Education Is What Remains After You Have Forgotten Everything You Learned In School

Albert Einstein? B. F. Skinner? Edouard Herriot? C. F. Thwing? Ralph Waldo Emerson? Agnes F. Perkins? James Bryant Conant? E. F. L. Wood? George Savile? Lord Halifax? Anonymous?

school10Dear Quote Investigator: My question concerns a provocative aphorism about memory, schooling, and curriculum. Here are four example statements that can be grouped together:

1) Culture is that which remains with an individual when he has forgotten all he learned.

2) Culture is what is left when what you have learned at college has been forgotten.

3) Education is what remains after one has forgotten everything he learned in school.

4) Education is what is left after you have forgotten all you have learned.

It would be possible to split this set into two subgroups: adages for education and adages for culture. But all the statements conform to the same underlying template, and this leads to a natural collection.

The French Prime Minister Edouard Herriot has been linked to the saying about culture. The famous physicist Albert Einstein and the prominent psychologist B. F. Skinner have been connected to sayings about education. Would you please examine this family of expressions?

Quote Investigator: This family of quotations has been evolving for more than one hundred years, and instances were already circulating before linkages were established to any of the persons named by the questioner. Newspapers credited Edouard Herriot with a comparable adage about culture by 1928. Albert Einstein wrote an essay in 1936 that included a commensurate remark about education, but he credited the words to an unnamed “wit”.

In 1942 E. F. L. Wood, 1st Earl of Halifax employed the remark about education during a speech. Later the statement was reassigned to the 17th century figure George Savile, 1st Marquess of Halifax. QI believes that this attribution was constructed because of confusion between names. In 1965 B. F. Skinner included an instance of the saying about education in an article about teaching, but he disclaimed credit. Details for these citations are given further below.

Here are selected citations in chronological order.

In 1892 a precursor passage was published in an education journal by C. F. Thwing who was the President of Western Reserve University. Thwing stated that what one learned in college would largely be forgotten, but the effect on one’s cultural sensibilities would remain: 1

Culture is not so much a direct positive product as an atmosphere,—an atmosphere going forth from one person, an atmosphere received by the other person. . . .

Most of us who have been to college have forgotten all we ever knew that we learned in college; but the results in culture, in largeness of being, in purity of feeling, in nobility of character, still remain.

In 1899 a precursor passage was published in an education journal by a teacher named E. D. Battle. The term “formative education” was used to refer to the remnant that was retained after many memories were lost. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 2

In this relation education can be viewed in two ways, formative and material. The formative education gives to us that which remains after we have forgotten all that we have learned in the schools; material education gives us specific knowledge in respect to certain subjects, and teaches those things which it is necessary for us to know for themselves.

The earliest strong match found by QI was printed in a fraternity publication in December 1907. A fraternity brother speaking at a banquet ascribed an adage about culture to an unnamed college president: 3

After all, as a college president said recently, “Culture is what is left when what you have learned at college has been forgotten”

On December 2, 1907 “The Education Times” printed the earliest strong match known to QI for a saying about education instead of culture. The words were attributed to the famous essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson who died in 1882, but QI has found no substantive support for this curious linkage: 4

There is here some dim apprehension of Emerson’s paradox, as true as it is seemingly self-contradictory, “Education is that which remains behind when all we have learned at school is forgotten.”

In February 1908 Professor Agnes F. Perkins of Wellesley College published an article in “The Nation” that included a statement about culture she had heard: 5

A definition of culture which I heard recently may serve as a text for the practical sermon I would preach. “Culture,” said one, “is what is left after you have forgotten all you have learned.” Training, the power to read, to think, to express the thought, this, and not so much knowledge of so many books, should be the end of the study of English in the preparatory schools.

In May 1908 a religious periodical called “The Christian Register” printed an instance about culture without a specific attribution: 6

Many a genius has been mute and inglorious for want of training, and many abilities that showed no sign of it have blossomed out into a flower, and developed genius, by making time bear compound interest through systematic use. Culture, we have been told, is what is left after we have forgotten what we learned.

In January 1909 “The New Music Review” credited the Danish as a group with a version of the adage about education: 7

The Danes have a saying that education is what is left after we have forgotten all we ever learned, and, taking that as a standard, we should say that Mr. Delius is as cosmopolitan in his education as he is in his domicile and his reputation.

In November 1909 an education journal published a concise instance about education with an anonymous ascription: 8

“Education is what is left after we have forgotten all we know.”—Anon.

