22 July 2007

Einstein "didn't need an academic post"

Before, during and immediately after 1905, [Einstein] was incapable of securing an academic post. In fact, he didn’t need one. He was perfectly able to think while working as a patent clerk in Bern. (From Bryan Appleyard’s comments about Einstein: His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson, Sunday Times, 3 June 2007.)

This sort of attitude is widely held, in fact by now we may say it is the received wisdom. People often tell me that I cannot complain of my position because I have just expressed a criticism of some academic goings-on (which I could not prevent myself from making, with the most passing attention, however stultifying and exhausting my life was being). Therefore, although I have no status, salary or financial support, and have to spend nearly all my time working very hard at investment and administration, I am evidently free to think (they say). So I can’t say I am frustrated (they say). But I do say it, and I go on appealing for workers, money, status and support of every kind. Actually this attitude to Einstein, quoted above, demonstrates the hostility to ability which is the real driving force of the modern ‘egalitarian’ ideology.

I am reminded of a conversation between one of my colleagues and the Master of an Oxford college, which took place at a social gathering. He asked what my colleague was doing now and my colleague said he was writing a book about genius. ‘Oh, there have been a lot of books about that,’ the Master announced, as if there would be nothing more to be said. My colleague said that his book was about how intellectuals were disadvantaged in modern society by the reduction in the number of people with private incomes.

‘It is not a disadvantage to have to earn a living,’ the Master said. ‘It is not possible to do concentrated intellectual work for more than three hours a day. It was no disadvantage to Einstein to have to work in the Patent Office. It did not prevent him from producing Relativity.’

However, as my colleague pointed out, Einstein had complained of being reduced to near-breakdown by working on relativity at the Patent Office, and by the stress and guilt induced by having to shovel his papers away into a drawer whenever anyone entered the room.

The fact that a Master of an Oxford college expresses such views is a clear indication of the hostility of Oxford University, and of the educational and university system generally, to the idea of innate ability and the circumstances it may need to be fully productive.

’We appeal for £1m as initial funding for a social science department in our unrecognised and unsupported independent university. This would enable it to publish analyses of the unexamined assumptions which currently protect from criticism utterances by academics such as those discussed above.’ Charles McCreery, DPhil