Education Is Not the Learning of Facts, But the Training of the Mind To Think

Albert Einstein? Apocryphal?

things08Dear Quote Investigator: A learner may accumulate a large number of miscellaneous pieces of information without achieving an integrated understanding and without acquiring an ability to use the material intelligently. Reportedly, Albert Einstein made a germane remark:

Education is not the learning of facts, but the training of minds to think.

I have not been able to find a solid citation for this insight. Are these really the words of Albert Einstein? What was the context?

Quote Investigator: In 1921 Albert Einstein visited Boston, Massachusetts. At that time, a questionnaire constructed by the inventor and research laboratory pioneer Thomas A. Edison was circulating. Edison used his controversial questionnaire to screen job applicants, but Einstein was unimpressed by some of the queries. For example, “The New York Times” reported on Einstein’s reaction to one question about a fact that was readily available in reference books: 1

He was asked through his secretary, “What is the speed of sound?” He could not say off-hand, he replied. He did not carry such information in his mind but it was readily available in text books.

Einstein’s response printed in 1921 fit the theme of the quotation because he deemphasized the value of simply memorizing facts. A longer description of this episode was presented in the biography “Einstein: His Life and Times” by Philipp Frank. A strong match for the quotation was included in the following passage. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 2

While Einstein was in Boston, staying at the Hotel Copley Plaza, he was given a copy of Edison’s questionnaire to see whether he could answer the questions. As soon as he read the question: “What is the speed of sound?” he said: “I don’t know. I don’t burden my memory with such facts that I can easily find in any textbook.”

Nor did he agree with Edison’s opinion on the uselessness of college education. He remarked: “It is not so very important for a person to learn facts. For that he does not really need a college. He can learn them from books. The value of an education in a liberal arts college is not the learning of many facts but the training of the mind to think something that cannot be learned from textbooks.”

Frank’s biography was originally written in German, and the English translation was released in 1947. QI does not know what source material was used by Frank to report on words of Einstein in 1921, but the reliability of Frank’s biography is largely viewed favorably.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1917 “The Sun” newspaper of New York City published an opinion piece that referred to an anonymous professor who made a thematically similar point about higher education: 3

I have heard one college professor, a man who now holds a responsible position requiring careful scientific training under the Government, frequently tell his students that they were not in college to learn facts, but to train their minds to think logically. He was right, but that training should have been started many years before. The man who expects to learn to think after he has reached college is the man who “flunks” or just barely hangs on.

In 1921 Einstein criticized the Edison’s questionnaire and his opinion about college. Einstein minimized the value of learning motley textbook facts, and highlighted the value of training the mind. See the excerpts given previously.

In 1996 the biography “Einstein: A Life” by Denis Brian was published, and it included a discussion of the incident in 1921: 4

The group of reporters waited while an Edison question, “What is the speed of sound?” was translated into German. Einstein’s answer was translated into English. “I don’t know offhand,” he said. “I don’t carry information in my mind that’s readily available in books.”

Told of Edison’s view that a knowledge of facts was vitally important, Einstein disagreed: “A person doesn’t need to go to college to learn facts. He can get them from books. The value of a liberal arts college education is that it trains the mind to think. And that’s something you can’t learn from textbooks. If a person had ability, a college education helps develop it.”

In 2010 “The Ultimate Quotable Einstein” edited by Alice Calaprice included an excerpt from Philipp Frank’s biography that corresponded to the text presented previously in this article. Calaprice cited Frank and stated that the passage was written by Einstein in 1921. QI does not know if the year was verified independently. Calaprice may have relied on the year given by Frank. 5

In conclusion, the quotation under examination was a streamlined/simplified version of a statement published in “Einstein: His Life and Times” by Philipp Frank. The biography was published in English in 1947 and the event occurred in 1921. The evidence used by Frank to support the quotation and the 1921 date is not yet known to QI.

Image Notes: Image titled “Reach for the Stars” from Wikimedia Commons was created with POV-Ray 3.6 and rendered on the International Space Station (April 25 – May 5, 2002) by astronaut Mark Shuttleworth. This project was commissioned by Chris Cason, coordinator of the POV-Ray Development Team. The “Reach for the Stars” file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic license. Portrait of Albert Einstein circa 1921 by F. Schmutzer accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

(Great thanks to Tim Fargo and Simon Lancaster who tweeted and retweeted an instance of this quotation which led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Special thanks to Sharon Beck Edelman who mentioned this quotation and pointed to a discussion at Quora which contained a message from Robert Frost that identified the passage in Philipp Frank’s book.)

Notes:

  1. 1921 May 18, New York Times, Einstein Sees Boston; Fails on Edison Test: Asked to Tell Speed of Sound He Refers Questioner to Text Books (Special to The New York Times), Quote Page 15, New York. (ProQuest)
  2. 1947, Einstein: His Life and Times by Philipp Frank, Translated from German by George Rosen, Edited and Revised by Shuichi Kusaka, Quote Page 185, Published by Alfred A. Knopf, New York. (Verified with scans)
  3. 1917 September 23, The Sun, Should the Education of Children Begin at Home or at School?, Quote Page 16, Column 7, New York, New York. (Newspapers_com)
  4. 1996, Einstein: A Life by Denis Brian, Chapter 17: Einstein Discovers America, Quote Page 129 and 130, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., New York. (Verified on paper)
  5. 2010, The Ultimate Quotable Einstein, Edited by Alice Calaprice, Section: On Education, Students, Academic Freedom, Quote Page 100, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey. (Verified on paper)