As we seek to refine and reform today’s system of education, we would do well to ask, “What is education?” Our answers may provide insights that get to the heart of what matters for 21st century children and adults alike.
It is important to step back from divisive debates on grades, standardized testing, and teacher evaluation—and really look at the meaning of education. So I decided to do just that—to research the answer to this straightforward, yet complex question. Looking for wisdom from some of the greatest philosophers, poets, educators, historians, theologians, politicians, and world leaders, I found answers that should not only exist in our history books, but also remain at the core of current education dialogue.
In my work as a developmental psychologist, I constantly struggle to balance the goals of formal education with the goals of raising healthy, happy children who grow to become contributing members of families and society. Along with academic skills, the educational journey from kindergarten through college is a time when young people develop many interconnected abilities.
As you read through the following quotes, you’ll discover common threads that unite the intellectual, social, emotional, and physical aspects of education. For me, good education facilitates the development of an internal compass that guides us through life.
Which quotes resonate most with you? What images of education come to your mind? How can we best integrate the wisdom of the ages to address today’s most pressing education challenges?
If you are a middle or high school teacher, I invite you to have your students write an essay entitled, “What is Education?” After reviewing the famous quotes below and the images they evoke, ask students to develop their very own quote that answers this question. With their unique quote highlighted at the top of their essay, ask them to write about what helps or hinders them from getting the kind of education they seek. I’d love to publish some student quotes, essays, and images in future articles, so please contact me if students are willing to share!
What is Education? Answers from 5th Century BC to the 21st Century
The principle goal of education in the schools should be creating men and women who are capable of doing new things, not simply repeating what other generations have done. -- Jean Piaget, 1896-1980, Swiss developmental psychologist, philosopher
An education isn't how much you have committed to memory, or even how much you know. It's being able to differentiate between what you know and what you don't.-- Anatole France, 1844-1924, French poet, novelist
Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world. -- Nelson Mandela, 1918-2013, South African President, philanthropist
The object of education is to teach us to love beauty. --Plato, 424 – 348 BC, philosopher mathematician
The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character - that is the goal of true education --Martin Luther King, Jr., 1929-1968, pastor, activist, humanitarian
Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school. Albert Einstein, 1879-1955, physicist
It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it. -- Aristotle,384-322 BC, Greek philosopher, scientist
Education is the power to think clearly, the power to act well in the world’s work, and the power to appreciate life. --Brigham Young,1801-1877, religious leader
Real education should educate us out of self into something far finer – into a selflessness which links us with all humanity. -- Nancy Astor, 1879-1964, American-born English politician and socialite
Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire. -- William Butler Yeats, 1865-1939, Irish poet
Education is freedom. – Paulo Freire, 1921-1997, Brazilian educator, philosopher
Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself. -- John Dewey,1859-1952, philosopher, psychologist, education reformer
Education is the key to unlock the golden door of freedom.-- George Washington Carver, 1864-1943, scientist, botanist, educator
Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught. – Oscar Wilde, 1854-1900, Irish writer, poet
The whole purpose of education is to turn mirrors into windows. -- Sydney J. Harris, 1917-1986, journalist
Education's purpose is to replace an empty mind with an open one. -- Malcolm Forbes, 1919-1990, publisher, politician
No one has yet realized the wealth of sympathy, the kindness and generosity hidden in the soul of a child. The effort of every true education should be to unlock that treasure. – Emma Goldman, 1869 – 1940, political activist, writer
Much education today is monumentally ineffective. All too often we are giving young people cut flowers when we should be teaching them to grow their own plants. -- John W. Gardner,1912-2002, Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare under President Lyndon Johnson
Education is simply the soul of a society as it passes from one generation to another.-- Gilbert K. Chesterton,1874-1936, English writer, theologian, poet, philosopher
Education is the movement from darkness to light. -- Allan Bloom, 1930-1992, philosopher, classicist, and academician
Education is learning what you didn't even know you didn't know. -- Daniel J. Boorstin, 1914-2004, historian, professor, attorney
The aim of education is the knowledge, not of facts, but of values. -- William S. Burroughs, 1914-1997, novelist, essayist, painter
The object of education is to prepare the young to educate themselves throughout their lives. -- Robert M. Hutchins, 1899-1977, educational philosopher
Education is all a matter of building bridges. -- Ralph Ellison, 1914-1994, novelist, literary critic, scholar
What sculpture is to a block of marble, education is to the soul. -- Joseph Addison, 1672-1719, English essayist, poet, playwright, politician
Education is the passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today. -- Malcolm X, 1925-1965, minister and human rights activist
Education is the key to success in life, and teachers make a lasting impact in the lives of their students. -- Solomon Ortiz, 1937-, former U.S. Representative-TX
