In 1919, Albert Einstein wrote to the Freie Vereinigung für technische Volksbildung (Independent Association for Technical Popular Education) praising their objectives. His letter was subsequently published in the monthly magazine Volksbildung. This is my own translation, which is complete and should be reasonably accurate – and if it isn’t, let me know!
Education always threatens a peculiar risk of detachment from the world of sensual experience. All education creates a world of concepts. These are closely related in their origin with the realities, they are formed out of their clear recognition. But closely bound to the linguistically fixed concept is a tendency to generalization that on the one hand expands its field of application, on the other hand weakens its connection to sensory experience. So particularly in times when culture is aging, we see concepts becoming empty and formal, losing touch with sensory experience. Who would deny that the grammar schools, where the focus of attention is directed to the language, are particularly exposed to this risk? But the nurturing of mathematics uncoupled from applications brings the same risk; and so the geometricians were able over the centuries to forget that their science ultimately deals with constant bodies and rays of light; the geometrician who fundamentally denies this demotes his science to a meaningless word game. Science can only stay healthy and active if it maintains its relationship with the world of sensual experience, however indirect this relationship may be. Engagement with technology is highly suited to counteracting the degeneration of science in the sense indicated.
On the other hand it is important to make the technology a true cultural factor, by which one brings its rich spiritual and aesthetic content closer to the general consciousness. What comes into the mind of a fine person when he hears the word technology? Greed, exploitation, social division of people, class hatred, soulless mechanization, racial degeneration, senseless hasty bustle … is it any wonder that the educated person hates technology as a wayward child of our times, which threatens to destroy the finer attractions of life? For this robust child of society to grow up safe and sound, we must not let it grow wild. One must try to understand it in order to influence it. It possesses powers that can ennoble life. Here I see the second task of your Association.
Einstein, who by this time was a professor at the Humboldt University of Berlin, was on the way to becoming world famous by 1919. His theory of relativity was well known among theoretical physicists, and was being subjected to testing by empirical physicists. I don’t know the context of this letter, but presumably Einstein – who had taken Austrian citizenship when appointed to a chair in Prague – had been invited to make a public statement supporting the newly-formed Association.
Einstein chose to write about the importance of technology as the place where science meets society. His underlying argument is one that scientists today might associate with the world of ‘impact’ and ‘user engagement’. And Einstein clearly thought that an audience of adult educators was likely to sympathise with his belief that technology might ‘ennoble life’, and share his view on the value of fusing abstract conceptual thinking with the world of lived experience.
I – and anyone else interested in the history of adult education – have to thank the Austrian Folk High School Association and the Austrian Folk High School Archive for the fact that Einstein’s letter is in the public domain, as one of the many resources available through their fabulous portal, Knowledge Base Erwachsenenbildung. Some of the materials are also in English, though most are in German. You can find out more here. Meanwhile, I’d be interested to know whether Einstein had any other connections with the adult education movement.