Nobel Prize Winners Hate School

Copyright © 2013 Karl M. Bunday, all rights reserved.

Nobel Prize Winners' Achievements Don't Prove School Is Good for Learners

One of the most laughable defenses of the government-operated school system, sure to come from the keyboard of hundreds of people who participate in on-line discussion of education policy, is the notion that Nobel Prize winners and other eminent persons prove the effectiveness of our school system. Well, what do the Nobel Prize winners themselves have to say about this? Below are some quotations by or about Nobel Prize winners, describing their views of school. If you know another, please let me know [mailto link].

Rabindranath Tagore -- born 1861; died 1941

winner of the 1913 Nobel Prize in literature

Tagore was a superb writer and one of the founders of modern Bengali literature. He was the first non-Western author to win the Nobel literature prize.
[School] forcibly snatches away children from a world full of the mystery of God's own handiwork, full of the suggestiveness of personality. It is a mere method of discipline which refuses to take into account the individual. It is a manufactory specially designed for grinding out uniform results. It follows an imaginary straight line of the average in digging its channel of education. But life's line is not the straight line, for it is fond of playing the see-saw with the line of the average, bringing upon its head the rebuke of the school. For according to the school life is perfect when it allows itself to be treated as dead, to be cut into symmetrical conveniences. And this was the cause of my suffering when I was sent to school. . . . I was not a creation of the schoolmaster,--the Government Board of Education was not consulted when I took birth in the world. But was that any reason why they should wreak vengeance upon me for this oversight of my creator? . . . So my mind had to accept the tight-fitting encasement of the school which, being like the shoes of a mandarin woman, pinched and bruised my nature on all sides and at every movement. I was fortunate enough in extricating myself before insensibility set in.
"My School," in Personality: Lectures Delivered in America (London: MacMillan and Co., 1921), pp. 114-115
When I began my life as a poet, the writers in our educated community however took their inspiration from English literature. I suppose it was fortunate for me that I never in my life had what is called an education, that is to say, the kind of school and college training which is considered proper for a boy of respectable family. Though I cannot say I was altogether free from the influence that ruled the young minds of those days, the course of my writings was nevertheless saved from the groove of imitative forms. I believe it was chiefly because I had the good fortune to escape the school training which could set up for me an artificial standard based upon the prescription of the school master. In my versification, vocabulary and ideas I yielded myself to the vagaries of an untutored fancy which brought castigation upon me from critics who were learned, and uproarious laugher from the witty. My ignorance combined with my heresy turned me into a literary outlaw. "Autobiographical" in Talks in China: Lectures Delivered in April and May, 1924 (Calcutta: Visva-Bharati Book-Shop, 1925), p. 37

Albert Einstein -- born 1879, Ulm, Germany; died 1955

winner of the 1921 Nobel Prize in physics

. . . I worked most of the time in the physical laboratory [at the Polytechnic Institute of Zürich], fascinated by the direct contact with experience. The balance of the time I used in the main in order to study at home the works of Kirchoff, Helmholtz, Hertz, etc. . . . In [physics], however, I soon learned to scent out that which was able to lead to fundamentals and to turn aside from everything else, from the multitude of things which clutter up the mind and divert it from the essential. The hitch in this was, of course, the fact that one had to cram all this stuff into one's mind for the examinations, whether one liked it or not. This coercion had such a deterring effect [upon me] that, after I had passed the final examination, I found the consideration of any scientific problems distasteful to me for an entire year. In justice I must add, moreover, that in Switzerland we had to suffer far less under such coercion, which smothers every truly scientific impulse, than is the case in many another locality. There were altogether only two examinations; aside from these, one could just about do as one pleased. This was especially the case if one had a friend, as did I, who attended the lectures regularly and who worked over their content conscientiously. This gave one freedom in the choice of pursuits until a few months before the examination, a freedom which I enjoyed to a great extent and have gladly taken into the bargain the bad conscience connected with it as by far the lesser evil. It is, in fact, nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of instruction have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry; for this delicate little plant, aside from stimulation, stands mainly in need of freedom; without this it goes to wreck and ruin without fail. It is a very grave mistake to think that the enjoyment of seeing and searching can be promoted by means of coercion and a sense of duty. To the contrary, I believe it would be possible to rob even a healthy beast of prey of its voraciousness, if it were possible, with the aid of a whip, to force the beast to devour continuously, even when not hungry, especially if the food, handed out under such coercion, were to be selected accordingly.
"Autobiographical Notes," in Albert Einstein: Philosopher-Scientist, Paul Schilpp, ed. (1951), pp. 17-19 © 1951 by the Library of Living Philosophers, Inc.
Biographer Albrecht Fölsing's book Albert Einstein: A Biography (New York: Viking, English translation 1997) records Einstein's general high ability in school, which was coupled with a disdain for compulsion and a tendency to do things his own way. Einstein remembered his schooling in both Germany and Switzerland as an unhappy experience, contrary to the recollections of several of his less famous classmates. Yet he got good scores in school subjects when he wanted to, but spent much of his free time at home building with construction model sets or reading serious books about science. Einstein attributed the school problems he sometimes had to an unwillingness to do the work required by his teachers. Thus Einstein, despite the well-documented childhood speech delay in his language development, is best not restrospectively "diagnosed" as learning disabled, but rather regarded as an exceptionally bright, self-motivated learner who refused to waste his time with school activities that did not produce a high return in learning.

