If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairytales. - Albert Einstein
I love seeing this quote pop up on social media every now and again, and in fact I have these words on a wall in my house, along with about 50 other quotes. I don’t mind a quote or 50; a quote is a little piece of wisdom neatly packaged in just a few words, far easier to remember than lengthy explanations in academic journals, and often much needed to remind one of the bigger things in life, while one is cleaning porridge off walls, the dog and the toddler.
We will perhaps never know for certain, however, there are multiple credible sources which claim that Albert Einstein certainly was of the opinion that fairytales were vital in a child’s intellectual development – though, his exact words may have been slightly different.
Librarians have also been credited with popularising this quote, with an article in the New Mexico Library Bulletin from 1958 citing Elizabeth Margulis as saying; “In Denver I heard a story about a woman who was friendly with the late Dr. Einstein. She wanted her child to become a scientist, too, and asked Dr. Einstein for his suggestions for the kind of reading the child might do in his school years to prepare him for this career. To her surprise, Dr. Einstein recommended ‘fairytales and more fairytales.’ The mother protested this frivolity and asked for a serious answer, but Dr. Einstein persisted, adding that creative imagination is the essential element in the intellectual equipment of the true scientist, and that fairytales are the childhood stimulus of this quality!”
Does Einstein’s advice still ring true in the 21st century?
So in the 21st century, does this quote still remain relevant, and should we all be rushing out to purchase copies of Grimms’ fairytales? I would argue that all reading may make children more intelligent.
Reading a range of genres and types of text allows children to walk in the shoes of others in their world, developing empathy and understanding and thus increasing their emotional intelligence. Reading allows children to acquire knowledge in all areas of interest and life: botany; the workings of the body; world religions – any number of topics.
Pathways in the brain
Then there is the research behind what reading actually does to the neural pathways in the brain. Australian Children’s Laureate and Senior Australian on the Year, Jackie French states: “Reading makes kids more intelligent. It doesn’t just make them seem more intelligent; reading creates new neural connections in a child’s brain by stimulating the growth of new neurons as they imagine the world the writer has put on paper.” (I Spy a Great Reader, 2015, Harper Collins).
Back to Einstein, who talks of exclusively of fairytales. I’d rather subscribe to Martha Nussbaum’s concept of nurturing the narrative imagination. Narrative imagination, as Martha Nussbaum discusses it, is “the ability to be an intelligent reader of another person’s story, an ability tied to being a democratic and cultivated world citizen, one who understands the lives of others. Narrative imagination does not only need knowledge and logical reasoning, but also love and compassion.” (Moira von Wright, 2002).
So, the question becomes: do fairytales nurture the narrative imagination?
I’m sure that they do to some degree, especially in the discussion of good and evil and other shades of virtue. To me it does seem a little simplistic to expect that this comes from fairytales alone. For example Whoever you are by Mem Fox is not a fairytale, yet inspires some feeling for others, same and different, as does Refuge by Jackie French which is a must-read for all young people. I suspect that Einstein would be encouraging reading of all sorts, fiction and non-fiction, classic and contemporary, visual and digital, to explore the world in all its variance.
Certainly the more children read, the greater their understanding of all things. Quality literature and rich language broadens thinking; fairy tales are but one slice of the world of literature and its genres. Beautifully written books (and illustrations too) are enlightening and magical. Sharing these with adults who help to make these come alive for young children is vital. Surely acknowledging this goes some way to sharing a love of wisdom. Is this what we mean to be intelligent?
Local bookshops often have a specialist children’s buyer who will be able to find a beautiful new title and if you get to know them, they will help you out with birthday gifts for the children in your life. Quality children’s literature abounds, do not be afraid to seek advice to find it … your child’s future intelligence could depend on it!
Daley, M. (2015) Available at: http://www.kidspot.com.au/children-more-intelligent-read-them-fairy-tales/?utm_source=facebook&utm_medium=post&utm_campaign=editorial