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A Land of Free Thought and Imagination

Think of the time seventy years ago when Albert Einstein left Germany and came to America. Germany was in the grip of Nazi dictatorship. Italy had a fascist government. Bolshevist communism controlled the Soviet Union. France and Great Britain were struggling with problems of colonialism. Yes, the United States of America was then suffering from the Great Depression, but it was also a land of freedom where people could think and express themselves freely.

The columnist Thomas Friedman relates this situation to the life of Albert Einstein, subject of a new biography by Walter Isaacson. Today, people are discussing the economic threat from China, pointing out that China graduates more students in math and science than the United States. Friedman’s point - a good one - is that a free society, not formal education, is the chief nurturer of creativity that blossoms into new products and economic success. “If Einstein were alive today and learned science the boring way it is taught in so many U.S. schools, wouldn’t he have ended up at a Wall Street hedge fund rather than developing theories of relativity for a Nobel Prize?”, Friedman mischievously asked.

“Isaacson’s take on Einstein’s life,” wrote Friedman, “is that it is a testimony to the unbreakable link between human freedom and creativity. ‘The whole theme of the last century, and of Einstein’s life,’ Isaacson said in an interview, ‘is about people who fled oppression in order to go places to think and express themselves. Einstein runs away from the rote learning and authoritarianism of Germany as a teenager in the 1890s and goes to Italy and Switzerland. And then he flees Hitler to come to America, where he resists both McCarthyism and Stalinism because he believes that the only way to have creativity and imagination is to nurture free thought - rebellious free thought.’”

“If you look at Einstein’s major theories - special relativity, general relativity and the quantum theory of light - ‘all three come from taking rebellious imaginative leaps that throw out old conventional wisdom,’ Isaacson said. ‘Einstein thought that the freest society with the most rebellious thinking would be the most creative. If we are going to have any advantage over China, it is because we nurture rebellious, imaginative free thinkers, rather than try to control expression.’”

“In the meanwhile, we should heed another of Isaacson’s insights about Einstein: He found sheer beauty and creative joy in science and equations ... ‘What Einstein was able to do was to think visually,’ Isaacson explained. ‘When he looked at Maxwell’s equations as a 16-year-old boy, he visualized what it would be like to ride alongside a light wave and try to catch up. He realized those equations described something wondrous in reality. By being able to visualize and think imaginatively about science, he was able to see what more academic scientists failed to see, which is that as you try to catch up with a light beam, the waves travel just as fast, but time slows down for you. it was a leap that better-trained scientists could not make because they did not have the visual imagination.’”

“My favorite Einstein quotation,” wrote Friedman, “is that ‘imagination is more important than knowledge.’ A society that restricts imagination is unlikely to produce many Einsteins - no matter how many educated people it has.”

How does America measure up today in regard to encouraging or tolerating imagination - a.k.a. deviant thought? Not too well. Political correctness is a direct damper on free expression. In our schools, the political mania to increase test scores has encouraged the practice of “teaching to the test”, which narrows the course curriculum and diminishes the possibility that students will think independently and follow their own interests.

The acid test might be to ask whether Albert Einstein, had he been dictator of the world, would have permitted “anti-Semitic” speech? It’s possible, even likely, that he would have done so.

“What Einstein Teaches us about China: A society that restricts imagintion will have fewer giants of his sort” by Thomas Friedman, New York Times. Star Tribune, May 1, 2007, p. A11

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