Awaken People’s Curiosity. It Is Enough To Open Minds; Do Not Overload Them

Anatole France? George Pólya? George B. Hartzog Jr.? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Educators are tempted to cover numerous topics and present a farrago of facts, but this superfluity discourages many learners. A small number of well-chosen topics and pertinent examples can activate curiosity. The Nobel-Prize winner Anatole France has been credited with the following astute advice for teachers:

It is enough to open minds; do not overload them. Put there just a spark. If there is some good inflammable stuff, it will catch fire.

Would you please help me to find a citation?

Quote Investigator: In 1894 prominent literary figure Anatole France published a collection of essays titled “Le Jardin d’Épicure” (“The Garden of Epicurus”) which included a section containing guidance for educators. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

Soyez des généralisateurs, soyez des philosophes et cachez si bien votre philosophie qu’on vous croie aussi simples que les esprits auxquels vous parlez. Exposez sans jargon, dans la langue vulgaire et commune à tous, un petit nombre de faits qui frappent l’imagination et contentent l’intelligence. Que votre parole soit naïve, grande et généreuse. Ne vous flattez pas d’enseigner un grand nombre de choses. Excitez seulement la curiosité. Contents d’ouvrir les esprits, ne les surchargez point. Mettez-y l’étincelle. D’eux-mêmes, ils s’éprendront par l’endroit où ils sont inflammables.

Here is one possible translation into English performed by Alfred Allinson in 1908: 2

Deal in broad generalities, be philosophical, but hide your philosophy so skilfully that you appear as artless as the minds you address. Avoiding technical jargon, expound in the vulgar tongue all share alike a small number of great facts that strike the imagination and satisfy the intelligence. Let your language be simple, noble, magnanimous. Never pride yourselves on teaching a great number of things. Rest content to rouse curiosity. Be satisfied with opening your scholars’ minds, and do not overload them. Without any interference of yours, they will catch fire at the point where they are inflammable.

The instance provided by the questioner and other modern instances attributed to Anatole France may be viewed as alternative translations of the original French text of varying fidelity.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1911 “England’s Need in Education: A Suggested Remedy” by Joseph S. Knowlson reprinted with acknowledgement a long extract from the 1908 translation which included the text above. 3

Also, in 1911 the “St. Joseph Daily Press” of Saint Joseph, Michigan printed the passage above from the 1908 book. The newspaper piece was titled “Good Advice to Teachers” and Anatole France received credit; however, the sentence beginning “Avoid technical jargon” was omitted. 4

In 1965 mathematician George Pólya published the second volume of his influential work on pedagogy titled “Mathematical Discovery: On Understanding, Learning, and Teaching Problem Solving”. Pólya included an alternative translation of five sentences from Anatole France: 5

Anatole France has a word about a subject we have been discussing: “Do not try to satisfy your vanity by teaching them great many things. Awake their curiosity. It is enough to open the minds, do not overload them. Put there just a spark. If there is some good inflammable stuff it will catch fire.” (Le jardin d’Epicure, p. 200.)

In April 1965 Pólya’s book was reviewed in the widely-circulating journal “Science”, and the words ascribed to France were reprinted with slight alteration. The phrase “teaching them” was replaced by “teaching a”, and “the minds” was replaced by “their minds”: 6

It includes 20 pages of notes from which I single out a quotation from Anatole France: “Do not try to satisfy your vanity by teaching a great many things. Awake their curiosity. It is enough to open their minds, do not overload them. Put there just a spark. If there is some good inflammable stuff, it will catch fire.”

Freeman Tilden worked closely with the United States National Park Service and wrote a notable work titled “Interpreting Our Heritage” about communicating effectively with visitors to parks, museums, and galleries. The knowledge gained by visitors sometimes inspires them to help protect nature reserves and support scientific exploration. The second edition of the book included a new foreword dated April 1967 by George B. Hartzog Jr. who was the Director of National Park Service. Hartzog began with a quotation: 7

Anatole France said, ‘‘Do not try to satisfy your vanity by teaching a great many things. Awaken people’s curiosity. It is enough to open minds; do not overload them. Put there just a spark. If there is some good inflammable stuff, it will catch fire.”

