Quotations about   learning

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Success don’t konsist in never making blunders, but in never making the same one the seckond time.

[Success doesn’t consist in never making blunders, but in never making the same one the second time.]

Josh Billings (1818-1885) American humorist [pseud. of Henry Wheeler Shaw]
Everybody’s Friend, Or; Josh Billing’s Encyclopedia and Proverbial Philosophy of Wit and Humor, “Molassis Kandy” (1874)
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More discussion of this quotation here.
Added on 5-May-19 | Last updated 5-May-19
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A real writer learns from earlier writers the way a boy learns from an apple orchard — by stealing what he has a taste for and can carry off.

Archibald MacLeish (1892–1982) American poet, writer, statesman
In Charles Poore, “Mr. MacLeish and the Disenchantmentarians,” The New York Times (25 Jan 1968)
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Added on 4-Oct-18 | Last updated 4-Oct-18
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Remember, too, that you have the right to make mistakes. Exercise it. Good judgment comes from experience, and often experience comes from bad judgment.

Rita Mae Brown (b. 1944) American author, playwright
Starting from Scratch, Part 4 (1988)
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Added on 9-Apr-18 | Last updated 9-Apr-18
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Just as birds sometimes go in search of grain, carrying it in their beaks without tasting it to stuff it down the beaks of their young, so too do our schoolmasters go foraging for learning in their books and merely lodge it on the tip of their lips, only to spew it out and scatter it on the wind.

Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) French essayist
The Complete Essays, I:25 “On Schoolmasters [Du pédantisme]”
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We readily inquire, “Does he know Greek or Latin?” “Can he write poetry and prose?” But what matters most is what we put last: “Has he become better and wiser?” We ought to find out not who understands most but who understands best.

[Nous nous enquerons volontiers: “Sçait-il du Gre ou du Latin? Estriil en vers ou en prose?” Mais sìl est devenu ou plus advisé, c’estoit le principal, et c’est ce qui demeure derrier. Il falloit sènquerir qui est mieux sçavant, non qui est plus sçavant.]

Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) French essayist
The Complete Essays, I:25 “On Schoolmasters [Du pédantisme]”
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Added on 30-Oct-17 | Last updated 30-Oct-17
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As the true object of education is not to render the pupil the mere copy of his preceptor, it is rather to be rejoiced in, than lamented, that various reading should lead him into new trains of thinking.

William Godwin (1756-1836) English journalist, political philosopher, novelist
The Enquirer, Essay 15 “Of Choice in Reading” (1797)
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I gladly come back to the theme of the absurdity of our education: its end has not been to make us good and wise but learned. And it has succeeded. It has not taught us to seek virtue and to embrace wisdom: it has impressed upon us their derivation and their etymology. We know how to decline the Latin word for virtue: we do not know how to love virtue. Though we do not know what wisdom is in practice or from experience we do know the jargon off by heart.

Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) French essayist
The Complete Essays, II:17 “On Presumption” [tr. Screech (1987)]
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Books have led some to learning and others to madness, when they swallow more than they can digest.

Francesco Petrarca (1304-1374) Italian scholar and poet [a.k.a. Petrarch]
Remedies for Fortune Fair and Foul [De Remediis Utriusque Fortunae] [tr. Elton (1893)]

Alt. trans.: "Books have brought some men to knowledge, and some to madness. whilst they drew out of them more than they could digest." [tr. Dobson (1791)]

Alt. trans.: "Books have led some to knowledge and some to madness, who drew from them more than they could hold." [tr. Rawski (1991)]
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It’s so hard to forget pain, but it’s even harder to remember sweetness. We have no scar to show for happiness. We learn so little from peace.

Chuck Palahniuk (b. 1962) American novelist and freelance journalist
Diary (2003)
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Civilization is not inherited; it has to be learned and earned by each generation anew; if the transmission should be interrupted for one century, civilization would die, and we should be savages again.

William James (Will) Durant (1885-1981) American historian, teacher, philosopher
The Lessons of History (1968)
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I am always for getting a boy forward in his learning; for that is a sure good. I would let him at first read any English book which happens to engage his attention; because you have done a great deal when you have brought him to have entertainment from a book. He’ll get better books afterwards.

Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) English writer, lexicographer, critic
In James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson “16 April 1779” (1791)
Added on 26-Jan-17 | Last updated 26-Jan-17
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From your parents you learn love and laughter and how to put one foot before the other. But when books are opened you discover you have wings.

