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Quotations on the nature of education and related ideas, and what people have tried to make of them instead. See also


Shakyamuni Buddha (c. 563 BCE to 483 BCE)

  • Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.
Kalama Sutta


  • Man is most nearly himself when he achieves the seriousness of a child at play.
Usually attributed, incorrectly, to Heraclitus (c. 535–c. 475 BCE)
  • I cannot teach anybody anything. I can only make them think.
Attributed to Socrates (c. 469 BCE–399 BCE), but no source is provided.
  • Make it your business to know yourself, which is the most difficult lesson in the world.
Attributed to Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (1547–1616)
  • A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they know they shall never sit.
Allegedly a Greek proverb, but no source is provided.
  • Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.
Attributed to Albert Einstein (1879–1955), but no source is provided.
  • Anonymous poem, What is a Boy?[sic] (1944)
He is a person who is going to carry on what you have started.
He is to sit right where you are sitting and attend when you are gone to those things you think are so important.
You may adopt all the policies you please, but how they will be carried out depends on him.
Even if you make leagues and treaties, he will have to manage them.
He is going to sit at your desk in the Senate, and occupy your place on the Supreme Bench.
He will assume control of your cities, states and nations.
He is going to move in and take over your prisons, churches, schools, universities and corporations.
All your work is going to be judged and praised or condemned by him.
Your reputation and your future are in his hands.
All you work is for him, and the fate of the nations and of humanity is in his hands.
So it might be well to pay him some attention.
Masonic Historiology, edited by Allotter J. McKow
Similar quotations have been attributed to Abraham Lincoln.

Aristotle (384 BCE–322 BCE)

  • All men by nature desire to know. An indication of this is the delight we take in our senses.
  • In modern times there are opposing views about the practice of education. There is no general agreement about what the young should learn either in relation to virtue or in relation to the best life; nor is it clear whether their education ought to be directed more towards the intellect than towards the character of the soul.... And it is not certain whether training should be directed at things useful in life, or at those conducive to virtue, or at non-essentials.... And there is no agreement as to what in fact does tend towards virtue. Men do not all prize most highly the same virtue, so naturally they differ also about the proper training for it. (unsourced)

Plutarch (c. 46 – 120 AD)

  • The mind is not a vessel to be filled but a fire to be kindled. Alternative translation: The correct analogy for the mind is not a vessel that needs filling, but wood that needs igniting...
On Listening to Lectures

Epictetus (AD 55–AD 135)

  • Only the educated are free.
(Discourses, Book II, ch. 1)

Imperator Caesar Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus (121–180)

  • Give thyself time to learn something new and good, and cease to be whirled around.
Meditations, II, 7
  • Οἱ ἄνθρωποι γεγόνασιν ἀλλήλων ἕνεκεν· ἢ δίδασκε οὖν ἢ φέρε.
All men are made one for another: either then teach them better, or bear with them.
VIII, 56 (trans. Meric Casaubon)
Variant: Men exist for the sake of one another. Teach them then or bear with them.
VIII, 59 (trans. George Long)

Charlemagne (January 29 745 – January 28, 814)

  • Quamvis enim melius sit benefacere quam nosse, prius tamen est nosse quam facere.
Right action is better than knowledge; but in order to do what is right, we must know what is right.
"De Litteris Colendis", in Jean-Barthélemy Hauréau De la philosophie scolastique (1850) p. 10; translation from T. H. Huxley Science and Education ([1893] 2007) p. 132
Although indeed it would be better to do good than to know, first however comes knowing how to do it.—Mokurai's translation.

Michel de Montaigne (1533-92)

  • Nothing is so firmly believed as that which we least know.
Essais, Book I, ch. 32

Daniel Defoe (ca. 1659-1661–1731)

  • I have often thought of it as one of the most barbarous customs in the world, considering us as a civilized and a Christian country, that we deny the advantages of learning to women.
The Education Of Women

Samuel Johnson (1709-1784)

  • There are, in every age, new errors to be rectified, and new prejudices to be opposed.

Edmund Burke (1729–1797)

The Father of Conservatism, who is today just another lousy Liberal.

  • The first and the simplest emotion which we discover in the human mind is Curiosity.
A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757)

Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826)

  • If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.
Letter to Colonel Charles Yancey (6 January 1816) ME 14:384
  • Enlighten the people generally, and tyranny and oppressions of body and mind will vanish like evil spirits at the dawn of day.
Letter to Éleuthère Irénée du Pont de Nemours (24 April 1816)
  • I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power.
Letter to William Charles Jarvis, (28 September 1820).

