Aims of Education Revisited (Einstein’s E = MC2 of Education)

  • David J. Shernoff
Part of the Advancing Responsible Adolescent Development book series (ARAD)


Schooling cannot be evaluated nor improved without reference to the aims of education. This chapter presents a perspective on the aims of education from the little-known educational philosophy of Albert Einstein. Einstein held that, “…The aim (of education) must be the training of independently acting and thinking individuals, who, however, see in the service of the community their highest life problem.” It is argued that the shortcoming of traditional education can be summarized as the tendency to produce the exact opposite result of Einstein’s aim, or its actual inversion. That is, too often, mass education in its quest for standardization interferes with the nurturing of independently acting individuals and their unique potential; and the common goals of the community are increasingly neglected as the implicit goal of education is perceived to be singularly focused on the pursuit of individualistic ends. Einstein’s “theory of motivation” emphasizing “holy curiosity” and joy in the subject matter is further expanded. Einstein’s viewpoint is consistent with modern conceptions of Positive Youth Development: It supports a vision of youth engagement as one of making of positive contributions to the self, others, and civil society. It can also help to ameliorate the growing sense that individual achievement and attainment is the ultimate goal not only in school but also in life. Rather, educators may come to understand one of their most important functions as identifying and supporting youths’ future directions and sense of mission based on their strengths, interests, and values.


Intrinsic Motivation Positive Youth Development Individual Humanity Mass Education Youth Engagement 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



Many of the ideas in this chapter are based on those of Laurence McMillin, a master teacher at the Webb Schools of California who passed away in 2005, especially as written in his unpublished manuscript titled, “Einstein’s Theory and Practice of Education.” See Shernoff (2001/2012), for a life portrait of McMillin and discussion of the manuscript.


