Self-Education Is the Only Kind of Education There Is

Robert Frost? Isaac Asimov? Kathleen Norris? Charles Swain Thomas? Robert Shafer? George Gallup?

educ08Dear Quote Investigator: The renowned poet laureate Robert Frost emphasized the importance of self-education. Also, the preternaturally productive science and science fiction writer Isaac Asimov extolled self-education. Here are two quotations on this topic:

1) The only education worth anything is self-education.
2) Self-education is the only kind of education there is.

Would you please help me find citations for these expressions?

Quote Investigator: In 1958 Robert Frost spoke the first statement according to his friend Louis Untermeyer. In addition, Isaac Asimov wrote a sentence that closely matched the second sentence in 1974. Full citations are given further below.

Before Frost or Asimov shared their opinions, a high school teacher named Charles Swain Thomas made a similar remark as reported in “The Indianapolis Star” in 1913. Thomas who later became a professor in the Harvard Graduate School of Education addressed the Marion County Teachers’ Institute in Indiana. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

The only kind of education worth while is self-education, Mr. Thomas said in his morning lecture, “The good work for all education is interest. Until there is interest there is no response.”

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1921 “The North American Review” published an article titled “Working People’s Education” by Robert Shafer which included an instance of the adage: 2

The truth is that the only education is self-education. Teachers can impart information and make suggestions, but they are like sign-posts—they can only by example and precept point out the way. A sign-post is of no earthly use unless the person who consults it wants to go somewhere.

In 1927 a popular novelist named Kathleen Norris writing in “The Courier-Journal” of Louisville, Kentucky expressed skepticism about the value of attending college for young women. She believed that more genuine knowledge could be acquired by working at a job: 3

Give real life, rather than sham life, a chance, and let college go.

Self-education is the only sort worth having, and there are a great many places beside college in which it is easy to find.

In 1931 a newspaper filler item was printed in Edwardsville, Illinois and Sedalia, Missouri. The adage was ascribed to the single name “Lowell”. This might have been a reference to the poet and critic James Russell Lowell, but QI has not yet found supporting evidence pointing to a specific person: 4 5

Self-education is of course the only kind of education there is.—Lowell.

In 1955 a famous pollster named George Gallup who was director of the American Institute of Public Opinion was disappointed when he found that only 10 per cent of those questioned had any knowledge of the islands of Quemoi and Matsu. A battle had recently been fought between the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan over possession of the islands. Gallup faulted U.S. schooling: 6

“I put the blame for this on our educational system itself,” he said. “Self-education is the only education that really matters.”

A few months after August 1958 the poet and anthologist Louis Untermeyer met with his good friend Robert Frost in New York and traveled with him to Washington. Frost shared his opinion about education with Untermeyer who presented the remarks in a 1963 book: 7

I still say the only education worth anything is self-education. All the rest consists of schoolwork, textbooks, training, aids to help distinguish one fact from another without helping us to tell true values from false.

In March 1974 Isaac Asimov published “How to Write 148 Books Without Really Trying” in the journal “Chemtech” from the American Chemical Society. In 1975 the essay was updated and became “How to Write 160 Books Without Really Trying” which appeared in Asimov’s collection “Science Past, Science Future”. An instance of the adage was included: 8

I also read voluminously and omnivorously in science and history, which not only made subsequent classwork easier but also early developed in me the habit of self-education. And self-education is, I firmly believe, the only kind of education there is. The only function of a school is to make self-education easier; failing that, it does nothing.

In conclusion, Robert Frost and Isaac Asimov both praised self-education as shown in the citations above. However, they were not alone, and a variety of people have made similar remarks over a period of more than one hundred years. The first comment listed above was from Charles Swain Thomas, but QI believes earlier instances are certain to exist.

Image Notes: Picture of Isaac Asimov circa 1965 from the New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper via the Library of Congress and Wikimedia Commons. Picture of an apple and books from jarmoluk at Pixabay. Picture of Robert Frost circa 1910 via the Library of Congress and Wikimedia Commons.

(Great thanks to Nathalie LidgiGuigui and Thierry Koscielniak whose tweets led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Special thanks to Barry Popik for his pioneering work on this topic.)

Notes:

  1. 1913 August 29, The Indianapolis Star, Asserts ‘Soul Ardor’ Is Need of Teacher, Quote Page 3, Column 2, Indianapolis, Indiana. (Newspapers_com)
  2. 1921 December, The North American Review, Volume 214, Working People’s Education by Robert Shafer, Start Page 786, Quote Page 788 and 789, North American Review Corporation, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1927 March 20, The Courier-Journal, Section: Magazine, Value of Self-Education by Kathleen Norris, Quote Page 3, Column 5, Louisville, Kentucky. (Newspapers_com)
  4. 1931 June 5, The Edwardsville Intelligencer, (Filler item), Quote Page 7, Column 7, Edwardsville, Illinois. (Newspapers_com)
  5. 1931 August 7, The Sedalia Democrat, (Filler item), Quote Page 9, Column 1, Sedalia, Missouri, (Newspapers_com)
  6. 1955 May 15, The Cincinnati Enquirer, Matsu? Whazzat? (Associated Press), Quote Page 76, Column 4, Cincinnati, Ohio. (Newspapers_com)
  7. 1963, The Letters of Robert Frost to Louis Untermeyer, Year: 1958, Quote Page 376, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York. (Verified on paper)
  8. 1975, Science Past, Science Future by Isaac Asimov, Chapter 27: How to Write 160 Books Without Really Trying, Start Page 204, Quote Page 208, Doubleday & Company, Garden City, N.Y. (Verified on paper)