Brain Pickings

Einstein on Fairy Tales and Education

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“How far superior an education that stresses independent action and personal responsibility is to one that relies on drill, external authority and ambition.”

Albert Einstein, celebrated as “the quintessential modern genius,” is credited with many things — from era-defining scientific discoveries to great wisdom on everything from creativity to kindness to war to the secret to learning anything. Among them is also a sentiment of admirable insight yet questionable attribution: In Christopher Frayling’s 2005 book Mad, Bad and Dangerous?: The Scientist and the Cinema, Einstein is credited as having said:

If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be very intelligent, read them more fairy tales.

Illustration by Vladimir Radunsky for 'On a Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein.' Click image for details.

As an enormous lover of fairy tales and a believer in Tolkien’s proposition that they are not written “for children,” I was, of course, instantly gladdened by these words, but also peeved by the broken chain of proper attribution. After diligent digging through various archives, I found the earliest reference to this in an out-of-print volume published by the Montana State Library for Book Week in November of 1958*. The entry, a second-hand account at best, reads:

In the current New Mexico Library Bulletin, Elizabeth Margulis tells a story of a woman who was a personal friend of the late dean of scientists, Dr. Albert Einstein. Motivated partly by her admiration for him, she held hopes that her son might become a scientist. One day she asked Dr. Einstein’s advice about the kind of reading that would best prepare the child for this career. To her surprise, the scientist recommended ‘Fairy tales and more fairy tales.’ The mother protested that she was really serious about this and she wanted a serious answer; but Dr. Einstein persisted, adding that creative imagination is the essential element in the intellectual equipment of the true scientist, and that fairy tales are the childhood stimulus to this quality.

Folklorist and literary scholar Jack Zipes further transforms Einstein’s alleged aphorism in into a charming short fable in the introduction to his 1979 book Breaking the Magic Spell: Radical Theories of Folk and Fairy Tales:

Once upon a time the famous physicist Albert Einstein was confronted by an overly concerned woman who sought advice on how to raise her small son to become a successful scientist. In particular she wanted to know what kinds of books she should read to her son.

“Fairy Tales,” Einstein responded without hesitation.

“Fine, but what else should I read to him after that?” the mother asked.

“More fairy tales,” Einstein stated.

“And after that?”

“Even more fairy tales,” replied the great scientist, and he waved his pipe like a wizard pronouncing a happy end to a long adventure.

While we might never know the full, accurate details for Einstein’s fairy-tale adage, embedded in it is something the celebrated physicist felt very strongly about: the importance of the liberal arts and humanities in education. The preface to Dear Professor Einstein: Albert Einstein’s Letters to and from Children (public library | IndieBound) — the same impossibly endearing volume that gave us his encouraging advice to a little girl who wanted to be a scientist and his answer to child who asked whether scientists pray — features the following autobiographical reflection by Einstein:

This school with its liberal spirit and teachers with a simple earnestness that did not rely on any external authority, made an unforgettable impression on me. In comparing it with six years schooling at an authoritarian German Gymnasium, I was made acutely aware how far superior an education that stresses independent action and personal responsibility is to one that relies on drill, external authority and ambition.

Complement with Einstein on why we’re alive (in a letter to a Brain Pickings reader’s mother), his remarkable conversation with Indian philosopher Tagore, and his life-story, illustrated.

UPDATE: Library of Congress researcher Stephen Winick has now dug deeper into the origin of Einstein’s alleged aphorism.

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