  1. American Psychological Association. (1997). Learner-centered psychological principles: A framework for school redesign and reform. Accessed 13 Oct 2010.
  2. Bellah, R. N., Madsen, R., Sullivan, W. M., Swindler, A., & Tipton, S. M. (1985). Habits of the heart: Individualism and commitment in American life. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  3. Bloom, B., & Dey, A. N. (2006). Summary health statistics for U.S. children: National Health Interview Survey, 20004. Vital Health Statistics, 227, 1–85.Google Scholar
  4. Brown, A. L., & Campione, J. C. (1994). Guided discovery in a community of learners. In K. McGilly (Ed.), Classroom lessons: Integrating cognitive theory and classroom practice. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press/Bradford Books.Google Scholar
  5. Brown, J. S., Collins, A., & Duguid, P. (1989). Situated cognition and the culture of learning. Educational Researcher, 18(1), 32–42.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Carbonaro, W. J. (2005). Tracking, students’ effort, and academic achievement. Sociology of Education, 78(1), 27–49.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Carbonaro, W. J., & Gamoran, A. (2002). The production of achievement inequality in high school English. American Educational Research Journal, 39(4), 801–827.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Colby, A., & Damon, W. (1994). Some do care: Contemporary lives of moral commitment. New York: The Free Press.Google Scholar
  9. Coles, R. (1989). The call of stories: Teaching and the moral imagination. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.Google Scholar
  10. Cordova, D. I., & Lepper, M. R. (1996). Intrinsic motivation and the process of learning: Beneficial effects of contextualization, personalization, and choice. Journal of Educational Psychology, 88(4), 715–730.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper Perennial.Google Scholar
  12. Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1996). Creativity: Flow and the psychology of discovery and invention. New York: HarperCollins.Google Scholar
  13. Csikszentmihalyi, M., & Larson, R. (1984). Being adolescent: Conflict and growth in the teenage years. New York: Basic Books.Google Scholar
  14. Damon, W. (1988). The moral child: Nuturing children's natural moral growth. New York: Free Press.Google Scholar
  15. Damon, W. (2008). The path to purpose: How young people find their calling in life. New York: Free Press.Google Scholar
  16. Deci, E. L. (1996). Why we do what we do. New York: Penguin.Google Scholar
  17. Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (1980). Self-determination theory: When mind mediates behavior. Journal of Mind & Behavior, 1, 33–43.Google Scholar
  18. Dewey, J. (1897/1973). My pedagogic creed. In J. J. McDermott (Ed.), The philosophy of John Dewey (pp. 442–454). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  19. Dewey, J. (1900/1990). The school and society (2nd ed.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  20. Dewey, J. (1916/1944). Democracy and education: An introduction to the philosophy of education (1st Free Press paperback ed.). New York: Collier-Macmillan.Google Scholar
  21. Dewey, J. (1937/1946). Problems of men. New York: Philosophical Library.Google Scholar
  22. Dewey, J. (1966). Democracy and education: An introduction to the philosophy of education (1st Free Press paperback ed.). New York: Collier-Macmillan.Google Scholar
  23. Dewey, J. (1974/2000). What psychology can do for the teacher. In R. Diessner & S. Simmons (Eds.), Sources: Notable selections in educational psychology. Guilford: Dushkin/McGraw-Hill.Google Scholar
  24. Einstein, A. (1945, November). Atomic war or peace. Atlantic Monthly. Google Scholar
  25. Einstein, A. (1954). Ideas and opinions (Modern Library ed.). New York: Modern Library.Google Scholar
  26. Einstein, A. (Ed.). (1960). Einstein on peace. New York: Schocken Books.Google Scholar
  27. Freud, S. (1930). Civilization and its discontents. Oxford, UK: Hogarth.Google Scholar
  28. Gamoran, A., & Mare, R. D. (1989). Secondary school tracking and educational inequality: Compensation, reinforcement, or neutrality? American Journal of Sociology, 94(5), 1146–1183.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Gardner, H. (1993). Multiple intelligences: The theory in practice. New York: Basic Books.Google Scholar
  30. Gardner, H. (2006). Multiple intelligences: New horizons in theory and practice. New York: Basic Books.Google Scholar
  31. Gardner, H., Csikszentmihalyi, M., & Damon, W. (2001). Good work: When excellence and ethics meet. New York: Basic Books.Google Scholar
  32. Goethe, J. W. v. (1808/1988). Faust (part I). New York: Bantam Books.Google Scholar
  33. Hallinan, M. T. (1996). Race effects on students’ track mobility in high school. Social Psychology of Education, 1, 1–24.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Jackson, P. W. (1968). Life in classrooms. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.Google Scholar
  35. Kaestle, C. (1985). Education reform and the swinging pendulum. Phi Delta Kappan, 66(6), 422–423.Google Scholar
  36. Kohn, A. (1998). What to look for in a classroom: And other essays (1st ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.Google Scholar
  37. Koljatic, M., & Kuh, G. D. (2001). A longitudinal assessment of college student engagement in good practices in undergraduate education. Higher Education, 42(3), 351–371.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Lerner, R. M. (2004). Liberty: Thriving and civic engagement among America’s youth. Thousand Oaks: Sage.Google Scholar
