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Why we should forget Einstein’s tree-climbing fish

Prof. Pettigrew on how the genius truly viewed education


 

Einstein in 1921 (Ferdinand Schmutzer)

If there is one thing the internet loves, it’s an inspirational quotation from a famous person. In all manner of fonts, with all degrees of accuracy in punctuation, and with all manner of colourful photography, we are exhorted to improve ourselves, to accept ourselves for who we are, to be kind and compassionate to all, and to never take crap from a world full of idiots.

Well, it’s the internet—you can’t expect consistency.

The quotation-based memes often touch on education and intelligence, and among the most ubiquitous is the following remark attributed to Albert Einstein:

“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.”

It doesn’t take much thought to see why this little gem is so popular—you can see some of the versions here. We all like to imagine that we are all, somewhere deep down, geniuses, and that the only reason we fail in school, or indeed, in life, is that our teachers and bosses can’t see our natural brilliance. We’re fish and those ignorant bastards are making us climb trees!

I dislike this little passage though. For while I would concede that various people have various relative strengths and weaknesses, it’s quite clear to anyone who really looks, that there are a great many people who are not geniuses in anything. They may be better at particular things than others, and perhaps even have a knack for some stuff. But genius? Shakespeare was a genius. Darwin was a genius. To say Uncle Eric is a genius because he can reach the green on the fourth fairway with a 7 iron—well that just debases the term.

But worse, lines like the supposed Einstein quote above reinforce an idea that is actually quite dangerous to education generally: the idea that some people are just good at some things are some are not. This notion is anathema to education because the whole notion of learning is that you can, well, learn things. Contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to have a special “math brain” to be able to understand the Pythagorean Theorem. And you don’t have to be “good at English” to be able to write a decent analysis of Death of a Salesman.

You just have to work hard and learn how to do it.

Of course, some have preferences and aptitudes for certain things, and a small minority of people have genuine cognitive impairments.  But the fish/tree analogy implies that for most, if not all people, there are many intellectual endeavours are simply, innately, impossible for them.

So Einstein was wrong about fish and trees and genius? Not exactly.

You see, as far as anyone can tell, Einstein never said it.

As the wonderful web site Quote Investigator shows, the whole tree and fish story emerged gradually from an allegory about the nature of education, finally resulting in the internet-friendly text in question which was then attributed to Einstein (perhaps because people think “Einstein” when they think “genius”?)

Would Einstein have approved of the quotation attributed to him? I was skeptical, and so I turned to a collection of Einstein’s writings which, as luck would have it, had an education section. There I found that Einstein probably didn’t think that everyone was a genius. If he did, he probably wouldn’t have written the following in 1952:

“There are only a few enlightened people with a lucid mind and style and with good taste within a century. What has been preserved of their work belongs among the most precious possessions of mankind.”

Moreover, it seems unlikely that Einstein would have endorsed courses of study suited to the particular aptitudes of the student. Rather, he seemed to support a broad education for the sake of general intellectual development. In an address he gave in 1936, for example, Einstein declared:

“I want to oppose the idea that the school has to teach directly that special knowledge and those accomplishments which one has to use later directly in life. The demands of life are much too manifold to let such a specialized training in school appear possible […] The development of general ability for independent thinking and judgement should always be placed foremost.”

Now if only we could get that all over the internet.

Todd Pettigrew is an associate professor of English at Cape Breton University.


 

Why we should forget Einstein’s tree-climbing fish

  1. Hi Todd Pettigrew, I am extremely happy that for once someone confirmed that a(t least this one) quote attributed to Einstein and copied, re-copied, re-re-copied… in the internet is a fake / not authored by Albert Einstein. For years I’m fighting all sorts of fake quotes attributed to Einstein, and the indignant mails from those who send me the “proof” of the quotes’ authenticity : “three million hits online”.- You may like this comment, too : http://einsteinsleuth.blogspot.co.il/ Best regards from Jerusalem – Barbara

