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Einstein’s Learning Disability
Many organizations that advocate for people with learning disabilities claim that Albert Einstein had a learning disability, and this claim has become widely accepted.
Interestingly, a review of biographical sources, however, provides little to no evidence to support this claim.
According to LD lore, Einstein failed to speak until he was four years old, due to a speech impediment. It is also claimed that Einstein could not read until he was nine years old. To bolster their case, LD supporters point to facts like Einstein failed his first attempt at college and lost three teaching jobs in two years.
While it makes for a great story, this widely held notion is wrong, according to Ronald W. Clark’s Complete Biography of Einstein, and according to “Subtle is the Lord: The Science and Life of Albert Einstein,” a biography of Abraham Pais (Oxford University Press, 1982).
Pais says that although his family had initial apprehensions that he might be late due to the unusually long time before he started speaking, Einstein spoke in full sentences at some point between the age of two and three years. According to Clark, a much more plausible reason for his relatively late development of speech is “the simpler situation suggested by Einstein’s son, Hans Albert, who says his father was taken out of the world even as a boy”. Accepting this interpretation, other information helps us to judge Einstein’s linguistic abilities after he began to speak.
Einstein entered school at the age of six and, contrary to popular belief, did very well. When he was seven, his mother wrote, “Yesterday Albert got his grades, he was number one again, his report card was brilliant.” At the age of twelve, Einstein was reading physics books. At thirteen, after reading the “Critique of Pure Reason” and the works of other philosophers, Einstein adopted Kant as his favorite author. Around this time he also read Darwin. Pais states that “the widespread belief that he was a poor student is unfounded”.
FAILING THE COLLEGE ENTRANCE EXAMS
True, Einstein did not pass the university exam the first time he took it. However, in addition to being only sixteen, two years below the usual age, the fact is that he did not study for it. His father wanted his son to follow a technical profession, a decision that Einstein found difficult to confront directly. Therefore, as he later confessed, he avoided following the “unbearable” path of a “practical profession” by not preparing for the test.
It is also true that after graduating from college, Einstein struggled to find a position. This was mainly because his independent and intellectually rebellious nature made him, in his own words, “an outcast” in the university community. A teacher told him: “You have a fault, we can’t tell you anything.
It is also true that Einstein worked three jobs in a short time, but not because of a learning disability. His first job was as a temporary research assistant, the second as a temporary replacement for a professor who was to serve a two-month term in the army. Clark points out that it is “difficult to discover but easy to imagine” why Einstein held his third job, as a boarding school teacher, for only a few months: “Einstein’s ideas of minimal routine and minimum discipline were very different from those of his employer.”
In his article “Was Einstein learning disabled? Anatomy of a myth,” (published in 2004 in the “Skeptics Society & Skeptic Magazine”, an edited version of an article that originally appeared in the March/April 2000 issue of the “Journal of Learning disabilities”) Marlin Thomas concludes: “Given the scant basis for the claim that Einstein had learning disabilities, one has to wonder why this has become so accepted. Part of the reason is the encouragement it gives us all to know that even geniuses have shortcomings. Affirmation also boosts the prestige of people with learning disabilities. Any marginalized group benefits from having one of its members be a stellar figure of cultural history. This may be beneficial, but the consequence of claiming that Einstein had a learning disability without historical evidence is harmful. It distorts historical records and calls into question the credibility of others. very assertions about learning disabilities of personalities.
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