I Am Always Ready to Learn, Although I Do Not Always Like Being Taught

Winston Churchill? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: My question is about a quotation spotlighted in a recent news story. Two massive power companies merged and this caused a boardroom battle. The CEO, Bill Johnson, of the combined enterprise was abruptly ousted. Johnson reportedly alienated his new board members by using a saying attributed to Winston Churchill. Johnson’s lawyer said that the former CEO was using a paraphrase. Was the lawyer correct? What was the original Churchill quote?

Quote Investigator:  Here is a passage describing the situation from an article in the Wall Street Journal. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

Ms. Gray said Mr. Johnson made two board appearances during the 18-month merger period. In the first appearance, she said, he got off on the wrong foot when he described himself as “a person who likes to learn but not be taught.” She said she took it to mean: “I don’t care about your feedback or I don’t really care about your input.”

Wade Smith, Mr. Johnson’s attorney, said his client, in fact, was paraphrasing Winston Churchill, who once said “I always like to learn but I sometimes don’t like to be taught.” Mr. Johnson had no idea the Duke board took umbrage at his comment, Mr. Smith said.

Churchill did make a remark of this type on November 4, 1952 while speaking in the House of Commons in London. His words were recorded in the Hansard, the official transcript record for Parliament, which is now available online: 2

Personally, I am always ready to learn, although I do not always like being taught, but I shall not attempt to foreshadow the proposals which will be brought before the House tomorrow. Today it will be sufficient and appropriate to deal with the obvious difficulties and confusion of the situation as we found it on taking office.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

On November 9, a few days after Churchill spoke, The Observer, a prominent British newspaper, published his words in a regular feature called “Sayings of the Week”: 3

Personally I’m always ready to learn, although I do not always like being taught.—Mr. Churchill.

In 1966 The Observer published a review of a book about Churchill, and the reviewer referred to the quotation although a different phraseology was employed: 4

As he himself has remarked, he was always willing to learn, even if he disliked being taught. One could study him for years, and still discover new facets that one had missed before.

In 1974 the Churchill Centenary Trust authorized a compilation edited by Jack Fishman of words ascribed to Winston Churchill titled “If I Lived My Life Again”. The work included a close variant of the expression under examination: 5

A love of tradition has never weakened a nation, indeed it has strengthened nations in their hour of peril; but the new view must come, the world must roll forward. I was always ready to learn, although I did not always like being taught.

In 2011 a discussant at the TED website began a conversation about education by invoking Churchill’s words: 6

Winston Churchill once said “Personally I’m always ready to learn, although I do not always like being taught”. This quote got me thinking about the learning process.

What is the difference between learning something and being taught something? What is better? does it depend what it is or who it is? …

In conclusion, Winston Churchill did make a remark that was similar to Johnson’s statement. Quotation forensics is an intriguing new legal frontier.

(Many thanks to S. for pointing out the Churchill attribution in the WSJ which inspired the construction of this question.)

Update History: On January 6, 2016 the 1974 citation was added. In addition, the style of the bibliographic notes was changed to numeric.

Notes:

  1. 2012 July 21, Wall Street Journal, Corporate News: Regulator Warns Duke Could Face Sanctions on Deal by Rebecca Smith and Valerie Bauerlein, Page B3, New York. (ProQuest) (Online at wsj.com byline date is one day previous: 2012 July 20)
  2. 1952 November 4, Hansard, United Kingdom Parliament, Commons, Speaking: The Prime Minister Winston Churchill, HC Deb 04, volume 507, cc7-134. (Accessed hansard.millbanksystems.com on 2012 July 23) link
  3. 1952 November 9, The Observer [UK], Sayings of the Week, Page 8, London, United Kingdom. (ProQuest) (ProQuest; special thanks to Stephen Goranson for accessing the digital scans)
  4. 1966 May 22, The Observer (UK), Anatomy of Churchill by Robert Rhodes James, [Review of Winston Churchill: The Struggle for Survival 1940-1965 by Lord Moran], Page 27, London, United Kingdom. (ProQuest) (Special thanks to Stephen Goranson for accessing the digital scan) “Table Talk” by Pendennis with “Sayings of the Week”)
  5. 1974, If I Lived My Life Again by Winston S. Churchill, Compiled and edited by Jack Fishman, Chapter 15: Wise Heads And Young Shoulders, Start Page 179, Quote Page 180, Publisher by W. H. Allen, London. (Verified on paper)
  6. TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) website, Conversation initiated by “Martin Courtney of Glasgow, United Kingdom” [Unverified name], First response dated September 19, 2011. (Accessed ted.com on July 24, 2011) link