The Debunker: Did Albert Einstein Fail Math?

by Ken Jennings

It's September and parents are rejoicing, because kids are (finally!) heading back to school! Crayons and binders and graphing calculators are flying off store shelves; beanbag chairs for dorm rooms are getting stuffed into the backs of station wagons. But maybe we all need to be taken to school, because a lot of the stuff we think we know about education would get us an 'F' on the final exam. Ken Jennings, that Jeopardy! guy, will be standing in front of the class all month with his red marker at the ready, to correct all that academic misinformation.

The Debunker: Did Albert Einstein Fail Math?

Poor Einstein. You spend your whole life revolutionizing the human race's vision of the universe, and when you die your bad report card still gets used as a cautionary tale/motivational speech for misfit youngsters. I guess that's what they mean by "This will go down on your permanent record."

The Debunker

This factoid about Einstein's mathematical incompetence goes back at least to the 1920s, when Einstein's high school headmaster in Munich started hearing anecdotes that his most famous alumnus had been a lousy scholar. Fed up with the rumors, the teacher dug into his files and produced the great man's actual high school report card, so he could prove to reporters that Einstein's grades were uniformly excellent. Math was young Einstein's best subject, but he also worked hard in subjects he didn't like, like Latin and Greek, and got good marks across the board.

Einstein knew he had a knack for math from a very young age, producing a novel proof of the Pythagorean theorem at the age of eleven, when most kids can't even spell "Pythagorean." In 1935, when a Princeton rabbi showed Einstein a Ripley's Believe It or Not cartoon alleging that he'd failed math in high school, the famous physicist just laughed. "I never failed in mathematics," he said. "Before I was fifteen I had mastered differential and integral calculus." In fact, Mr. and Mrs. Einstein had to buy university math texts for little Albert, so he could keep studying his favorite subject even though he was years ahead of his classmates.

Sorry, parents. The good news is that most educators believe that being "bad at math" is largely a state of mind anyway. "For high-school math, inborn talent is much less important than hard work, preparation, and self-confidence," wrote Miles Kimball and Noah Smith in The Atlantic. Even if you don't have Einstein's genes, you can probably still pass Calc I.

Quick Quiz: What Australian actor, born Greg Gomez Pead, had a brief moment of international stardom playing "Young Einstein" in 1988?

Ken Jennings is the author of eleven books, most recently his Junior Genius Guides, Because I Said So!, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at ken-jennings.com or on Twitter as @KenJennings.