March 29, 2004
Michel Thomas shops around for his education

Perhaps you recall that I've been reading about the great language teacher Michel Thomas. I have recovered the book about him which I temporarily mislaid, for which thanks to the relevant people. I've not yet encountered any bits about the man's own remarkable teaching methods, but I did encounter this fascinating bit about the man's own education. Thomas was born in Poland, but while still a child he moved to Germany.

By the age of sixteen Michel began to feel that he had outstripped the school he attended and no longer felt challenged. 'I was anxious to get it over with.' He developed a plan in which he would take extensive private instruction instead of school work, enabling him to gain a year. He took the idea to the principal, who instantly rejected it.

Undeterred, he started shopping around for alternatives, an outlandish concept for a student at that time. He chose a Gymnasium attended by children of the militaristic upper-class Junkers, a school known to be rigid in its educational methods and unforgiving in its academic standards. ('It certainly had no Jews.') But the principal, although a severe disciplinarian of the old school, was sympathetic to a teenager's passion to learn. He accepted the scheme.

At the same rime, Michel sought out a private tutor. He chose a highly educated intellectual in the city, Dr Karl Riesenfeld, a musicologist who wrote opera reviews and literary criticism in the highbrow publications. 'He was a walking encyclopaedia. I explained I wanted to leave school early and go on to university, and that I wanted him to teach me personally.' When pressed, Michel admitted that he had not yet spoken to his family about the idea. Not surprisingly, the professor turned him down. Michel refused to take no for an answer.

Riesenfeld tried to brush him off, saying he was busy: 'Besides, summer is coming and I will be travelling.'

'Fine,' Michel said. 'I'll come with you.'

He was passionate and persuasive, and the professor finally agreed to talk to Michel's family, and that if they consented something might be worked out.

MThomGer.jpgThat same evening at dinner Michel decided it was a good time to speak to his aunt and uncle about the various far-reaching arrangements he had made for his life. 'I've quit school and I'm not going back.' He explained he had left his old school and was intending to go to a more demanding establishment, finish a year early and go to university. 'I gave them my reasons and told them what I had achieved, that a Junkers Gymnasium had accepted my plan, and that this brilliant man was prepared to talk to them about private instruction. I must say they were impressed by my initiative.' He was granted his wish, and was also allowed to travel with his chosen Aristotle.

They visited the Alpine resorts of Austria, the Italian Dolomites and the cities of northern Italy. Michel studied every day, and discussed history and art, hour after hour. 'I started looking at history through different eyes than those at school. The professor was a learned man, but brought people and places to life. I began to see great historical personages not as figures detached in time who fought some war, but as real people. I started to question what they were like and what motivated them. I developed critical thinking and evaluation – not accepting what I was told and read, which was very un-German at the time. It was one of the greatest learning experiences of my life.' He had previously been weak in mathematics, a subject he had no interest in and for which he was convinced he had no ability, but the professor changed all that. 'Through challenge and love I became a reasonable mathematician. He showed me that there is nothing so complicated that it cannot be made simple, and the concept of reducing complexities later became a cornerstone of my teaching.'

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 09:46 PM
Category: Famous educations