The very spring and root of honesty and virtue lie in good education. -- Plutarch, 46-120AD, Greek historian, biographer, essayist
Education is a shared commitment between dedicated teachers, motivated students and enthusiastic parents with high expectations. Bob Beauprez, 1948-, former member of U.S. House of Representatives-CO
The most influential of all educational factors is the conversation in a child’s home. – William Temple, 1881-1944, English bishop, teacher
Education is the leading of human souls to what is best, and making what is best out of them. -- John Ruskin, 1819-1900, English writer, art critic, philanthropist
Education levels the playing field, allowing everyone to compete. -- Joyce Meyer, 1943-, Christian author and speaker
Education is what survives when what has been learned has been forgotten. – B.F. Skinner, 1904-1990, psychologist, behaviorist, social philosopher
The great end of education is to discipline rather than to furnish the mind; to train it to the use of its own powers rather than to fill it with the accumulation of others. – Tyron Edwards, 1809-1894, theologian
Let us think of education as the means of developing our greatest abilities, because in each of us there is a private hope and dream which, fulfilled, can be translated into benefit for everyone and greater strength of the nation. -- John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963, 35thPresident of the United States
Education is like a lantern which lights your way in a dark alley. – Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, 1918-2004, President of the United Arab Emirates for 33 years
When educating the minds of our youth, we must not forget to educate their hearts. -- Dalai Lama, spiritual head of Tibetan Buddhism
Education is the ability to listen to almost anything without losing your temper or self-confidence. -- Robert Frost, 1874-1963, poet
The secret in education lies in respecting the student. -- Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1803-1882, essayist, lecturer, and poet
My mother said I must always be intolerant of ignorance, but understanding of illiteracy. That some people, unable to go to school, were more educated and more intelligent than college professors. -- Maya Angelou, 1928-, author, poet
Marilyn Price-Mitchell, PhD, is the author of Tomorrow’s Change Makers: Reclaiming the Power of Citizenship for a New Generation. A developmental psychologist and researcher, she works at the intersection of positive youth development and education. Subscribe to Updates at Roots of Action to receive email notices of Marilyn’s articles.
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©2014 Marilyn Price-Mitchell. All rights reserved. Please contact for permission to reprint.
He knows the studies showing that students spend less time than ever on their classwork, and he writes of an implicit pact between undergraduates and professors in which teachers give high grades and thin assignments, and students reward them with positive evaluations. After all, given all the other amenities available through the university, the idea that “the courses you take should be the primary objective of going to college is tacitly considered absurd.”
After describing this unhappy shift, Mr. Edmundson’s remaining essays are devoted to “fellow students” and “fellow teachers.” He’s hard on both groups, but underneath the curmudgeonly rhetoric he is desperate to remind them of why real learning and teaching aren’t so much luxuries as necessities.
Mr. Edmundson strives to read and teach the authors who inspire him with what he calls “humane sensitivity.” “The battle is to make such writers one’s own, to winnow them out and to find their essential truths,” he says. He went to college to see if there were possibilities beyond what others had defined as his limits. You sense that he still goes to the classroom each semester seeking new possibilities — for his students and for himself.
Much of “Why Teach?” concerns the impediments to this search. Under the guise of practicality, universities and their “customers” now stress that education should provide a return on investment. They speak of excellence and innovation, and what they really mean is money and notoriety. They talk of a well-rounded learning experience, and what they really mean is checking off boxes denoting that you’ve taken required courses that weren’t too challenging. Mr. Edmundson contends that the “corporate university” has abdicated its mission to confront our prejudices and conventions while inspiring our passions and talents.
He fervently advocates for the transformative power of a true education because he experienced it firsthand. In high school, he cared about football and rock ’n’ roll more than about literature until he was stirred by great teaching and “The Autobiography of Malcolm X.” “I think that the highest objective for someone trying to provide a literary education to students is to make such moments of transformation possible,” he writes.
This “highest objective” is also extraordinarily fulfilling. “Teachers who have been moved by great works have been moved to pass the gift on,” he says, with a nod to Wordsworth and Coleridge — and to all professors who introduce students to books that have changed their own lives. Art inspires us; teaching changes us.
Mr. Edmundson worries that too many professors have lost the courage of their own passions, depriving their students of the fire of inspiration. Why teach? Because great professors can “crack the shell of convention,” shining a light on a life’s different prospects. They never aim at conversion, only at what Emerson called “aversion” — bucking conformity so as to discover possibility.
Despite the forces arrayed against them, in the next few weeks, students across the country will find their way to professors like Mr. Edmundson, teachers eager to continue the fight for real education. I wouldn’t bet against them.Continue reading the main story
In Defense of a Real Education
By Mark Edmundson
222 pages. Bloomsbury. $24.