  39. Martin, J. R. (2011). Education reconfigured: Culture, encounter, and change. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  40. McMillin, L. (n.d.). Einstein’s theory of education – learning as a creative activity.Google Scholar
  41. Montessori, M. (1964). The Montessori method. New York: Schocken Books.Google Scholar
  42. Nakamura, J., & Shernoff, D. J. (2009). Good mentoring: Fostering excellent practice in higher education. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.Google Scholar
  43. Noddings, N. (2003). Happiness and education. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Novak, B. (2009, April). Holism, evolution, and education: Educational implications of the moral and personal nature of human evolution. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, San Diego, CA.Google Scholar
  45. Oakes, J. (1985). Keeping track: How schools structure inequality. New Haven: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
  46. Oakes, J. (2000). Grouping and tracking. In A. E. Kazdin (Ed.), Encyclopedia of psychology (Vol. 4, pp. 16–20). New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  47. Oakes, J., Gamoran, A., & Page, R. N. (1992). Curriculum differentiation: Opportunities, consequences, and meaning. In P. W. Jackson (Ed.), Handbook of research and curriculum (pp. 570–608). New York: McMillan.Google Scholar
  48. Paavola, S., Lipponen, L., & Hakkarainen, K. (2004). Models of innovative knowledge communities and three metaphors of learning. Review of Educational Research, 74(4), 557–576.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Palincsar, A. S., & Herrenkohl, L. R. (1999). Designing collaborative learning contexts. Theory into Practice, 41(1), 26–32.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.Google Scholar
  51. Putnam, R. D. (2000). Bowling alone: The collapse and revival of American community. New York: Simon and Schuster.Google Scholar
  52. Reeve, J. (2009). Why teachers adopt a controlling motivating style toward students and how they can become more autonomy supportive. Educational Psychologist, 44(3), 159–175.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Rogoff, B. (1990). Apprenticeship in thinking: Cognitive development in a social context. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  54. Rogoff, B. (1995). Development through participation in sociocultural activity. New Directions for Child Development, 67, 45–65.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Rogoff, B. (2003). The cultural nature of human development. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  56. Rousseau, J. J. (1762/1979). Emile: Or, on education. New York: Basic Books.Google Scholar
  57. Ryan, R. M., & Powelson, C. (1991). Autonomy and relatedness as fundamental to motivation and education. The Journal of Experimental Education, 60(1), 49–66.Google Scholar
  58. Scardamalia, M. (1989). Computer-supported intentional learning environments. Journal of Educational Computing Research, 5(1), 51–68.Google Scholar
  59. Schneider, B. L., & Stevenson, D. (1999). The ambitious generation: America’s teenagers, motivated but directionless. New Haven: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
  60. Seligman, M. E. P. (2002). Authentic happiness: Using the new positive psychology to realize your potential for lasting fulfillment. New York: Free Press.Google Scholar
  61. Shernoff, D. J. (2001/2012). The individual-maker: A master teacher and his transformational curriculum. Palm Desert: William & Sons.Google Scholar
  62. Sizer, T. R. (1984). Horace’s compromise: The dilemma of the American high school. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.Google Scholar
  63. Steffe, L. P., & Gale, J. E. (1995). Constructivism in education. Hillsdale: Lawrence Erlbaum.Google Scholar
  64. Stigler, J. W., & Hiebert, J. (1999). The teaching gap: Best ideas from the world’s teachers for improving education in the classroom. New York: Free Press.Google Scholar
  65. Stone, J. E. (1996). Developmentalism: An obscure but pervasive restriction on educational improvement. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 4(8), 1–29.Google Scholar
  66. The National Commission on Excellence in Education. (1983). A nation at risk: The imperative for educational reform. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.Google Scholar
  67. Tomlinson, C. A. (1995). How to differentiate instruction in mixed-ability classrooms (p. 90). Alexandria: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.Google Scholar
  68. Tomlinson, C. A. (1999). The differentiated classroom. Responding to the needs of all learners (p. 145). Alexandria: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.Google Scholar
  69. Tomlinson, C. A., & Germundson, A. (2007). Teaching as jazz. Educational Leadership, 64(8), 27–31.Google Scholar
  70. Yazzie-Mintz, E. (2007). Voices of students on engagement: A report on the 2006 High School Survey of Student Engagement (p. 12). Bloomington: Center for Evaluation & Education Policy.Google Scholar
  71. Zhang, J., Scardamalia, M., Reeve, R., & Messina, R. (2009). Designs for collective cognitive responsibility in knowledge-building communities. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 18(1), 7–44.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  • David J. Shernoff
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of Leadership, Educational Psychology and Foundations College of EducationNorthern Illinois UniversityDeKalbUSA

Personalised recommendations