew Kelly attributed the quotation under exploration to Albert Einstein as noted at the beginning of this article: 14

Albert Einstein wrote, “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.”

In conclusion, the long history of fables about animals in schools almost certainly influenced the construction of this quotation. The central point of the fables is that each individual should be allowed to pursue his or her strengths; in addition, a weakness in some area should not induce feelings of debilitating inferiority. These points overlap with the intent of the saying.   There is no substantive evidence connecting Einstein to the quotation.

(Special thanks to James Callan, Erika Remmy, Chip Burkitt, and Nina Gilbert whose inquiries gave impetus to QI to perform this exploration. Thanks to Barry Popik for his pioneering research. Thanks to Deidree McMaster for remarking on the pelican with short wings. Also, thanks to the volunteer editors of the Wikiquote entry for Albert Einstein.)

Notes:

  1. 2010, The Ultimate Quotable Einstein, Edited by Alice Calaprice, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey.
  2. 2004, “The rhythm of life: living every day with passion and purpose” by Matthew Kelly, Quote Page 80, Fireside, New York. (Google Books Preview)
  3. 1899 October 12, Journal of Education, Volume 50, Number 14, An Educational Allegory by Aesop, Jr. of Tufts College, Quote Page 235, Column 2, New England Publishing Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (HathiTrust full view) link  link
  4. 1899, Southern Educational Association: Journal of Proceedings and Addresses of the Ninth Annual Meeting Held at Memphis, Tennessee on December 27 to 29, 1899, “Voluntary Election Versus Required Studies” by Dr. J. H. Raymond, President University of West Virginia, Start Page 200, Quote Page 208 and 209, Published by Southern Educational Association. (Google Books full view) link
  5. 1903 April 29, The Illinois State Journal, For Women and Children: Jungle School Board, Quote Page 4, Springfield, Illinois. (GenealogyBank)
  6. 1907, Annual Report of the School Committee and Superintendent of Public Schools of the City of Malden for the Year Ending December 31, 1906, “Annual Report of the Superintendent of Schools” by Henry D. Hervey, Start Page 5, Quote Page 11, J. A. Cummings Printing Co., Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books full view) link
  7. 1920 December 7, Evening Tribune, Hitting the Right Trail by George Cosgrove-Murphy, Quote Page 14, Column 2 and 3, San Diego, California. (The page image shows “Tuffts” instead of “Tufts”) (GenealogyBank)
  8. 1946 May 4, Boston Herald, This and That In Bill’s Book by Bill Cunningham, Quote Page 6, Column 1, Boston, Massachusetts. (In the original text some animal names were capitalized and some were not. Here we uniformly capitalize animal names. Also, paragraphs were added for readability) (GenealogyBank)
  9. 1947 December, The Education Digest, Once upon a Time, Quote Page 43, (Acknowledgement to Better Teaching, May 1947), Prakken Publications, Ann Arbor, Michigan. (Verified on microfilm)
  10. 1967 December 16, Rockford Morning Star, (Letter to the Editor titled “Modern Fable” from “Rockford Reader”), Quote Page A10, Column 3, Rockford, Illinois. (GenealogyBank)
  11. 1974 January 8, Winnipeg Free Press, Revealing The Inner Landscape: A Private Vision Becomes A Dance by Henrietta Buckmaster, (Interview of Martha Graham), Quote Page 30, Column 3, Winnipeg, Manitoba. (NewspaperArchive)
  12. 1977 May 13, Harrisonburg Daily News Record, Quotable Quotes, Quote Page 6, Column 1, Harrisonburg, Virginia. (NewspaperArchive)
  13. 1983 December 7, Frederick News Post, Glad You Asked That by Marilyn and Hy Gardner, (Field Newspaper Syndicate), Quote Page D11, Column 1, Frederick, Maryland. (NewspaperArchive)
  14. 2004, “The rhythm of life: living every day with passion and purpose” by Matthew Kelly, Quote Page 80, Fireside, New York. (Google Books Preview)