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Myth in Education: Famous People

Updated on September 25, 2019
Dean Traylor profile image

Dean Traylor is a freelance writer and teacher who writes about various subjects including education and creative writing.

Historical figures, celebrities, and well-known scientists, inventors and explorers have always been great educational subject matters. Their exploits have inspired many to achieve the type of goals they've accomplished. And when students discover these iconic figures have a few faults or frailties, they tend to admire -- and relate -- to them even more.

Many distinguished people of history have overcome many obstacles. Helen Keller, Hans Christian Anderson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, or Stephen Hawking are people who come to mind.

And if it wasn't an obstacle, we admire their daringness and courage to do things that nobody had dared to do before. We want them to be our Supermen or women. Neil Armstrong, George Washington or sports legends such as Babe Ruth or Michael Jordon may fit this mold.

Still, many of us forget that these heroes have flaws or don't exactly lived up to the legend that surrounds them . In some cases, the stories are more myth than reality.

Paul Revere’s ride has been debunked over the years. So has the story o f George Washington cutting down a cherry tree. Even to this day, there are several myths about famous people that have been used regularly in schools throughout the country.

These myths have persisted over the years. Stories about famous people having learning disabilities have been particularly popular. Also, the idolization and exploits of Christopher Columbus is still a popular topic, despite evidence to the contrary.

The following is a list of myths associated with famous people. Many of them are passed off as innocent antidotes for teaching about possible role models. In other cases, these events are taught as facts in a history class. In other cases, the evidence suggests the myth has some validity.

The Myths and Realities

Myth #1: Albert Einstein had a learning disability, was not a good student, and struggled in math.

Reality: Einstein was actually an outstanding student and he excelled in math. The story of his disability is believed to have been unintentionally created by him. He told people that he started talking late in life. His sister, on the other hand stated he couldn’t stop talking when he was a toddler.

Although Einstein’s intelligence was evident early in his life, he had his struggle. He failed a math class not because he didn’t understand any of the concepts. He failed as a result of not doing the work for a teacher he despised.

There are cases of geniuses receiving mediocre grades. During his early college years, Stephen Hawking had unexceptional grades (In part, he didn’t take school seriously back then).

However, Einstein has become a popular subject, considering he’s still considered the smartest man to have ever lived. And when stories circulated about some of his failings, it becomes a very popular topic. Teachers, counselors, and special educators have used these stories to help inspire students to keep trying in school.

Still, there are researchers who believed he may have had a form of autism known as Asperger’s Syndrome. They based this on his habit of repeating sentences as a child and being a confusing lecturer when he was an adult.

Still, this is mere speculation based on some documented characteristics.

Myth#2: Christopher Columbus discovered the new world and proved Earth was round.

Reality: There’s compelling evidence that the Vikings were the first Europeans to settle in the Americas. Also, there was no widespread belief that the world was flat during Columbus’ time.

Topics concerning Columbus’ voyage and its aftermath have been controversial, lately. Even stating that somebody discovered America is enough to besmirch anyone. Also, there’s speculation that Pacific Islanders may have been trading with various tribes in the Americas for nearly a thousand years before Columbus set foot in the western Hemisphere (Also, there’s speculation – and evidence – that intuits may have landed their kayaks in Europe well before Columbus set sail).

Another false claim is that Columbus was trying to prove to everyone in Europe that the world was not flat. In truth, knowledge of the Earth’s “roundness” dates back to the time of Greek antiquity and was accepted during Columbus' time.

This part of the Columbus’ biography is fiction – literally! American Novelist, Washington Irving (writer of Legend of Sleepy Hollow) wrote the highly romanticized and fictional account called “A History of the Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus (1828). It contained an account of the flat Earth belief.

The story was mistaken for a scholarly work. This part of Irving’s story would later be inaccurately reported as a medieval belief in two 19th century history books: John William Draper’s History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (1874) and Andrew Dickson White’s History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896).

Another misconception about Columbus was that he found the new world by accident. Maps from the Vikings were available in several libraries in Europe. Although the maps were inaccurate, they indicated that there was a large land mass on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.

Some scholars believed that Columbus’ original story of trying to find a quicker passage to India may have been a ruse to convince the King and Queen of Spain to fund his trip to the western Hemisphere. Also, Columbus' intention may have been to find riches in the new world. Columbus was a merchant and opportunist, as well as an explorer.

