Albert Einstein was a precocious child.
At the age of twelve, he followed his own line of reasoning to find a proof of the Pythagorean Theorem. At thirteen he read Kant, just for the fun of it. And before he was fifteen he had taught himself differential and integral calculus.
But while the young Einstein was engrossed in intellectual pursuits, he didn’t much care for school. He hated rote learning and despised authoritarian schoolmasters. His sense of intellectual superiority was resented by his teachers.
In Subtle is the Lord: The Science and Life of Albert Einstein, author Abraham Pais tells a funny story from Einstein’s days at the Luitpold Gymnasium, a secondary school in Munich now called the Albert-Einstein-Gymnasium:
At the Gymnasium a teacher once said to him that he, the teacher, would be much happier if the boy were not in his class. Einstein replied that he had done nothing wrong. The teacher answered, “Yes, that is true. But you sit there in the back row and smile, and that violates the feeling of respect that a teacher needs from his class.”
The same teacher famously said that Einstein “would never get anywhere in life.”
What bothered Einstein most about the Luitpold was its oppressive atmosphere. His sister Maja would later write:
“The military tone of the school, the systematic training in the worship of authority that was supposed to accustom pupils at an early age to military discipline, was also particularly unpleasant for the boy. He contemplated with dread that not-too-distant moment when he will have to don a soldier’s uniform in order to fulfill his military obligations.”
When he was sixteen, Einstein’s parents moved to Italy to pursue a business venture. They told him to stay behind and finish school. But Einstein was desperate to join them in Italy before his seventeenth birthday. “According to the German citizenship laws,” Maja explained, “a male citizen must not emigrate after his completed sixteenth year; otherwise, if he fails to report for military service, he is declared a deserter.”
So Einstein found a way to get a doctor’s permission to withdraw from the school on the pretext of “mental exhaustion,” and fled to Italy without a diploma. Years later, in 1944, during the final days of World War II, the Luitpold Gymnasium was obliterated by Allied bombing. So we don’t have a record of Einstein’s grades there. But there is record of a principal at the school looking up Einstein’s grades in 1929 to fact check a press report that Einstein had been a very bad student. Walter Sullivan writes about it in a 1984 piece in The New York Times:
With 1 as the highest grade and 6 the lowest, the principal reported, Einstein’s marks in Greek, Latin and mathematics oscillated between 1 and 2 until, toward the end, he invariably scored 1 in math.
After he dropped out, Einstein’s family enlisted a well-connected friend to persuade the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, or ETH, to let him take the entrance exam, even though he was only sixteen years old and had not graduated from high school. He scored brilliantly in physics and math, but poorly in other areas. The director of the ETH suggested he finish preparatory school in the town of Aarau, in the Swiss canton of Aargau. A diploma from the cantonal school would guarantee Einstein admission to the ETH.
At Aarau, Einstein was pleasantly surprised to find a liberal atmosphere in which independent thought was encouraged. “When compared to six years’ schooling at a German authoritarian gymnasium,” he later said, “it made me clearly realize how much superior an education based on free action and personal responsibility is to one relying on outward authority.”
In Einstein’s first semester at Aarau, the school still used the old method of scoring from 1 to 6, with 1 as the highest grade. In the second semester the system was reversed, with 6 becoming the highest grade. Barry R. Parker talks about Einstein’s first-semester grades in his book, Einstein: The Passions of a Scientist:
His grades over the first few months were: German, 2-3; French, 3-4; history, 1-2; mathematics, 1; physics, 1-2; natural history, 2-3; chemistry, 2-3; drawing, 2-3; and violin, 1. (The range is 1 to 6, with 1 being the highest.) Although none of the grades, with the exception of French, were considered poor, some of them were only average.
The school headmaster, Jost Winteler, who had welcomed Einstein into his home as a boarder and had become something of a surrogate father to him during his time at Aarau, was concerned that a young man as obviously brilliant as Albert was receiving average grades in so many courses. At Christmas in 1895, he mailed a report card to Einstein’s parents. Hermann Einstein replied with warm thanks, but said he was not too worried. As Parker writes, Einstein’s father said he was used to seeing a few “not-so-good grades along with very good ones.”
In the next semester Einstein’s grades improved, but were still mixed. As Toby Hendy of the Youtube channel Tibees shows in the video above, Einstein’s final grades were excellent in math and physics, but closer to average in other areas.
Einstein’s uneven academic performance continued at the ETH, as Hendy shows. By the third year his relationship with the head of the physics department, Heinrich Weber, began to deteriorate. Weber was offended by the young man’s arrogance. “You’re a clever boy, Einstein,” said Weber. “An extremely clever boy. But you have one great fault. You’ll never allow yourself to be told anything.” Einstein was particularly frustrated that Weber refused to teach the groundbreaking electromagnetic theory of James Clerk Maxwell. He began spending less time in the classroom and more time reading up on current physics at home and in the cafes of Zurich.
Einstein increasingly focused his attention on physics, and neglected mathematics. He came to regret this. “It was not clear to me as a student,” he later said, “that a more profound knowledge of the basic principles of physics was tied up with the most intricate mathematical methods.”
Einstein’s classmate Marcel Grossmann helped him by sharing his notes from the math lectures Einstein had skipped. When Einstein graduated, his conflict with Weber cost him the teaching job he had expected to receive. Grossmann eventually came to Einstein’s rescue again, urging his father to help him secure a well-paid job as a clerk in the Swiss patent office. Many years later, when Grossmann died, Einstein wrote a letter to his widow that conveyed not only his sadness at an old friend’s death, but also his bittersweet memories of life as a college student:
“Our days together come back to me. He a model student; I untidy and a daydreamer. He on excellent terms with the teachers and grasping everything easily; I aloof and discontented, not very popular. But we were good friends and our conversations over iced coffee at the Metropol every few weeks belong among my nicest memories.”