George Bernard Shaw -- born 1856, Dublin; died 1950

winner of the 1925 Nobel Prize in literature

. . . and there is, on the whole, nothing on earth intended for innocent people so horrible as a school. To begin with, it is a prison. But it is in some respects more cruel than a prison. In a prison, for instance, you are not forced to read books written by the warders (who of course would not be warders and governors if they could write readable books), and beaten or otherwise tormented if you cannot remember their utterly unmemorable contents. In the prison you are not forced to sit listening to the turnkeys discoursing without charm or interest on subjects that they don't understand and don't care about, and are therefore incapable of making you understand or care about. In a prison they may torture your body; but they do not torture your brains; and they protect you against violence and outrage from your fellow-prisoners. In a school you have none of these advantages. With the world's bookshelves loaded with fascinating and inspired books, the very manna sent down from Heaven to feed your souls, you are forced to read a hideous imposture called a school book, written by a man who cannot write: A book from which no human can learn anything: a book which, though you may decipher it, you cannot in any fruitful sense read, though the enforced attempt will make you loathe the sight of a book all the rest of your life.
"A Treatise on Parents and Children," preface to Misalliance (1909), reprinted in Bernard Shaw: Collected Plays with Their Prefaces, volume IV (1972), page 35.

Sigrid Undset -- born 1882; died 1949

winner of the 1928 Nobel Prize in literature

I hated school so intensely. It interfered with my freedom. I avoided the discipline by an elaborate technique of being absent-minded during classes.
from her autobiographical sketch written for Twentieth Century Authors, Kunitz and Haycraft, editors (1942), page 1432

Chandrasekhara Venkata Raman -- born 1888; died 1970

Raman, known as C. V. Raman, was the uncle of a later Nobel laureate, Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, the son of Raman's older brother C.S. Ayyar. Both of these Nobel Prize winners benefited from the home education and encouragement of their curiosity chosen by Raman's father and Chandrasekhar's grandfather. Their childhood is described in a recent biography of the younger Nobel laureate.
C. S. Ayyar's and Raman's primary education was mostly under the tutelage of their father. They learned Tamil, arithmetic, and English at home till they were seven years old, a tradition C. S. Ayyar would continue with his children. For their secondary and higher secondary education, they attended the college in Vizagapatam where their father was the vice-principal and sometimes their teacher. R. C.'s [the father's] zest for learning and his varied interests, as we have seen, were phenomenal. He did his best to pass them on to his children. He was not satisfied to teach them just what was required in English, algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and physiography. He urged them to read on their own. "He read with me," recalls Chandra's father in his history, Scott's Lay of the Last Minstrel, Shakespeare's Coriolanus and portions of Milton's Paradise Lost." R. C. shared with his children his love for Indian classical music and his fine collection of books. Chandra: A Biography of S. Chandrasekhar by Kameshwar C. Wali (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), page 44 © 1991 The University of Chicago, all rights reserved.
Raman's parental education helped him graduate from high school at age eleven, finish college at age fifteen, obtain his master's degree at age seventeen, and gain a coveted civil service job by winning the highest score on a competitive examination at age eighteen. But Raman's personal goal was physics research, which he did in his spare time. Eventually he pursued a full-time career in physics, with great success.