  2. “You just have to work hard and learn how to do it.” This is completely untrue and feeds Western societies ideology of liberal individualism: anyone can do well if they work hard enough. In reality, our capitalist world is structured so that only a few can succeed while the majority must fulfill the bottom ranking positions. This is how capitalism functions while maintaining the idea that every individual has an equal opportunity to make it to the top. This is the inherent contradiction of capitalism; however, it is an ideology that keeps the system functioning smoothly by ensuring those who do not succeed believe it is due to their own lack of intelligence, motivation etc.–that is, it is hegemonic. Our education system works under the same model of ‘equal opportunity’ using standardized testing and the idea that the most intelligent and motivated will succeed. If you did not succeed you must not be as intelligent. The correlation between socioeconomic status and educational success is completely ignored as is the fact that class inequality serves the purpose of keeping the beneficiaries of this kind of ideology on the top of the social hierarchy. I’m quite surprised to hear an English professor believing in taken for granted ‘truths.’ I do understand that not everyone is a ‘genius’ in the way that Shakespeare and Einstein were, but that does not mean every person isn’t intelligent in a myriad of ways if given half a chance, which is certainly not occurring in this type of society.

    • Recent reading of “Why we should forget Einstein’s tree-climbing fish” indeed gave me pause! How truly unfortunate that frequently only the visible, extraordinarily high achievers in academics, arts or science are considered “genius”. Some thinking people have allowed it is unknown and/or unrecognized within many of us. Opportunity and encouragement are vital for its development. Our society holds several definitions of ‘genius’ . Your comment is laudable! Thank you.

  3. You do not get the point. Every human being has a talent which if recognised can be developed through access with our higher self (our soul). Most people are trapped by their ego based thinking, external conditioning by society,family so they never tap into this potential. Even if they realise what it is, the capitalist society is very unfair and only a few have the luxury to explore and do what they really want to do. What chance does a child born on a East London council estate to uneducated parents have, if they want to become a pilot and this is their true gift. They will be failed by the sub standard education. The parents will have very little expectation of them and probably tell them ‘being a pilot is not for you’. The school peers will try to recruit them into a local gang and the government will certainly not pay the 100 K needed for training…

  4. As ever so often, the extremes make no sense. But too many hours are waisted to improve on points (“competencies”) that will never be improved to the desired level. Desired, not by the person that has do to the improvement, but by his or her boss, HR-advisor, coach (if in such a case the use of that word is correct). True, brilliance is rare. And true, sometimes people are just lazy. But also true: in many cases it is more rewarding (in more than one sense) to improve on what you’re already very good at than to try to improve on what has proved to be a built-in deficiency.

    Thank you, Todd, for your nice text and for the discussions it ignites.

  5. I don’t believe that this quote is meant to say that a person’s education should cater to their talents. Some people need different methods of education for the same subject. Teaching isn’t “one size fits all.” Some people learn more by hearing, some by seeing, some people need different analogies to explain the same thing. And you can’t change that with hard work; people are that way because each person’s brain is constructed differently. Hard work isn’t going to overcome brain chemistry. If you try to teach one person with the same exact method that works on another without taking into account the fact that people aren’t all cut out with the same cookie cutter and then are disappointed in them when that doesn’t work, then you are judging a fish by it’s ability to climb a tree. It has little to do with subject matter. People should learn as many subjects as they can, but they shouldn’t be expected to learn in the same way and at the same pace as everyone else. Education shouldn’t cater to someone’s talents, but it should cater to the methods by which they can learn successfully. If you want to teach the fish how to get to the top of a tree, you need to build an apparatus that carries water to where you want the fish to go, so that rather than expecting it to climb to it’s destination, you can teach it how to swim there.

    • I wound up on this site guided by an attempt to determine if this quote was really from Albert Einstein. Not so much because I take issue with the quote, but rather because it seems nearly all quotes you see on social media aren’t actually related to the person being quoted at all, and I was curious. Unfortunately, that answer is not present here. There’s no reason to discredit the origins of this quote based on those you provided. (Which, in the interest of fairness, have just as much potential to be inaccurate.)

      “There are only a few enlightened people with a lucid mind and style and with good taste within a century. What has been preserved of their work belongs among the most precious possessions of mankind.”

      I can see how you would make the connection here to your argument, but you are neglecting the very real possibility that a “genius” can be without enlightenment, lucidity of mind, and style all without sacrificing that genius. Your thinking on this quote is too absolute to be productive unfortunately, and it is likely you have missed the point.

      “I want to oppose the idea that the school has to teach directly that special knowledge and those accomplishments which one has to use later directly in life. The demands of life are much too manifold to let such a specialized training in school appear possible […] The development of general ability for independent thinking and judgement should always be placed foremost.”