To excite curiosity, to open a person’s mind—there is challenge for anyone who seeks to communicate ideas. I know of no one more sensitive to the challenge than the interpreter, for he is a teacher in the purest sense of the word.

In 1982 a piece in “History News” by William J. Tramposch who was the Director of interpretive education at Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia highlighted the quotation: 8

People who strongly identify with the following quote by Anatole France will probably make our best interpreters:

“Do not try to satisfy your vanity by teaching a great many things. Awaken people’s curiosity. It is enough to open minds; do not overload them. Put there just a spark. If there is some good inflammable stuff, it will catch.”

In conclusion, Anatole France should receive credit for the passage he wrote in “Le Jardin d’Épicure” in 1894. The passage was translated into English by 1908 and subsequently circulated in newspapers. Another translation appeared by 1965 in a mathematics education book by George Pólya. The Director of U.S. National Park Service used the quotation in 1967, and it has resonated with a variety of teachers and communicators.

Image Notes: Picture of Lower Falls of the Yellowstone River taken from Artist Point by Diane Renkin for the U.S. National Park Service. Public Domain picture accessed via Wikimedia Commons. Image has been resized and cropped.

(Great thanks to Alan Kaplan whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Kaplan noted the common attribution to Anatole France and wished to see a solid citation.)

Notes:

  1. 1895 (First published in 1894), Le Jardin d’Épicure by Anatole France, Dixième Édition (Tenth Edition), Quote Page 199 and 200, Publisher: Calmann-Lévy, Paris, France. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1908, The Garden of Epicurus by Anatole France, Translation by Alfred Allinson, Edited by Frederic Chapman, Chapter: Careers for Woman, Start Page 167, Quote Page 171, John Lane Company, New York. (Verified with scans; Internet Archive) link
  3. 1911, England’s Need in Education: A Suggested Remedy by Joseph S. Knowlson, Chapter 5: How to Remedy Weakness, Quote Page 104, A. C. Fifield, London. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  4. 1911 May 17, St. Joseph Daily Press, Good Advice to Teachers, Quote Page 6, Column 4, Saint Joseph, Michigan. (Newspapers_com)
  5. 1981, Mathematical Discovery: On Understanding, Learning, and Teaching Problem Solving by George Polya (Professor Emeritus of Mathematics, Stanford University), Combined Edition of Volume 1 and 2, Chapter 14: On Learning, Teaching, and Learning Teaching, Quote Page 142, John Wiley & Sons, New York. (Note: Chapter 14 first appeared in Volume 2 which was published in 1965) (Verified with scans)
  6. 1965 April 30, Science, Volume 148, Number 3670, Creativity in Mathematics, (Book Review written by L. C. Young of Department of Mathematics, University of Wisconsin, Madison of George Polya’s “Mathematical Discovery. On Understanding, Learning, and Teaching Problem Solving”, Volume 2), Start Page 622, Quote Page 627, Column 1, Published by American Association for the Advancement of Science. (JSTOR) link
  7. 1977, Interpreting Our Heritage by Freeman Tilden, Third Edition, Foreword to the Second Edition by George B. Hartzog Jr., Director of National Park Service, Washington D.C., Date: April 1967, Start Page xiii, Quote Page xiii, The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, North Carolina. (Verified with scans)
  8. 1982 July, History News, Volume 37, Number 7, Article: “Put There a Spark”: How Colonial Williamsburg Trains Its Interpretive Crew, Author: William J. Tramposch (Director of interpretive education at Colonial Williamsburg in Williamsburg, Virginia), Start Page 21, Quote Page 22, Column 1, Published by: American Association for State and Local History. (JSTOR) link