In 1912 the president of a drilling company addressed the students at the Colorado School of Mines and employed the statement about culture: 9

A professor at Wellesley College defined culture to the students as that which is left after all else learned at college is forgotten.

In 1928 a newspaper in Trenton, New Jersey ascribed an instance of the saying about culture to the former and future Prime Minister of France: 10

Culture is that which remains with a man when he has forgotten all he learned.—Edouard Herriot.

In 1936 Albert Einstein composed an essay in German that was published in English in 1956 under the title “On Education”. Einstein presented the saying about education, but he ascribed the words to an unidentified “wit”: 11

If a young man has trained his muscles and physical endurance by gymnastics and walking, he will later be fitted for every physical work. This is also analogous to the training of the mind and the exercising of the mental and manual skill. Thus the wit was not wrong who defined education in this way: “Education is that which remains, if one has forgotten everything he learned in school.”

In 1942 Viscount Halifax, the British Ambassador to the United States delivered a speech in New York, and he employed the saying about education which he credited to a “wise man”: 12

Do we not all need to recognize that the smallest part of education is information? A wise man I think once defined education as that which remains when we have forgotten all that we have been taught.

In the days after the speech by Halifax the remark about education was deemed notable and was reprinted in several other U.S. newspapers, e.g., the “Dunkirk Evening Observer” of New York 13 and the “Greensboro Record” of North Carolina. 14

In 1943 James Bryant Conant who was the President of Harvard University published an essay about education in “The New York Times” and included an instance of the adage: 15

A general education is something apart from a specialized vocational or professional training. It is, if you will, education for citizenship or education of the whole man as distinct from the development of certain skills or the acquirement of certain knowledge. It concerns “that which is left after all that has been learned has been forgotten.”

In 1949 Evan Esar who was an industrious collector of witticisms published “The Dictionary of Humorous Quotations”, and he credited the remark about education to a 17th century figure named George Savile: 16

HALIFAX, George Savile, Marquis of, 1633-1695, English statesman and essayist.
Education is what remains when we have forgotten all that we have been taught.

QI has not found any substantive support for the claim given above, and conjectures that this ascription was a mistake that was caused by naming confusion. The identifier “Lord Halifax” has been used for both E. F. L. Wood, 1st Earl of Halifax and for George Savile, 1st Marquess of Halifax who lived centuries earlier.

In 1965 the influential psychologist B. F. Skinner published an article in the “Proceedings of the Royal Society of London: Series B, Biological Sciences” that included an instance of the education maxim. But Skinner deflected credit by using the locution “it has been said”: 17

It has been said that an education is what survives when a man has forgotten all he has been taught. Certainly few students could pass their final examinations even a year or two after leaving school or the university. What has been learned of permanent value must therefore not be the facts and principles covered by examinations but certain other kinds of behaviour often ascribed to special abilities.

The playwright Alan Bennett added a comical twist to the remark about education in his 1968 work “Forty Years On”: 18

SCHOOLMASTER: Someone once said, Rumbold, that education is what is left when you have forgotten all you have ever learned. You appear to be trying to circumvent the process by learning as little as possible.

In conclusion, based on current knowledge this family of sayings has an anonymous origin. The December 1907 citation pointing to a “college president” was intriguing and perhaps a likely candidate will emerge in the future. The other citation in December 1907 pointing to Ralph Waldo Emerson was interesting, but the connection remains unsupported. Albert Einstein, B. F. Skinner, Agnes F. Perkins, E. F. L. Wood, James Bryant Conant and others have used expressions in this family but none of them claimed authorship.

Image Notes: Apple with books from jarmoluk at Pixabay. Graduation cap from Nemo at Pixabay. Portrait of Albert Einstein in the public domain from Wikimedia Commons. Described as a photograph by Sophie Delar taken in 1935 at Princeton. Images have been cropped and resized.

(Great thanks to Joseph Brown, Alan Taylor Farnes, Kentaro Toyama, and Geoffrey Nunberg whose inquires led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Special thanks to Jesse Mazer and the volunteer editors of Wikiquote.)