Helen Hayes (1900-1993) American actress
On Reflection (2014)
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Added on 8-Dec-16 | Last updated 11-Dec-16
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Example is the school of mankind, and they will learn at no other.

Edmund Burke (1729-1797) Anglo-Irish statesman, orator, philosopher
Letters on a Regicide Peace, Vol. 5, Letter 1 (1796)
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We cannot blame the schools alone for that dismal decline in SAT verbal scores. […] What happens at home really matters. And when our kids come home from school, do they pick up a book, or do they sit glued to the tube watching music videos? Parents: don’t make the mistake of thinking your kids only learn from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. You are and always will be their first teachers.

George H. W. Bush (b. 1924) American politician, diplomat, US President (1989-93)
Speech, Lewiston Comprehensive High School, Maine (3 Sep 1991)
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Often misattributed to his son, George W. Bush.
Added on 8-Jun-16 | Last updated 8-Jun-16
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If you live long enough, you’ll make mistakes. But if you learn from them, you’ll be a better person. It’s how you handle adversity, not how it affects you. The main thing is never quit, never quit, never quit.

William Jefferson "Bill" Clinton (b. 1946) American politician, US President (1993-2001)
Speech to students during the 1992 US Presidential campaign
Added on 2-Jun-16 | Last updated 2-Jun-16
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“Men, Pencroft, however learned they may be, can never change anything of the cosmographical order established by God Himself.”

“And yet,” added Pencroft, “the world is very learned. What a big book, captain, might be made with all that is known!”

“And what a much bigger book still with all that is not known!” answered Harding.

[Les hommes, Pencroff, si savants qu’ils puissent être, ne pourront jamais changer quoi que ce soit à l’ordre cosmographique établi par Dieu même.
— Et pourtant, ajouta Pencroff, qui montra une certaine difficulté à se résigner, le monde est bien savant! Quel gros livre, monsieur Cyrus, on ferait avec tout ce qu’on sait!
— Et quel plus gros livre encore avec tout ce qu’on ne sait pas, répondit Cyrus Smith.]

Jules Verne (1828-1905) French novelist, poet, playwright
The Mysterious Island, Part 3, ch. 14 (1874)
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But, on the other hand, Uncle Abner said that the person that had took a bull by the tail once had learnt sixty or seventy times as much as a person that hadn’t, and said a person that started in to carry a cat home by the tail was gitting knowledge that was always going to be useful to him, and warn’t ever going to grow dim or doubtful.

Mark Twain (1835-1910) American writer [pseud. of Samuel Clemens]
Tom Sawyer Abroad, ch. 10 (1894)
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Frequently misquoted as "A man who carries a cat by the tail learns something he can learn in no other way."
Added on 10-May-16 | Last updated 10-May-16
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What we have learned from others becomes our own by reflection.

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) American essayist, lecturer, poet
“Blotting Book 1,” (1826-1827)
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Never learn anything until you find you have been made uncomfortable for a good long while by not knowing it; when you find that you have occasion for this or that knowledge, or foresee that you will have occasion for it shortly, the sooner you learn it the better, but till then spend your time in growing bone and muscle; these will be much more useful to you than Latin and Greek, nor will you ever be able to make them if you do not do so now, whereas Latin and Greek can be acquired at any time by those who want them.

Samuel Butler (1835-1902) English novelist, satirist, scholar
The Way of All Flesh (1903)
Added on 25-Jan-16 | Last updated 25-Jan-16
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The ink of the scholar is more sacred than the blood of the martyr.

Muhammad (570-632) Arabian merchant, prophet, founder of Islam [Mohammed]
Hadith
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In Syed Ameer Ali, A Critical Examination of the Life and Teachings of Mohammed (1873), cited to The Kitâb-ul-Mustarif, ch. 2, and The Mishkât, Bk 22, ch. 18, pt. 3 (from Abu Hurairah)
Added on 7-Jan-16 | Last updated 7-Jan-16
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What nobody tells people who are beginners, and I really wish someone had told this to me, is that […] all of us who do creative work, we get into it, and we get into because we have good taste. […] But you get into this thing […] and there’s a gap. For the first couple of years that you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn’t so good. It’s not that great. It’s really not that great. It’s trying to be good, it has ambition to be good, but it’s not quite that good. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, your taste is still killer. And your taste is good enough that you can tell that what you’re making is kind of a disappointment to you. That you can tell it’s still sort of crappy. A lot of people never get past that phase. A lot of people at that point, they quit. […] The thing I want to tell you is, everybody goes through that. […] It’s totally normal. And the most important possible thing you can do is do a lot of work. Do a huge volume of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week or every month you know you’re going to finish one story. […] Because it’s only by actually going through a volume of work that you’re going to catch up and close that gap. And the work you’re making will be as good as your ambitions. […] It’s going to take you awhile. It’s normal to take a while. You just have to fight your way through that.