Simon Bolivar (1783–1830)

  • The first duty of a government is to give education to the people.

William Blake (1757–1827)

  • The man who never alters his opinion is like standing water, and breeds reptiles of the mind.

Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865)

  • Upon the subject of education, not presuming to dictate any plan or system respecting it, I can only say that I view it as the most important subject which we as a people can be engaged in.
Communication to the People of Sangamo County (9 March 1832)

Henry Thomas Buckle (1821-1862)

  • Men and women range themselves into three classes or orders of intelligence; you can tell the lowest class by their habit of always talking about persons; the next by the fact that their habit is always to converse about things; the highest by their preference for the discussion of ideas.
Haud immemor. Reminiscences of legal and social life in Edinburgh and London, 1850-1900 by Charles Stewart. Edinburgh and London: W. Blackwood & sons, 1901

Also attributed to Admiral Hyman Rickover and to Eleanor Roosevelt, in various forms, including the more pithy

  • Great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, small minds discuss people.

Søren Aabye Kierkegaard (1813—1855)

  • Which is more difficult, to awaken one who sleeps or to awaken one who, awake, dreams that he is awake?
Works of Love

Oscar Wilde (1854–1900)

  • Education is an admirable thing. But it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught.
A Few Maxims For The Instruction Of The Over-Educated
First published anonymously in the Saturday Review (17 November 1894)

Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924)

  • I not only use all the brains that I have, but all that I can borrow.

George Bernard Shaw (1856–1950)

  • Education: A succession of eye-openers each involving the repudiation of some previously held belief.
(attributed: source unknown)

John Dewey (1859–1952)

  • What the best and wisest parent wants for his child is what we should want for all the children of the community.
The School and Society, 1900

John Alexander Smith (1863–1939)

  • Gentlemen, you are now about to embark on a course of studies which will occupy you for two years. Together, they form a noble adventure. But I would like to remind you of an important point. Nothing that you will learn in the course of your studies will be of the slightest possible use to you in after life, save only this, that if you work hard and intelligently you should be able to detect when a man is talking rot, and that, in my view, is the main, if not the sole, purpose of education.
Smith was Professor of Moral Philosophy at Oxford University.
Statement recorded in 1914.

H. G. Wells (Herbert George Wells, 1866-09-21–1946-08-13)

  • Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.
The Outline of History, Ch. 41 (1920)
Fiction and non-fiction writer, Socialist

Gandhi (1869–1948)

  • First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.
[and then they claim it was their idea all along Mokurai 01:08, 14 December 2008 (UTC)]
  • You must be the change you seek.

Maria Montessori (1870–1952)

  • The greatest sign of success for a teacher is to be able to say, "The children are now working as if I did not exist."
  • Never help a child with a task at which he feels he can succeed.

Robert Frost (1874–1963)

But yield who will to their separation,
My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes make one in sight.
Only where love and need are one,
And the work is play for mortal stakes,
Is the deed ever really done
For Heaven and the future's sakes.

Two Tramps In Mudtime

Albert Einstein (1879–1955)

  • It is almost a miracle that modern teaching methods have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry; for what this delicate little plant needs more than anything, besides stimulation, is freedom.
  • Computers are incredibly fast, accurate and stupid; humans are incredibly slow, inaccurate and brilliant; together they are powerful beyond imagination.
  • I must be willing to give up what I am in order to become what I will be.

Pablo Picasso (1881–1973)

  • I am always doing that which I can not do, in order that I may learn how to do it.

Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892 – 1950)

Euclid alone has looked on Beauty bare.
Let all who prate of Beauty hold their peace,
And lay them prone upon the earth and cease
To ponder on themselves, the while they stare
At nothing, intricately drawn nowhere
In shapes of shifting lineage; let geese
Gabble and hiss, but heroes seek release
From dusty bondage into luminous air.
O blinding hour, O holy, terrible day,
When first the shaft into his vision shone
Of light anatomized! Euclid alone
Has looked on Beauty bare. Fortunate they
Who, though once only and then but far away,
Have heard her massive sandal set on stone.

