There was a programme about Einstein on television recently. This reminded me how paradoxical it is that the archetypal genius figure should also provide a striking example of how badly the educational system can treat someone of exceptional ability, and how badly society can get it wrong in evaluating someone's merits. This is not really surprising, because the most obvious reaction provoked by high ability is jealousy. Einstein provides an example of the possibility that someone can do badly at school and fail in examinations (probably by being too bored by them) and yet not be inferior to those who are academically successful enough to continue with an academic career.
His case has some interesting similarities to my own. Basically he was on bad terms with his school which he hated and was thrown out at the end of his education against his overwhelmingly strong desire to do research in a university. Unlike me, he managed to do some research in the wilderness which got him back fairly quickly. Most members of the public now imagine that he was always a socially accepted professor of physics who had been successful at school.
An educational `expert' was recently quoted in a newspaper coyly considering the problems of exceptional children and saying, we wouldn't have known what to do if Mrs Einstein had consulted us about Albert. She certainly would have been a fool if she consulted them, and they could probably have arranged something even more unpleasant than the education he actually had. Einstein provides an example of the possibility that someone can do badly at school and fail in examinations (probably by being too bored by them) and yet not be inferior to those who are academically successful enough to continue with an academic career.
Once he had been taken back into the fold he became idealistic in a socially acceptable way and made no attempt to stand up for underdogs such as he had once been himself, although when he was thrown out of the university after his degree he minded enough about his position to write to every theoretical physicist in Europe. (None of them answered.) When I was thrown out I didn't write to any academics because I guessed well enough from the imperviousness to my problems of those close at hand in my own college that I would be wasting my time, but I went off into the wilderness hoping that I could find some research to do that would gain enough recognition to get me back, whether in physics or otherwise. As it turned out, it was otherwise, but it hasn't got me back yet.
When Einstein was thrown out into the world outside of universities, it probably seemed to him, as it did to me, a terrible no-man's land. A friend of his, who had lent him lecture notes at college to help him get by in spite of his disaffection, found him a sinecure job at the patent office. This provided him with financial support and he worked at relativity when no-one was watching him. He published papers on his work and was lucky enough to have them accepted by the standard physics journals, and was also lucky enough to be taken back into the academic world in the position of an ordinary physics professor. This sort of recognition was not inevitable; it is easy for academic journals to turn down papers from outsiders, however brilliant they may be. But the world was younger by nearly a century than it is now, and there was less belief than now in social status as an indicator of worthiness.