140 years ago today, the man who many proclaim to be the greatest scientist of all time was born in Ulm, Germany. His name was Albert Einstein, who was also a slow learner as a child and a refugee as an adult. It is a curious question to ask ourselves if we would have been kind and compassionate to this brilliant genius at a couple of crucial points in his life.
“The Dopey One”
Early in life, Albert Einstein surely did not appear to be on a path to intellectual stardom. Reports differ on how late, but he definitely did not learn to speak on the normal toddler schedule. Some say that he did not learn to speak in an understandable manner until he was four years old. His family was very concerned that he might never learn to talk. They nicknamed him “The Dopey One.” His parents were so concerned about his speaking difficulties, they began to consult Doctors.
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Einstein was far from beloved by his peers and teachers. He irritated them because he asked too many questions. He often skipped class, and he was rarely taken seriously. Even when he performed well, his teachers still labeled him as a pain to teach. He thought about dropping out several times, potentially pursuing a career in insurance sales. When he did graduate from college at the age of 21, he struggled to find employment. He worked several odd jobs just to sustain himself. When his father died, he believed Albert was a total failure.
It is interesting to wonder if you or I were a teacher or family member of Albert Einstein during his early years, would we have have been patient? Would we have given him the time and effort to allow his talent to develop? Would we have stood by him, or told him that selling insurance seemed like a good idea?
Albert Einstein the Refugee:
Adolph Hitler took power in Germany in January of 1933. Soon after, the Nazis passed a law declaring that no Jew (defined as anyone with a Jewish grandparent) could hold an official position at a German University. All of Einstein’s grandparents were Jewish. Along with Einstein, 14 other Nobel Laureates were out of jobs and began looking for other countries to live in. Albert Einstein had been in the United States working as a visiting professor for the California Institute of Technology. He returned by ship to Belgium, where he soon learned that his cottage had been raided and he was on Hitler’s “To be assassinated” list. He immediately went to the German Consulate to renounce his citizenship. The Nazis sold his boat and converted his cottage into a Hitler Youth camp. He stayed in Belgium for a few months, before going to England. On October 17, 1933 he returned to the United States to take a position at Princeton University, which had garnered a reputation worldwide for accepting refugee scientists fleeing the Nazis.
Albert Einstein became an American citizen in 1940. He stayed on to continue working at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study for over until his death in 1955. It is from there that he wrote President Roosevelt, warning him about Hitler and imploring him to begin serious work on the atomic bomb. Einstein also did some of his most important scientific work after immigrating to the United States.
Once again, in a time when there is strong anti-immigrant sentiment in the United Staes, we must ask ourselves how we might have reacted to Einstein and other refugees who made significant contributions to the United States in the past. Would we still accept them in the future? How would our world be different if we had shut out Einstein and the other many talented people who sought the United States as a place of refuge, safety, and opportunity?
Never forget the slow learners and refugees of the past when we make choices about how we treat them in the future.
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