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Blogging On History, Science, and Education

Albert Einstein: Imagination VS Knowledge

Albert Einstein famously said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” Now it’s easy to agree with that, but I lived with Albert for almost ten years so I know he expected his thoughts to be questioned. I fell for the guy-as did quite a few women of his time-but I think that he was being a bit disingenuous with that statement.

Einstein’s fantastic imagination-the key to his creativity-rested on a solid knowledge base. This was a man who lived in his head, and there was a whole lot to keep him occupied. It was his imagination that gave him the power to visualize, which he did amazingly well. That ability helped him hatch his theories.

He wasn’t a conventional scientist: he was clumsy and often mucked up when he tried to experiment. His were gendanken experiments, which means thought experiments. Many great scientists do them. Einstein went farther than most; when asked where his lab was he pointed to his pen.

There aren’t many Einsteins: people with amazing intellectual skills, a fair bit of knowledge, and a sense of fun. So I believe it’s useful for us, as educators, to consider his schooling, and then to think about that balance between knowledge and imagination.

Einstein was a product of strict German schools. That structured school environment was balanced at home by parents who read broadly, talked about books, played music, and doted on their children-taking their questions seriously. An uncle taught Albert algebra, explaining that x was a merry fellow who needed chasing until he was found. Einstein had a popular series of science books-written by a woman-that he read avidly and discussed with his parents. Once a week, the Einsteins invited a college student for dinner, and that young man talked math and philosophy with the boy. Because German law said all children were to have religious training-and the school didn’t provide it for Jewish children-a relative was brought in to teach him Hebrew and Jewish tradition. For a while, he became intensely religious.

His father was a sweet man; his son called him “wise,” but he wasn’t much of a businessman. He and Albert’s uncle ran a company that built dynamos. Cities were just turning on lights; dynamos were cutting edge. So Albert learned the latest technology at home. It may have been like having parents today who are involved with space science. It was an exciting environment, especially for a young boy with a good mind and a lot of imagination.

Here we are back to imagination. Einstein was right. It is the key to creativity and the creative leaps that we all admire and aspire to. Interestingly, both Albert Einstein and Isaac Newton described themselves as little boys who never really grew up, who kept a child-like curiosity all their lives.

So what are we as educators to make of this? You only get one Einstein a century, but maybe we’d have a few more if we could successfully nourish imagination and at the same time provide young minds with a knowledge base to feed their imaginations. Right now we’re involved in test-crazy times. Of course we need evaluations to tell us where we are and how each student is responding. But spending time on rote memorization of expected test questions doesn’t teach much of anything lasting-we all know that.

We’ll get beyond this to a better testing process. In the meantime, the transition to today’s information age is a bumpy process. In good part our schools are still industrial-age relics. Many are embracing technology, as if it were more than just a method of delivery.

As we make changes, I believe we should look at classical models of learning. Those German schools didn’t cherish imagination, but they did give their students great literature, languages, solid mathematics, and sound science: all tools for reasoning. Why can’t our kids have all that, along with an environment that nurtures imagination?
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