Sonnet XXII from The Harp-Weaver and Other Poems (1923)

Albert Szent-Gyorgy (1893–1986)

  • Discovery consists of seeing what everyone else has seen and thinking what no one else has thought.
Nobel laureate (biology/medicine)

Amadou Hampâté Bâ (1900—1991)

  • When an old man dies, a library burns down.
Malian author
Often misattributed as "old African proverb" or "Senegalese proverb".

Margaret Mead (1901—1978)

  • Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed it is the only thing that ever has.

Vladimir Horowitz (1903—1989)

  • It's better to make your own mistakes than to copy someone else's.

B. F. Skinner (1904–1990)

  • Education is what survives when what has been learned has been forgotten.
Also attributed to James Bryant Conant, Albert Einstein.

Robert A. Heinlein (1907–1988)

  • A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

Peter Drucker (1909—2005)

  • The important and difficult job is never to find the right answers, it is to find the right question. For there are few things as useless—if not dangerous—as the right answer to the wrong question.


  • The most serious mistakes are not made as a result of wrong answers. The truly dangerous thing is asking the wrong questions.

Men, Ideas and Politics, Harvard Business Review Press, 2010

Quoted in Right Answer, Wrong Query, Statistics Roundtable, Quality Progress, March 2010.

John Tukey (1915—2000)

  • Far better an approximate answer to the right question, which is often vague, than an exact answer to the wrong question, which can always be made precise.

"Sunset Salvo," The American Statistician, Vol. 40, No. 1, 1986, pp. 72-76.

Quoted in Right Answer, Wrong Query, Statistics Roundtable, Quality Progress, March 2012.

Jerome Bruner (born 1915)

  • We begin with the hypothesis that any subject can be taught effectively in some intellectually honest form to any child at any stage of development.
The Process of Education (1960)

Nelson Mandela (born 1918)

  • Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.

Richard Feynman (1918-1988)

  • What I cannot create, I do not understand.
On his blackboard at time of death in 1988; as quoted in The Universe in a Nutshell by Stephen Hawking

Kenneth E. Iverson (1920-2004)

  • The initial motive for developing APL was to provide a tool for writing and teaching. Although APL has been exploited mostly in commercial programming, I continue to believe that its most important use remains to be exploited: as a simple, precise, executable notation for the teaching of a wide range of subjects.

"A Personal View of APL", IBM Systems Journal, 30 (4), 1991

Isaac Asimov (1920–1992)

Individualized education via computers so that everybody can be interested in learning lifelong.

Interview with Bill Moyers, World of Ideas, 1988

Marvin Minsky (born 1927)

  • You don't understand anything until you learn it more than one way.
In Rebecca Herold, Managing an Information Security and Privacy Awareness and Training Program (2005), 101.
  • We like to think that a child's play is unconstrained—but when children appear to feel joyous and free, this may merely hide from their minds their purposefulness; you can see this more clearly when you attempt to drag them away from their chosen tasks. For they are exploring their worlds to see what's there, making explanations of what those things are, and imagining what else could be; exploring, explaining and learning are among a child's most purposeful urges and goals. The playfulness of childhood is the most demanding teacher we have. Never again in those children's lives will anything drive them to work so hard.
The Emotion Machine

Seymour Papert (Born 1928)

  • Programming a computer means nothing more or less than communicating to it in a language that it and the human user can both "understand". And learning languages is one of the things children do best. Every normal child learns to talk. Why then should a child not learn to "talk" to a computer?
Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas

Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968)

  • "I have the audacity to believe that people everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for the minds, and dignity, equality, and freedom for their spirits."
Taken from his remarks upon acceptance of the Nobel Prize

Alan Kay (born 1940)

  • The important thing here is that the music is not in the piano. And knowledge and edification is not in the computer. The computer is simply an instrument whose music is ideas.
  • By the time I got to school, I had already read a couple hundred books. I knew in the first grade that they were lying to me because I had already been exposed to other points of view. School is basically about one point of view — the one the teacher has or the textbooks have. They don't like the idea of having different points of view, so it was a battle. Of course I would pipe up with my five-year-old voice.
Alan Kay by Scott Gasch

Edward Mokurai Cherlin (born 1946)

  • The essential capacity for discovery is the ability to visualize more than one part of an elephant that you have never seen.

Michio Kaku (born 1947)

  • We are all born scientists.

Terry Pratchett (born 1948)

  • When you light a fire for a man, you keep him warm for a night. When you set him on fire, you keep him warm for the rest of his life.
(See Plutarch, above, if you don't get it.)

