On several occasions, an Albert Einstein fish quote has appeared on my Facebook, Twitter and Instagram wall.
It usually gets a lot of agreement in my social network. I actually think it misrepresents the issue. After careful reflection, I’ve landed on five problems with the Einstein fish quote meme.
1. The Einstein Fish Quote Implies Some Students Can’t Compete with their Contemporaries
In order for the Einstein fish quote image’s point to reflect truth, there must be some sort of unifying category that all of the animals fit within. The most narrow category is “creature.” They’re not all mammals or birds or insects or quadrupeds. They are best categorized simply as creatures. The assessor, then, asks the whole category to perform a function that only a narrow slice of the creatures could physically accomplish. Clearly, that’s the point: not every creature can actually successfully complete the assessment.
So if we carry the illustration forward, then what we’re saying is that not every human child can read; some human children should not learn to write well; a slice of humanity is simply incapable of arithmetic. In order for this image to resonate as “truth” we must confess a belief that some children are functionally ineligible for education because they’ll not be able to perform at a level similar to their peers.
2. The Einstein Fish Quote Implies Some Students are Non-Human
In this image, elephants, fish, monkeys, and other animals are assessed based on their performance of the same function. The obvious problem is that each of these animals has different DNA. They’re not of the same kind.
But the US Education system works with only one kind: human children. You won’t find classrooms at any school teaching house-training skills to dogs, or showing cats how to be pleasant. In order for this artist’s illustration to ring true, we must confess some of the current “students” in school are non-human. So which ones? How can we tell the human students from the non-human ones? If we ask a student to perform algebra on an assessment and they cannot, does that classify them as non-human?
I understand the artist’s point: using hyperbole to illustrate that “a one-size-fits-all testing system trends toward injustice.” Since that quote doesn’t resonate so well, a fun comparison will do the trick. But our current education system is nothing like the description in the image. Furthermore, it paints–of the vastly large numbers of solid and professional educators–an unnecessary caricature.
3. The Einstein Fish Quote Image is Racist
Education has a horrible history of segregation and oppression. In order to combat that history, educators are constantly looking at how genders, races, and socio-economic statuses are performing in their schools. These metrics help educators ensure education is accessible to every student regardless of their background or current life situation. Administrators and teachers are not always successful in these efforts, but the goal is to make data-based decisions about ways to activate disengaged students.
When an educator looks at this Einstein fish quote image, they naturally see the different animals as symbols for different genders, races, and socio-economic statuses with which they work every single day. So for those who would declare this image as “truth,” which race does the monkey represent? How about the dog? If the fish can’t perform the assessment as well as the bird, then which race are we saying is functionally incapable of success in education?
4. The Einstein Fish Quote Image Implies Educators are Stupid
In the drawing, the man giving the assessment is understood to be an educator. He’s a symbolic substitute for every educator in America. It assumes that every educator is the same, and that they all ask students to perform tasks that only certain students could perform–which itself is a questionable assumption. So it positions the educator as the problem.
But the real problem isn’t found in the teacher. The real problem is systemic. There isn’t a singular individual who demands poor assessments from educators. Personalizing the problem by picturing the assessor as human (as apposed to the other animals) assumes that if we just put better humans at the desk, the problem would improve. But it won’t, because our classrooms aren’t filled with ignorant and stupid educators; the foundational obstacle is that our society trusts systems to accomplish what only humans can do. In an attempt to ensure equity, we have systematized rather than personalized education. We falsely believe that if we just improve the system we can create better assessments.
Be not deceived: assessments are not effective measures of modern education. Contemporary teachers across America are changing the lives of students every single day. They’re helping poor readers improve. They’re building struggling students into solid mathematicians. They’re causing historically marginalized children to feel hopeful about tomorrow. At a granular level, education has potential. At a systemic level there is great failure. Unfortunately, systems are not easily changed, and the costs to do so are more unfathomable than anything we could imagine.
5. Einstein Didn’t Make the Fish Quote
My final problem with this Einstein fish quote illustration is that no evidence exists that Einstein actually made this statement. According to QuoteInvestigator.com, it’s not his. It doesn’t appear in any of his writings. It’s not found in his collection of quotes. His associates do not report he made the comment in passing. False attribution does not make a statement false, but it does reveal immoral motives.
Someone, somewhere made the statement; it wasn’t Einstein. But attributing it to him gives it more power. After all, who want to question Einstein? Certainly I wouldn’t undertake such arrogance. But rest assured, my criticism is not directed toward Einstein, because this statement is not his. Instead, my critique is addressed toward the nameless, faceless individual who found anonymity more appealing than honesty.
No doubt exists that we can improve education. But lets do so honestly, with a legitimate exploration of the challenges before us. The complexity of the problem and the consequences of failure deserve more than a 140-character meme.
What are your thoughts on how to improve public education?