      This quote is actually supportive of the notion that a predetermined definition of what is useful knowledge is damaging to society, which is in line with the original quote, not contrary to it.

      I could write a paper on other logical errors that I see riddled throughout this posting, but doing so sounds like more effort than I am willing to put forth at this moment and would be of topic from why I actually visited this page in the first place. I will continue my search elsewhere. Or get bored and move on. Curiosity can only lead me so far before it gives way to something else I find curious.

      • Also, this comment was intended as a reply to the original post rather than the person above me, but I can’t see an obvious way to delete it, so it will remain here!

  6. “But worse, lines like the supposed Einstein quote above reinforce an idea that is actually quite dangerous to education generally: the idea that some people are just good at some things are some are not.”

    Well to say you don’t proofread is obvious.
    And, I think this quote (whether an actual Einstein quote or not) isn’t meant to be taken literal because we all know that according to IQ tests not everyone is a genius. However, each person has unique capabilities, learning styles, and test differently. Some people are not very good at taking multiple choice tests, but could ace an essay exam. Some students can present information orally, but don’t do well when writing essays. I, for example, am a visual and kinesthetic learner. You could talk to me all day long, but I might not remember a word you said even if I was truly listening. I must SEE what it is you are talking about and sometimes even DO something to remember.
    The point is, each person is different and not all students should be tested in the same manner.

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  9. In your perspective then, what ‘makes someone a genius’?

  10. I dont quite think that certain points you made completely comprehend what Albert meant in that quote and whats funny is your suggestion… “conceding that various people have various relative strengths and weaknesses, it’s quite clear to anyone who really looks, that there are a great many people who are not geniuses in” one particular anything, is a closer definition than the one you outline. Truthfully, he wanted to instill hope and the ability to not give up on others. To show them where to dig and what to dig for. For themselves, not for the legacy of their teacher. He wanted to be the bow to their arrow.

  11. it will soon become evident that i am by no means any genius as you took exception to in the quote popularized under Einsteins name but not authored by him as u have succinctly pointed out. I am wondering however if you might not have missed the attempted illustration in this quote however. I offer this with complete respect and feel that i will be making a fool of myself for the following but what the hell.. Was it not an attempt to illuminate the result of inept teachers if and when they exist and had less to do with the student than the outcome of incompentcy of a teacher perhaps you are correct in your assessment concerning most r not genius but i feel the attempt is to point out that the result of inept teaching if overcome with accomplished instructors would lead to a most favorable outcome. lets call them little geniuses for purposes of this discussion. o well that’s all i have to ask so thank you for ur indulgence in advance and please excuse my lack of puncuation proper syntax and spelling i find it is for machines and underwear is for sissys respectfully lou

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  16. I have heard the quote for years. I tend to think that we should test children over what we actually teach them AND not blind standardized test without leveled curriculum. Meeting them where that are at not where we want to force them to be. The idea in the cartoon that sometimes accompanies it about climbing a tree is more about accommodation than skill. Not all children succeed at the same rate, the same level or the produce the outcome. Trying to create standardized children is wrong. Settling for standards instead of challenge is wrong. People who want the world to solve problems in the home with legislation are abdicating their responsibility.
    However, the Einstein quote at the end about being well rounded for life addresses what every teacher hears everyday- “Why do I have learn this and when will I ever use it?”. We have entered the era of the specialist and well rounded tends to fall away.

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  18. Hello,
    I think you misunderstand this passage. He is not saying some people can’t make it in science, or others will never understand how to hold a camera straight. What he is speaking of is the adjusted environment for a personality. If you take someone with PTSD and you place them in the army, they may struggle to display their ability to fight. If someone is being beaten up at home and not being fed properly, their grades are going to reflect that. We are built in association to our environment, we are not independent of where we are in all entirety, and sometimes an environment like a stiff nine to five would be enough to quench the air of oxygen, stopping a fish personality from existing in a forest environment. As a more direct example, a diabetic will not appear their usual self if you take away their medication and keep them up eating ice cream for three nights. We are all geniuses, but geniuses of individual kinds. We shine when we are put in an environment that allows us to shine. Then yes, we display exactly what you are saying – that we truly are capable of becoming anything.

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