Ira Glass (b. 1959) American report, radio personality, producer
“This American Life,” Public Radio International (Aug 2009)
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Added on 12-Oct-15 | Last updated 12-Oct-15
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Most people won’t learn even by experience, Ira. Never underestimate the power of human stupidity.

Robert A. Heinlein (1907-1988) American writer
Time Enough For Love [Lazarus Long] (1973)
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What has occurred in this case must ever recur in similar cases. Human nature will not change. In any future great national trial, compared with the men of this, we shall have as weak and as strong, as silly and as wise, as bad and as good. Let us, therefore, study the incidents of this, as philosophy to learn wisdom from, and none of them as wrongs to be revenged.

Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) American lawyer, politician, US President (1861-65)
Speech, Washington, DC (10 Nov 1964)
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We know nothing of what will happen in future, but by the analogy of experience.

Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) American lawyer, politician, US President (1861-65)
Speech on the Sub-Treasury (26 Dec 1839)
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To spend more time in learning is better than spending more time in praying.

Muhammad (570-632) Arabian merchant, prophet, founder of Islam [Mohammed]
The Sayings of Muhammed, #277 [tr. Al-Suhrawardy (1941)]
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“Now … if you trust in yourself …”
“Yes?”
“… and believe in your dreams …”
“Yes?”
“… and follow your star …” Miss Tick went on.
“Yes?”
“… you’ll still be beaten by people who spent their time working hard and learning things and weren’t so lazy.”

Terry Pratchett (1948-2015) English author
The Wee Free Men (2003)
Added on 13-Mar-15 | Last updated 13-Mar-15
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If we do not plant it [knowledge] when young, it will give us no shade when we are old.

Lord Chesterfield (1694-1773) English statesman, wit [Philip Dormer Stanhope]
Letter to his son (11 Dec 1747)
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Shun those studies in which the work that results dies with the worker.

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) Italian artist, engineer, scientist
Note-books, 1 [tr. McCurdy (1908)]
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The elevation of the mind ought to be the principal end of all our studies.

Edmund Burke (1729-1797) Anglo-Irish statesman, orator, philosopher
A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful, 1.19 (1756)
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Deep learning will make you acceptable to the learned; but it is only an obliging and easy behaviour, and entertaining conversation, that will make you agreeable to all companies.

James Burgh (1714-1775) British politician and writer
The Dignity of Human Nature, Sec. 5 “Miscellaneous Thoughts on Prudence in Conversation” (1754)
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Wit without humanity degenerates into bitterness. Learning without prudence into pedantry.

James Burgh (1714-1775) British politician and writer
The Dignity of Human Nature, Sec. 5 “Miscellaneous Thoughts on Prudence in Conversation” (1754)
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Added on 26-Jun-14 | Last updated 26-Jun-14
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Skill to do comes of doing.

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) American essayist, lecturer, poet
“Old Age,” Society and Solitude (1870)
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Education’s purpose is to replace an empty mind with an open one.

Malcolm Forbes (1919-1990) American billionaire
(Attributed)
Added on 10-Dec-13 | Last updated 10-Dec-13
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He who has imagination without learning has wings but no feet.

Joseph Joubert (1754-1824) French moralist
Pensées (1838) [ed. Auster (1983)]
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Education consists mainly in what we have unlearned.

Mark Twain (1835-1910) American writer [pseud. of Samuel Clemens]
Mark Twain’s Notebook, 4 Jul 1898 [ed. Paine (1935)]
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There are two classes [of scientists], those who want to know and do not care whether others think they know or not, and those who do not much care about knowing but care very greatly about being reputed as knowing.

