Opinion 0: What About "Quarter Einsteins"?

By Doron Zeilberger

First Published (in Hebrew): Letter to the Editor, Ma'ariv Lanoar, (a weekly youth magazine in Israel) July 25, 1967 (in Hebrew) commenting on Uriel Akavia's column (in Hebrew, ca. June 1967).
Translated by the author and posted in this Opinion Column: July 25, 2009

(Here is the original).

Dear Mr. Akavia!

Regarding your article "Tricks are not a substitute to serious learning", and a few previous articles, I am allowing myself to comment that I do not agree with some of your opinions.

The scenario that you described does indeed happen, and I was one of its "victims", but its causes are entirely different.

There are two kinds of talented students. One kind is that of "obedient students" that do exactly as ordered by their teachers, and do not attempt to acquire knowledge beyond the school curriculum; learning the material is relatively easy for them, and the pressure from the society, their parents, and their teachers, that tells them that study is the only way to acquire a solid socio-economic status is their only motivation. To that group of students also belong less talented students, that have to study much harder, but the "reward" that awaits them in the future, as well as the immediate rewards promised by the parents ("if you will not fail any subject, you would go to an overseas vacation this summer" etc.) prods them to study.

There is yet another kind of talented students, whose natural curiosity lead them, already from a young age, to read and look at more advanced material, in order to satisfy their natural curiosity.

When such a student enters high school (and in fact, already in the higher grades of elementary school) he sees that the material that he has already studied on his own presented in a different way. The learning is induced through severe disciple (all the system of examinations and grades), and the material is taught the same way as in animal training. The fascinating science of Chemistry turns into a boring list of dry formulas, that he has to learn by heart, and the threats and the incentives practiced in school badly offend him. As though out of spite, he does not listen to the commands of his teachers, but instead studies on his own material that is not included in the curriculum. Obviously, even the most talented student can not learn from just sitting in class, (and even during class he often studies other material), and so starts the "tragedy" described in your article.

So it is not the student that is to blame, but the school and its educational system. One may ask: why do less talented students, and also the kind of students described above, graduate high school and go on to acquire academic professions? For them, science and learning are burdens, that by themselves are painful-but they ultimately pay off (materially). I am sure that if the academic subjects would have been presented in a more appealing way, and above all, without being forced, these students would have also enjoyed learning for its own sake, in addition to the "prize", that we shouldn't look down on.

The history of science supplied us with many examples of true "geniuses" that were kicked out of high school because of poor achievements, and one of the most prominent examples is the greatest scientist of our time, the physicist Albert Einstein. But Einstein was the greatest scientist of all times, and hence he managed somehow to find his way in life (but it wasn't easy, even for him). But besides him there are "half and quarter Einsteins", and just plain talented students that had the potential to contribute to society, but because of the antiquated educational system flunked out of high school and their "genius" did not help them find their proper place in modern society that only recognizes official diplomas, and the process described in your article is inevitable.

Finally, a comment. From all your articles one can sniff "academic snobbery" and a superiorty complex, as though everyone must get an academic profession and all those who do not are inferior "good-for-nothings" that due to their lesser talents become second-class citizens. Looking down on "agricultural boarding school" and "school in the kibbutz" is not appropriate for a youth magazine in general, and to a psychologist in particular.


Doron Zeilberger, --- Holon

Read Uriel Akavia's response (in Hebrew, dated Aug. 22, 1967).

Opinions of Doron Zeilberger