Bertrand Russell -- born 1872; died 1970

winner of the 1950 Nobel Prize in literature

The question of home versus school is difficult to argue in the abstract. If ideal homes are contrasted with actual schools, the balance tips one way; if ideal schools are contrasted with actual homes, the balance tips the other way. I have no doubt in my own mind that the ideal school is better than the ideal home, at any rate the ideal urban home, because it allows more light and air, more freedom of movement, and more companionship of contemporaries. But it by no means follows that the actual school will be better than the actual home. The majority of parents feel affection for their children, and this sets limits to the harm they do them. But education authorities have no affection for the children concerned; at best, they are actuated by public spirit, which is directed towards the community as a whole, and not merely towards the children; at worst, they are politicians engaged in squabbles for plums. At present, the home plays an important part in forming the mentality of the young, a part which is by no means wholly good, but perhaps better than that which would be played by the State if it were in sole control of children. Home gives the child experience of affection, and of a small community in which he is important; also of relations with people of both sexes and of different ages, and of the multifarious business of adult life. In this way it is useful as a corrective of the artificial simplification of school.

Another merit of home is that it preserves the diversity between individuals. If we were all alike, it might be convenient for the bureaucrat and the statistician, but it would be very dull, and would lead to a very unprogressive society. At present, the differences between individuals are greatly accentuated by the differences between their homes. Too much difference is a barrier to social solidarity, but some difference is essential to the best form of co-operation. An orchestra requires men with different talents and, within limits, different tastes; if all men insisted upon playing the trombone, orchestral music would be impossible. Social co-operation, in like manner, requires differences of taste and aptitude, which are less likely to exist if all children are exposed to the same influences than if parental differences are allowed to affect them. This is to my mind an important argument against the Platonic doctrine that children should be wholly reared by the State.
Education and the Social Order (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1932) pages 69-71; (London: Unwin Books edition, 1967) pages 41-42.

Winston Churchill -- born 1874; died 1965

winner of the 1953 Nobel Prize in literature

Winston Churchill drew on his excellent memory and penchant for historical investigation to give us a detailed description of his school experience in My Early Life, first published in 1930. Churchill learned to read and do arithmetic at home, in the care of a governess. He was sent to school at age seven, and recalled the experience in these words:
But now a much worse peril began to threaten. I was to go to school. I was now seven years old, and I was what grown-up people in their offhand way called "a troublesome boy." It appeared that I was to go away from home for many weeks at a stretch in order to do lessons under masters. . . . . Although much that I had heard about school had made a distinctly disagreeable impression on my mind, an impression, I may add, thoroughly borne out by the actual experience, I was also excited and agitated by this great change in my life. I thought in spite of the lessons, it would be fun living with so many other boys, and that we should make friends together and have great adventures. Also, I was told that "school days were the happiest time in one's life." Several grown-up people added that in their day, when they were young, schools were very rough: there was bullying, they didn't get enough to eat, they had "to break the ice in their pitchers" each morning (a thing I had never seen done in my life). But now it was all changed. School life nowadays was one long treat. All the boys enjoyed it. Some of my cousins who were a little older were quite sorry--I was told--to come home for the holidays. Cross-examined the cousins did not confirm this; they only grinned. Anyhow I was perfectly helpless. Irresistible tides drew me swiftly forward. . . . . How I hated this school, and what a life of anxiety I lived there for more than two years. I made very little progress in my lessons, and none at all at games. I counted the days and the hours to the end of every term, when I should return home from this hateful servitude and range my soldiers in line of battle on the nursery floor. The greatest pleasure I had in those days was reading. When I was nine and a half my father gave me Treasure Island, and I remember the delight with which I devoured it. My teachers saw me at once backward and precocious, reading books beyond my years and yet at the bottom of the Form. They were offended. They had large resources of compulsion at their disposal, but I was stubborn. Where my reason, imagination or interest were not engaged, I would not or I could not learn.
My Early Life (1988 reprint), pages 8-9, 12-13.

