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It Shouldn’t Take An Einstein…

What should one make of a national newsmagazine that publishes a high profile interview which offers as gospel truth an urban myth about teacher unions that could not withstand three minutes of Google research? A creation out of whole cloth which turns real history on its head?

In his interview with Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Time Magazine reporter Richard Stengel asks:

Regular folks don’t get the distinction between certified teachers and qualified teachers — why the teachers’ union wouldn’t let Einstein teach physics to high school students because he wasn’t certified.

No one at Time Magazine — not Stengel who asked the question, not the fact checker, and not the editor who approved it — took the time to check one of the many sources  [here, here, and here] that appear when one googles Albert Einstein and biography.  If they had bothered to do so, here’s what they would have discovered.

After graduating from college in 1901 and before he had done any graduate work or published any significant work in the field of physics, Einstein was unable to find a position teaching high school in Germany. Einstein attributed his difficulties in finding a job to the animosity of his college professors, especially one Heinrich Weber who he characterized as dishonest. There certainly was bad feeling, since Einstein often cut college classes. In turn of century Germany, anti-semitism could well have played a role. But however one chooses to read that episode, it clearly had nothing to do either with a teacher union or teacher certification.

Over the course of the next three decades, Einstein earned a doctorate, was appointed to leading positions in German universities, published work which revolutionized the field of physics, including the famous theory of relativity, and won the Nobel Prize for Physics. When he fled Nazi Germany for the United States in the early 1930s, any position in the American academy was his for the asking. He ended up at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, which supports full-time research by its members, and he remained there for the rest of his life. A suggestion that at this point in his life he would have been seeking to teach high school science can only be described as surreal.

But that’s only half of the story. Einstein was a humanist and a democratic socialist who believed strongly in the value and importance of unions. He was a founding member of the Princeton local of the American Federation of Teachers, signing its charter. “I consider it important, indeed urgently necessary, ” Einstein wrote on why he supported teacher unions, “for intellectual workers to get together, both to protect their own economic status and… to secure their influence in the political field.”

And guess who was Time Magazine‘s Person of the Twentieth Century?

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