Captain Smith has become a mythological character of sorts, thanks to Disney’s Pocahontas.

Myth #3: Captain John Smith was an avid explorer who saved a colony and brought peace between the English Colonists and Native American Tribes.

Reality: His stories are questionable and sketchy at best. Captain Smith (if he was a captain) was a self-promoter who seemed to be in the midst of every important event in the early days of British Colonialism. While his exploits were well read and may have sparked the imagination of many would-be adventurists and future colonists in England, there was little evidence that what he wrote actually took place. He was the only witness to his adventures.

Captain Smith has become a mythological character of sorts, thanks to Disney’s Pocahontas. His account is also taught by some teachers as a lesson for cultural understanding and tolerance. Pocahontas was an actual person, just as Captain Smith was. However, much of the accounts described by Smith have lacked verification.

Historians have questioned certain details of his stories. This included the rituals of the Native Americans tribe he came in contact with. At best, Smith’s stories are suspicious.

The fall that inspired a concept: gravity

Story of Isaac Newton finding inspiration for gravity from an apple that fell on his head has long been considered a myth. It is known that Newton took several years to come up with the concept of gravity. However, many scholars and one of his best friends who recorded the event claim the event happened – except not in the way the myth claimed. He saw the apple and the tree it was under, but it never fell on his head.

Myth #4: Sir Isaac Newton had a form of Autism.

Reality: The jury is still out on this one. Descriptions of Newton’s behavior suggest he may have had a disorder such as Autism; however, nobody can be sure of this, and there’s a possibility nobody will.

Historically, Autism was first coined in the early 20th century. It is a neural developmental disorder which is characterized by impaired social interaction, communication as well as restricted and repetitive behavior present in the sufferer. It is often referred as Autism Spectrum Disorder because it can affect those with it in different forms of severity.

While autism has been a recognized condition for nearly a century, researchers are still learning new things about it.

Although this is a modern condition, court records, journals and studies indicate that it has been around for a long time. It is believed the first documented case of autism may have been in 1747. This came from a court case in which the brother of Hugh Blair of Borgue successfully petitioned to annual Blair’s marriage in order to gain his inheritance.

Sir Isaac Newton was born in 1642 and died in 1727 – twenty years before the first documented case. And during his time, he was considered the greatest mind of his time. Also, he had many interests including, physics, math, astronomy, and religion.

In 2003, an article on BBC News website reported that researchers at Cambridge and Oxford believed that Newton had a form of high-functioning autism known as Asperger’s Syndrome (This is the same article that mentioned Einstein had symptoms of this condition).

Much of the proof was based on Newton’s eccentric behavior. The article reported that “he hardly spoke, was so engrossed in his work that he often forgot to eat and was lukewarm or bad-tempered with the few friends he had.”

Finally: Why the Truth Matters in the Classroom

The story of Newton having autism is tempting for many teachers to tell. Again, it’s a way to show that anyone can be a genius and that they have the same afflictions as everyone else. In fact, several special education teachers have used this as an example of why students shouldn’t get discouraged in school.

Telling the tales of famous people is a popular way to help students build appropriate character and self-confidence.

While this may be a good method for modeling good behavior, it has the ability to blur the fine line between reality and myth. And if students feel they’re exposed to a myth, the lesson can be compromised.

© 2012 Dean Traylor


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    • starlightreflex profile image

      Doug Ocean 

      8 years ago from Ohio USA

      I agree that these geniuses were misunderstood by the hoi polloi, and mis-characterized by their (often envious) peers.

      Newton is one of the 5 all-time superhumans, with a genius mind like his, why wouldn't he get lost in long trains of thought and shut out the comparatively meaningless of everyday pleasantries? Today we are all glad he did, it may be the only way to surpass normal limits of thinking. Also, when you skip meals because of your hyperfocus (necessary to tackle the most difficult problems) you can get cranky! See my list of the top 5 Superhumans of all time:

    • JoanCA profile image


      8 years ago

      This is a very interesting hub, especially the part about Einstein. A lot of times highly intelligent kids don't do well in school because it's too easy for them. They don't have any interest in doing what needs to be done to get good grades. It's a mistake to use people like Einstein as an example of why good grades in school aren't important. Or Steve Jobs as an example of why college isn't important. Their high intelligence practically guaranteed success. Academic success is important for kids of normal intelligence because they likely will need a good education to be successful.


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