Samuel Butler (1835-1902) English novelist, satirist, scholar
The Note-Books of Samuel Butler, “Scientists” (1912)

Full text.

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A book is a mirror: if an ape looks into it, an apostle is unlikely to look out.

Georg C. Lichtenberg (1742-1799) German physicist, writer
Aphorisms, F.17 (1775-79) (tr. R. Hollingdale (1990))

Alt trans: "A book is a mirror: when a monkey looks in, no apostle can look out." [tr. Mautner and Hatfield]
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Zeus, who guided mortals to be wise,
has established his fixed law —
wisdom comes through suffering.
Trouble, with its memories of pain,
drips in our hearts as we try to sleep,
so men against their will
learn to practice moderation.
Favours come to us from gods
seated on their solemn thrones —
such grace is harsh and violent.

τὸν φρονεῖν βροτοὺς ὁδώ-
σαντα, τὸν [πάθει μάθος]
θέντα κυρίως ἔχειν.
στάζει δ’ ἀνθ’ ὕπνου πρὸ καρδίας
μνησιπήμων πόνος· καὶ παρ’ ἄ-
κοντας ἦλθε σωφρονεῖν.
δαιμόνων δέ που χάρις βίαιος
σέλμα σεμνὸν ἡμένων.

Aeschylus - awful grace - wist_info quote

Aeschylus (525-456 BC) Greek dramatist (Æschylus)
Agamemnon, ll. 175-183 [tr. Johnston (2007)]
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Alt. trans.:

  • [Hamilton (1930)]: "God, whose law it is that he who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget, falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despite, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God."
  • [Hamilton (1937)]: "Guide of mortal man to wisdom, he who has ordained a law, knowledge won through suffering. Drop, drop -- in our sleep, upon the heart sorrow falls, memory’s pain, and to us, though against our very will, even in our own despite, comes wisdom by the awful grace of God."

The first alternate was used, slightly modified, by Robert Kennedy in his speech on the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. (4 Apr 1968). Kennedy's family used it as an epitaph on his grave Arlington National Cemetery: "Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget, falls drop by drop upon the heart, until in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom, through the awful grace of God."

See here for more discussion.

Added on 19-Aug-08 | Last updated 4-Dec-15
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We should be careful to get out of an experience only the wisdom that is in it — and stop there; lest we be like the cat that sits down on a hot stove-lid. She will never sit down on a hot stove-lid again — and that is well; but also she will never sit down on a cold one anymore.

Mark Twain (1835-1910) American writer [pseud. of Samuel Clemens]
Following the Equator, ch. 11 (1897)
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To teach is to learn twice.

Joseph Joubert (1754-1824) French moralist
Pensées (1838) [ed. Auster (1983)]
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What is the first business of one who studies philosophy? To part with self-conceit. For it is impossible for any one to begin to learn what he thinks that he already knows.

Epictetus (c.55-c.135) Greek (Phrygian) Stoic philosopher
The Discourses, ch. 17, “How To Apply General Principles to Particular Cases” (c. AD 101-108)

Alt. trans.: "It is impossible for a man to begin to learn what he thinks he knows." [tr. Long (1890)]
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Nothing would be done at all if a man waited until he could do something so well that no one could find fault with it.

John Henry Newman (1801-1890) English prelate, Catholic Cardinal, theologian
(Attributed)

Often given as: "A man would do nothing if he waited until he could do it so well that no one could find fault."
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The true beginning of wisdom is the desire to learn, and a concern for learning means love towards her; the love of her means the keeping of her laws; to keep her laws is a warrant of immortality; and immortality brings a man near to God. Thus the desire of wisdom leads to kingly stature.

The Bible (14th C BC - 2nd C AD) Christian sacred scripture
Wisdom of Solomon 6:17-20
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The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled.

Plutarch (AD 46-127) Greek historian, biographer, essayist [Mestrius Plutarchos]
Morals [Moralia], “On Listening to Lectures”

Alt trans.: "The correct analogy for the mind is not a vessel that needs filling, but wood that needs igniting."
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Life is like music, it must be composed by ear, feeling and instinct, not by rule. Nevertheless one had better know the rules, for they sometimes guide in doubtful cases, though not often.

Samuel Butler (1835-1902) English novelist, satirist, scholar
The Note-Books of Samuel Butler, ch. 1, “Life” (1912)
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