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Albert Einstein on generalizable knowledge and critical thinking

 

In the book, Ideas and Opinions (1954), Einstein points to the problem of teaching to specialties rather than generalizable knowledge and critical thinking.

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 as specialized training in school appear possible. ..The school should always have as its aim that the young man leave it as a harmonious personality, not as a specialist…The development of general ability for independent thinking and judgment should always be placed foremost, not the acquisition of special knowledge. If a person masters the fundamentals of his subject and has learned to think and work independently, he will surely find his way and besides will better be able to adapt himself to progress and changes than the person whose training principally consists in the acquiring of detailed knowledge (p. 62).

It is not enough to teach a man a specialty. Through it he may become a kind of useful machine but not a harmoniously developed personality. It is essential that the student acquire an understanding of and a lively feeling for values. He must acquire a vivid sense of the beautiful and of the morally good. Otherwise he – with his specialized knowledge – more closely resembles a well trained dog than a harmoniously developed person. He must learn to understand the motives of human beings, their illusions, and their sufferings in order to acquire a proper relationship to the individual fellow-men and to the community…Overemphasis on the competitive system and premature specialization on the ground of immediate usefulness kill the spirit on which all cultural life depends, specialized knowledge included. It is also vital to a valuable education that independent critical thinking be developed in the young human being, a development that is greatly jeopardized by overburdening him with too much and with too varied subjects. Overburdening necessarily leads to superficiality (pp. 66-67).

It is not the fruits of scientific research that elevate a man and enrich his nature, but the urge to understand, the intellectual work creative or receptive (p. 12).

In the following passage, Einstein illuminates the importance of intellectual autonomy to the creation of critical societies:

Only the individual can think, and thereby create new values for society, nay, even set up new moral standards to which the life of the community conforms. Without creative personalities able to think and judge independently, the upward development of society is as unthinkable as the development of the community…In politics not only are leaders lacking, but the independence of spirit and the sense of justice of the citizen have to a great extent declined…In two weeks the sheeplike masses of any country can be worked up by the newspapers into such a state of excited fury that men are prepared to put on uniforms and kill and be killed…the present manifestations of decadence are explained by the fact that economic and technologic developments have highly intensified the struggle for existence, greatly to the detriment of the free development of the individual (p. 15).

In an open letter to the Society for Social Responsibility in Science, Einstein emphasizes the importance of individual responsibility in living an ethical life:

The problem of how man should act if his government prescribes actions or society expects an attitude which his own conscience considers wrong is indeed an old one. It is easy to say that the individual cannot be held responsible for acts carried out under irresistible compulsion, because the individual is fully dependent upon the society in which he is living and therefore must accept its rules. But the very formulation of this idea makes it obvious to what extent such a concept contradicts our sense of justice. External compulsion can, to a certain extent, reduce but never cancel the responsibility of the individual. In the Nuremberg trials this idea was considered to be self-evident. Whatever is morally important in our institutions, laws, and mores, can be traced back to interpretation of the sense of justice of countless individuals. Institutions are in a moral sense impotent unless they are supported by the sense of responsibility of living individuals. An effort to arouse and strengthen this sense of responsibility of the individual is an important service to mankind. In our times scientists and engineers carry particular moral responsibility, because the development of military means of mass destruction is within their sphere of activity (p. 27).

With regard to social conformity, Einstein says:

…there is such a thing as a spirit of the times, an attitude of mind characteristic of a particular generation, which is passed on from individual to individual and gives its distinctive mark to a society. Each of us has to do his little bit toward transforming this spirit of the times…Let every man judge by himself, by what he has himself read, not by what others tell him (pp. 29-30).

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