Richard Feynman

co-winner of the 1965 Nobel Prize in physics

A number of recent books have been written about the colorful life of Feynman, one of the younger and more crucial members of the Manhattan Project that developed the atomic bomb for the Allies during World War II, and member of the special commission that investigated the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger. Feynman's biographers note that Feynman was largely self-educated by avid reading and conversations with his father, who had in mind to bring up a scientist. (Feynman's younger sister Joan also became a physicist in response to this home influence.)
The New York public schools of that era gained a reputation later for high quality, partly because of the nostalgic reminiscences of famous alumni. Feynman himself thought that his grammar school, Public School 39, had been stultifyingly barren: "an intellectual desert." At first he learned more at home, often from the encyclopedia. Having trained himself in rudimentary algebra, he once concocted a set of four equations and four unknowns and showed it off to his arithmetic teacher, along with his methodical solution. She was impressed but mystified; she had to take it to the principal to find out whether it was correct.
James Gleick Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman (1992), p. 30 © 1992 James Gleick, all rights reserved.

Andrei Sakharov

winner of the 1975 Nobel Prize for world peace

Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov thought school was a "waste of time" after his homeschooling during Stalin's rule, which is described in his memoirs. That rare educational background perhaps accounts for his intellectual courage and willingness to resist tyranny even at the risk of his own life.

Arno Penzias

co-winner of the 1978 Nobel Prize in physics

Arno Penzias, the Nobel Laureate in Physics who is vice president of research at AT&T Bell Laboratories, predicts the market will demand not fancy degrees but experience. "I think we've tied acquiring knowledge too much to school," says Penzias.
Philip E. Ross, in "Software as Career Threat," Forbes, May 22, 1995

Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar -- born 1910, Lahore, India;

winner of the 1983 Nobel Prize in physics

Chandrasekhar is the nephew of Chandrasekhara Venkata Raman, a 1930 Nobel laureate in physics. His childhood education is described in some detail in his biography.
. . . . Chandra started studying [at age five]; he learned Tamil from his mother, English and arithmetic from his father.

Chandra's parents began all their children's education at home. This practice was common among middle-class families, since the public or municipal schools were poorly run. . . . .

Above all, parents in the middle or upper-middle class found teaching their children a pleasant diversion from their dull clerical or bureaucratic work. Besides, English was not taught in the primary schools, and parents who had English education were eager to begin their children's English lessons as soon as possible. . . . .

Chandra's home education was quite disciplined. Recalling those early years, he says, "My father used to teach me in the mornings before he went to the office. . . Chandra: A Biography of S. Chandrasekhar by Kameshwar C. Wali (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991) © 1991 The University of Chicago, all rights reserved.

An Exception--A Nobel Prize Winner Who Liked School

Carleton Gajdusek

co-winner of the 1976 Nobel Prize in medicine

Perhaps because it has been very rare in the twentieth century to receive medical training without many years of previous schooling, I rarely find autobiographical statements by winners of the Nobel Prize in medicine or physiology that indicate that they actively disliked school, although some of the medicine and physiology prize winners make clear that they learned much of what they learned about nature in their youths from personal activities such as walks in the woods. Carleton Gajdusek won the Nobel Prize for his undeniably important work on what were then known as "slow viruses" (now usually conceived of as not viruses at all, but prions). He wrote in his Nobel Lecture autobiographical statement that he personally liked school. Alas, Gajdusek was sentenced to prison for child molestation [link to a different Web site] a few years ago, and it appears as a result of investigation of his research notebooks that his socialization throughout his adult life consisted of repeated sexual encounters with boys from Third World countries, which were Gajdusek's favorite places to travel to do medical research.

[Last revision 9 March 2013]

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A general State education is a mere contrivance for moulding people to be exactly like one another: and as the mould in which it casts them is that which pleases the predominant power in the government, whether this be a monarch, a priesthood, an aristocracy, or the majority of the existing generation in proportion as it is efficient and successful, it establishes a despotism over the mind, leading by a natural tendency to one over the body.
John Stuart Mill On Liberty (1859)
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