Tuesday 14 Jul 2020

Einstein and Ecolint

On the 17th December, 1927, Albert Einstein (who by then had revolutionised the scientific world with his Special Theory of Relativity, and had won the Nobel Prize in Physics), wrote from Berlin to Ecolint’s co-founder and first director, Paul Meyhoffer, seeking to secure a teaching position. 

Before I provide further details, allow me to address your incredulity. Not a few men and women who achieved prominence and distinction, independently of their career as educators, have taught in Ecolint. Here are some examples:

  • Paul Dupuy, an accomplished author and historian, who had stood out in the campaign to defend the unjustly condemned Alfred Dreyfus in 1898, and had been a dean for 40 years in Paris’ renowned Ecole normale supérieure (where he rubbed shoulders with the likes of Louis Pasteur), joined Ecolint as a teacher in 1925, at the age of 70 (he finally retired at 80, his vigour and dynamism - to judge from his students’ accounts - undiminished). 
  • The prominent psychoanalyst Charles Baudouin, author of numerous, classic works in this field, such as Suggestion et autosuggestion (translated into English as Suggestion and autosuggestion) and Le Mythe du moderne (translated as The Myth of Modernity), taught Philosophy and French Literature at Ecolint during the 1930s and 40s.
  • The great philosopher Jeanne Hersch, author of major works such as Idéologies et réalité (translated as Ideologies and Reality by Czesław Miłosz), who in 1962 became the first woman ever to be appointed as a full Professor of Philosophy at the University of Geneva, taught French, Latin and Philosophy at Ecolint from 1933 to 1956.
  • Michel Butor, author of the iconic novel La Modification, which spearheaded the nouveau roman movement in French literature, taught Philosophy, Latin and History at Ecolint in 1956-57 (indeed, that is where he met his future wife, who was a tutor and substitute teacher at the time).
  • The renowned painters Frank S. Dorsay and Glyn Uzzell, whose artistic status was well established before they joined Ecolint’s Art Department, where their careers spanned 1960-1989 (Dorsay) and 1957-1979 (Uzzell). 

Teachers who have recently retired or are still active may modestly not wish to be named here in connection with their extra-educational accomplishments. Suffice it to say that among them there are scientists, lawyers, writers, successful entrepreneurs, economists, philosophers and scholars (including a world-class expert in the civilisations of ancient Greece and Rome), all of whom at some point in their professional lives developed a passion for teaching and decided to prioritise the art of education. So let us not be unduly astonished by the notion that Albert Einstein may have been interested in a job at Ecolint. 

Einstein in Berlin
Albert Einstein in his Haberlandstrasse 5 apartment in Berlin
Photo: BPK (Courtesy of Der Tagesspiegel)

He was - but (and this is where my opening paragraph may have slightly misled you) not for himself; he had in mind a certain “Miss E. Einstein,” who at the time was residing in Zürich. My research leads me to the conclusion that this could have been none other than the great physicist’s cousin, Edith Einstein, to whom he had been close during his childhood in Munich. She also became a physicist of some standing; indeed, Albert coached her for her doctoral dissertation devoted to the “Theory of the Radiometer.” She pursued her scientific research in Zürich, where she subsequently taught Physics at a private school. 

We have in the Foundation’s archives a carbon copy of Meyhoffer’s polite reply to Einstein, dated 21st December 1927 and sent to Haberlandstrasse 5, Berlin W. 30 (Einstein’s original letter is, alas, nowhere to be found; certainly Meyhoffer did not keep it, as his daughter Loïs - literally Ecolint’s student number one, who inherited all her father’s papers and died in 2018, just a few weeks before her 100th birthday - never saw it):

« Je vous remercie beaucoup de votre lettre du 17 ct. dans laquelle vous demandez si nous pourrions offrir une situation à Melle Einstein. 

Il ne nous est pas possible dans les circonstances actuelles, vu le petit nombre d’élèves allemands que nous avons, d’engager un professeur de langue allemande, ne pouvant lui garantir un enseignement suffisamment étendu ; cependant, je serais heureux d’entrer en relations avec Melle Einstein, à laquelle j’écris par le même courrier. »

[Thank you for your letter dated 17 Oct. in which you enquire about the possibility for us to offer Miss Einstein an employment.

Our current circumstances do not allow us to recruit a German language teacher given the small number of German students we have as we would be unable to guarantee sufficient teaching time; however, I would be delighted to enter into correspondence with Miss Einstein, to whom I take advantage to write as part of this same missive.] 

Paul Meyhoffer (circa 1929)
Paul Meyhoffer (circa 1929), walking past what is now La Grande Boissière's Pavillon des Langues, a wing of the Grand Bâtiment (formerly the Cafeteria and Assembly Room)

True to his word, two days later Meyhoffer wrote to Miss Einstein, explaining that Ecolint did not yet have enough German-speaking students to offer courses taught in that language - other than German language and literature. Would she be willing to consider teaching the latter? Was her French sufficient to enable her to conduct courses in the langue de Molière? He enclosed the school’s prospectus and two annual reports, signalling a genuine willingness to find a professional role for Miss Einstein in Ecolint. Here the trail of correspondence ends, and - as no record of her presence in our school has come down to us - it seems reasonable to conclude that no such arrangement could be reached. 

From an Ecolint perspective, what is most interesting about this episode is that Einstein should have been aware of our school only three years after its modest 1924 inception (when it opened with a grand total of eight students and three teachers), and that - given his high-minded, progressive and egalitarian views - he should have regarded it as a desirable professional environment for his cousin. This provides further evidence of the rapidity with which Ecolint, the world’s first international school, built up a reputation as a unique provider of an education for peace, elevated in its humane ideals, genuinely welcoming to all, and free from prejudice and discrimination.

Alejandro Rodríguez-Giovo
Foundation Archivist

The school's premises in 1927
The school’s premises in 1927 (Rue Charles Bonnet, Geneva), at the time that Paul Meyhoffer received Einstein’s letter

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