While in Boston, Einstein was subjected to a pop quiz known as the Edison test. The inventor Thomas Edison was a practical man, getting crankier with age (he was then 74), who disparaged American colleges as too theoretical and felt the same about Einstein. He had devised a test he gave job applicants that, depending on the position being sought, included about 150 factual questions. How is leather tanned? What country consumes the most tea? What was Gutenberg's type made of?
The Times called it " the ever-present Edison questionnaire controversy," and of course Einstein ran into it. A reporter asked him a question from the test. "What is the speed of sound?" If anyone understood the propogation of sound waves, it was Einstein. But he admitted that he did not "carry such information in my mind since it is readily available in books." Then he made a larger point designed to disparage Edison's view of education. "The value of a college education is not the learning of many facts but the training of the mind to think," he said. ***
Einstein stressed critical thinking as important to education over pure factual knowledge.
Einstein commented that his schooling required the obedience of a corpse. The effect of the regimented school was a clear-cut reaction by Einstein; he learned to question and doubt. He concluded: . . . youth is intentionally being deceived by the state through lies.
He showed no signs of being a genius, and as an adult denied that his mind was extraordinary: I have no particular talent. I am merely extremely inquisitive.
He failed his entrance examination to the Zurich Polytechnic. When he finally passed, the examinations so constrained his mind that, when he had graduated, he did not want to think about scientific problems for a year.
His final exam was so non-distinguished that afterward he was refused a post as an assistant (the lowest grade of postgraduate job).
Exam-taking, then, was not his forte. Questioning deeply and thinking critically was.
Einstein had the basic critical thinking ability to cut problems down to size: one of his greatest intellectual gifts, in small matters as well as great, was to strip off the irrelevant frills from a problem.
When we consider the work of these three thinkers, Einstein, Darwin, and Newton, we find, not the unfathomable, genius mind. Rather we find thinkers who placed deep and fundamental questions at the heart of their work and pursued them passionately. Would that we had students who did the same.