Douglas Adams (1952–2001)

  • "We'll be saying a big hello to all intelligent lifeforms everywhere and to everyone else out there, the secret is to bang the rocks together, guys."
Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy


All of the following come down to

  • When I want to hear your opinion, I'll tell it to you.

a line I first encountered in a Robert Asprin fantasy novel.

Plato (ca. 428 BCE–347 BCE)

The greatest principle of all is that nobody, whether male or female, should be without a leader. Nor should the mind of anybody be habituated to letting him (or her) do anything at all on his (or her) own initiative–to his leader he shall direct his eye and follow him faithfully. And even in the smallest matter he should stand under leadership. For example, he should get up, or move, or wash, or take his meals...only if he has been told to do so. In a word, he should teach his soul, by long habit, never to dream of acting independently, and to become utterly incapable of it.

Plato, Laws 942d (350 BCE)

Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762–1814)

  • You must fashion [the person], and fashion him in such a way that he simply cannot will otherwise than what you wish him to will.
Addresses to the German Nation

John Stuart Mill (1806–1873)

  • A general State education is a mere contrivance for moulding people to be exactly like one another: and as the mould in which it casts them is that which pleases the predominant power in the government, whether this be a monarch, a priesthood, an aristocracy, or the majority of the existing generation; in proportion as it is efficient and successful, it establishes a despotism over the mind, leading by natural tendency to one over the body. An education established and controlled by the State should only exist, if it exists at all, as one among many competing experiments...
On Liberty (1859)

Mark Twain (Samuel L. Clemens, 1835–1910)

  • In the first place God made idiots. This was for practice. Then he made School Boards.
Following the Equator; Pudd'nhead Wilson's New Calendar
  • It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.
Confidently attributed to Twain and a multitude of others

Upton Sinclair (1878–1968)

  • It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.
I, Candidate for Governor: And How I Got Licked (1935), ISBN 0-520-08198-6; repr. University of California Press, 1994, p. 109.

Martin Bormann (1900–1945?)

Private secretary to German Führer Adolf Hitler

  • Education is dangerous—Every educated person is a future enemy.
Quoted in "The Trial of the Germans: An Account of the Twenty-Two Defendants Before the International Military Tribunal" - Page 101 by Eugene Davidson - History - 1997

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (1900—1944)

  • « Quand il naît par mutation dans les jardins une rose nouvelle, voilà tous les jardiniers qui s’émeuvent. On isole la rose, on cultive la rose, on la favorise. Mais il n’est point de jardinier pour les hommes. Mozart enfant sera marqué comme les autres par la machine à emboutir...Ce qui me tourmente,...c’est un peu, dans chacun de ces hommes, Mozart assassiné. »
  • "When a mutant rose arises in a garden, all the gardeners rejoice. They give it a special place, they cultivate it, they bestow all their care on it. But there are no gardeners for people. An infant Mozart is marked just like all the others by the stamping press...What torments me each of these people, a bit of Mozart murdered."

Richard Feynman (1918–1988)

I got a telephone call from a pretty famous lawyer here in Pasadena, Mr. Norris, who was at that time on the State Board of Education. He asked me if I would serve on the State Curriculum Commission, which had to choose the new schoolbooks for the state of California...

I had a special bookshelf put in my study downstairs (the books took up seventeen feet), and began reading all the books that were going to be discussed in the next meeting. We were going to start out with the elementary schoolbooks...

It was a pretty big job, and I worked all the time at it down in the basement. My wife says that during this period it was like living over a volcano. It would be quiet for a while, but then all of a sudden, "BLLLLLOOOOOOWWWWW!!!!" -- there would be a big explosion from the "volcano" below.

The reason was that the books were so lousy. They were false. They were hurried. They would try to be rigorous, but they would use examples (like automobiles in the street for "sets") which were almost OK, but in which there were always some subtleties. The definitions weren't accurate. Everything was a little bit ambiguous -- they weren't smart enough to understand what was meant by "rigor." They were faking it. They were teaching something they didn't understand, and which was, in fact, useless, at that time, for the child.

Judging Books by Their Covers, in Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! (1985)

Stephen Jay Gould (1941–2002)

  • We pass through this world but once. Few tragedies can be more extensive than the stunting of life, few injustices deeper than the denial of an opportunity to strive or even to hope, by a limit imposed from without, but falsely identified as lying within.
The Mismeasure of Man