Notes:

  1. 1892 August, The Ohio Educational Monthly and the National Teacher, Volume 41, Number 8, Relation of Ohio Schools to Ohio Colleges by Dr. C. F. Thwing (President Western Reserve University), Start Page 415, Quote Page 417, Published by Samuel Findley, Akron, Ohio. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1899 May, Educational Foundations: A Monthly Text-Book of Pedagogics for Normal Schools, Volume 10, Number 9, The Swedish Educational Sloyd System by E.D. Battle, Start Page 537, Quote Page 538 and 539, Published by E. L. Kellogg & Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1907 December, The Phi Gamma Delta: Official Publication of the Fraternity, Speech Title: Indiana, Incubator of Immortals (“Response of Brother William Allen Wood at the banquet of the Fifty ninth Ekklesia”), Start Page 180, Quote Page 183 and 184, Edited and published at No. 532 Newton Claypool Building, Indianapolis, Indiana. (Google Books Full View) link
  4. 1907 December 2, The Education Times: Journal of the College of Preceptors, Why Boys Go to School: The Boys’ Own Ideas on the Subject, Start Page 530, Quote Page 532, Column 1, Published by Francis Hodgson, London, England. (Google Books Full View) link
  5. 1908 February 20, The Nation, Volume 86, Wasteful Repetition in the Study of English Texts by Agnes F. Perkins (Wellesley College), Start Page 166, Quote Page 167, Published by New York Evening Post Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  6. 1908 May 7, The Christian Register, Volume 87, Getting the Most Out of Life, Start Page 516, Quote Page 517, Column 1, Published Weekly by the Christian Register Association, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link
  7. 1909 January, The New Music Review and Church Music Review, Volume 9, Number 98, A Cosmopolitan Composer – Frederick Delius by Herbert Antcliffe, Start Page 83, Quote Page 84, Column 1, Published by H. W. Gray Company, New York; sole agents for Novello & Company, London, England. (Google Books Full View) link
  8. 1909 November 4, Moderator-Topics, Volume 30, Number 9, Department of Public Instruction: Gleanings from M.S.T.A., Quote Page 170, Column 3, Lansing, Michigan. (Google Books Full View) link
  9. 1912 June, Colorado School of Mines Magazine, Volume 2, Number 9, Culture in the Education of Engineers by William L. Saunders (President of the Ingersoll-Rand Drill Company), (Commencement Address, Colorado School of Mines, May 24 1912), Start Page 197, Quote Page 198, Column 1, Golden, Colorado. (Original text mispelled “Wellesley”as “Wellseley”)(Google Books Full View) link
  10. 1928 September 9, Trenton Sunday Times-Advertiser (Trenton Evening Times), (Freestanding filler item), Quote Page 6, Column 3, Trenton, New Jersey. (GenealogyBank)
  11. 1956 copyright (1984 edition), Out of My Later Years by Albert Einstein, Essay: On Education, (Year specified in table of contents: 1936), Start Page 31, Quote Page 36, Citadel Press: Kensington Publishing Corporation, New York. (Google Books Preview)
  12. 1942 February 3, New York Times, Halifax Discusses Fate of Germany, Quote Page 10, Column 6, New York. (ProQuest)
  13. 1942 February 7, Dunkirk Evening Observer, So They Say, Quote Page 14, Column 4, Dunkirk, New York. (NewspaperArchive)
  14. 1942 February 9, Greensboro Record, Opinions of the Hour, Quote Page 6, Column 2, Greensboro, North Carolina. (GenealogyBank)
  15. 1943 February 21, New York Times, Section: New York Times Magazine, No Retreat for the Liberal Arts: Dr. Conant is confident that they will survive the war by James Bryant Conant (President of Harvard University) Start Page SM5, Quote Page SM37, New York. (ProQuest)
  16. 1949, The Dictionary of Humorous Quotations, Edited by Evan Esar, Section: George Savile, Quote Page 85, Doubleday, Garden City, New York. (Verified on paper in 1989 reprint edition from Dorset Press, New York)
  17. 1965 July 27, Proceedings of the Royal Society of London: Series B, Biological Sciences, Volume 162, Number 989, Review Lecture: The Technology of Teaching by B. F. Skinner (Department of Psychology, Harvard University), Start Page 427, Quote Page 441 and 442, Published by The Royal Society, London, England. (JSTOR) link
  18. 2008, Alan Bennett: Plays 1: Forty Years On, Getting On, Habeas Corpus, Enjoy by Alan Bennett, Play: Forty Years On, (“Forty Years On” was produced in 1968 and published in 1969), Unnumbered Page, Faber & Faber, Boston, Massachusetts, and London, England. (Google Books Preview)