Experience Is the Best of Schoolmasters; Only the School-Fees Are Heavy

Thomas Carlyle? Benjamin Franklin? Samuel Taylor Coleridge? Johann P. F. Richter? Minna Antrim? Heinrich Heine? William Ralph Inge?

Dear Quote Investigator: The most memorable and painful lessons are usually learned via direct experience, but the cost can be very high. A family of adages depict this point of view. Here are two instances:

  • Experience is a good school, but the fees are heavy.
  • Experience is the best teacher, but the tuition is exorbitant.

This saying has been credited to Scottish essayist Thomas Carlyle, German writer Johann Paul Friedrich Richter, English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, U.S. writer Minna Antrim, and others. Would you please explore this topic.

Quote Investigator: This saying has been circulating and evolving for many years; hence this is a complex topic. Here is a chronological sampling which presents a snapshot of current research:

1743: (Precursor) Experience keeps a dear school, yet Fools will learn in no other. (Benjamin Franklin)

1828: Experience is the best of schoolmasters; only the school-fees are heavy. (Thomas Carlyle)

1843: Dear bought experience is the only effectual schoolmaster. (Anon)

1856: Experience is the only schoolmaster; although the school-fees are somewhat heavy. (Attributed to Johann Paul Friedrich Richter)

1863 Experience is the best schoolmaster, but the school-fees are heavy. (Attributed to Samuel Taylor Coleridge)

1874: Experience and practice are the best schoolmasters; but the school fees are somewhat heavy. (Attributed to Johann Paul Friedrich Richter)

1893: Experience was the best of schools, but unfortunately the fees charged in it were extremely high. (Attributed to Heinrich Heine)

1902: Experience is a good teacher but she sends in terrific bills. (Minna T. Antrim)

1927: Experience is a good school, but the fees are high. (Attributed to Heinrich Heine)

1968: Experience is the best teacher, but the tuition is much too high. (Anon)

The 1743 statement “Experience keeps a dear school” was a precursor that appeared in Benjamin Franklin’s “Poor Richard’s Almanack”. The adjective “dear” meant costly or expensive. There is a separate QI article about this statement available here.

In 1828 Thomas Carlyle published an article in “The Foreign Review” of London discussing the works of the major German literary figure Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Carlyle employed the adage when he was commenting on Goethe’s version of the legendary character Faust. Carlyle believed that Faust would learn from his experiences. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

Experience, indeed, will teach him, for ‘Experience is the best of schoolmasters; only the school-fees are heavy.’

Carlyle enclosed the adage within quotation marks suggesting that it was already in circulation. Thus, Carlyle can be credited with popularizing the saying, but he may not be its originator.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1833 Carlyle’s essay containing the adage was reprinted in “The Knickerbocker” journal of New York. 2 Also, in 1839 the essay was reprinted in a collection of Carlyle’s works titled “Critical and Miscellaneous Essays”. 3 Thus, the saying achieved wider distribution.

In 1843 “The Bradford Observer” of Bradford, England published the following variant: 4

After all, dear bought experience is the only effectual schoolmaster.

In 1856 English critic George Henry Lewes published a biography of Goethe in which he mentioned the saying while crediting Jean Paul, i.e., Johann Paul Friedrich Richter: 5

Experience is the only schoolmaster; although, as Jean Paul says, ‘the school-fees are somewhat heavy.’ Goethe was always willing to pay the fees, if he could but get the instruction.

In 1863 Mrs. L. H. Sigourney published “Selections from Various Sources”, and she credited Coleridge, i.e., English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge: 6

“EXPERIENCE, is the best schoolmaster, but the school-fees are heavy.”—Coleridge.

In 1874 “The Daily Telegraph” of London printed the following variant: 7

“Experience and practice,” says Jean Paul Richter, “are the best schoolmasters; but the school fees are somewhat heavy.”

In 1893 G. W. Balfour, Member of the U.K. Parliament, delivered an address at Yorkshire College, and he attributed the saying to Heine, i.e., German poet Heinrich Heine: 8

He thought it was Heine who said no doubt experience was the best of schools, but unfortunately the fees charged in it were extremely high. (Laughter and applause.)

In 1902 Minna T. Antrim published a collection of sayings under the title “Naked Truths and Veiled Allusions”. She included the following variant which was also reprinted in “The Literary News”: 9

Experience is a good teacher, but she sends in terrific bills.

In 1927 Reverend William Ralph Inge ascribed the saying to Heine: 10

‘Experience is a good school, but the fees are high.’ (Heine.)

In 1968 Evan Esar included the saying in “20,000 Quips and Quotes” without attribution: 11

Experience is the best teacher, but the tuition is much too high.

In conclusion, the earliest close match known to QI appeared in 1828 within an essay by prominent Scottish writer Thomas Carlyle. He enclosed the saying within quotation marks; hence, it is possible that it was already circulating. Carlyle should receive credit for popularizing the saying in English. Evidence for other attributions is weak because they occurred many years after 1828.

Image Notes: Public domain illustration of a school house from the 1894 book “Home Geography for Primary Grades”.

(Great thanks to the anonymous person whose inquiry about the Antrim quotation led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

Notes:

  1. 1828, The Foreign Review and Continental Miscellany, Volume 1, Number 2, Goethe’s Helena (Review of Goethe’s Sämmtliche Werke), Start Page 429, Quote Page 438, Black, Young, and Young, London. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  2. 1833 February, The Knickerbocker: or, New-York Monthly Magazine, Volume 1, Number 2, Horae Germanicae Number II by Thomas Carlyle, Start Page 77, Quote Page 86, Peabody & Company, New York. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  3. 1839, Critical and Miscellaneous Essays by Thomas Carlyle, Volume 1, Goethe’s Helena (From “Foreign Review”, 1828), Start Page 162, Quote Page 176, James Munroe and Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  4. 1843 November 9, The Bradford Observer, Section: Summary (brief untitled item), Quote Page 4, Column 2, Bradford, West Yorkshire, England. (Newspapers_com)
  5. 1856, The Life and Works of Goethe: With Sketches of His Age and Contemporaries by G. H. Lewes (George Henry Lewes), Volume 2 of 2, Book 5, Chapter 12, Home Once Again, Quote Page 186, Ticknor and Fields, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link
  6. 1863, Selections from Various Sources by Mrs. L. H. Sigourney, Quote Page 129, John N. Turner, Worcester, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link
  7. 1874 May 21, The Daily Telegraph, The Coaching Club, Quote Page 7, Column 6, London, England. (British Newspaper Archive)
  8. 1893 October 31, The Leeds Mercury, Opening of Hymers College at Hull, Quote Page 3, Column 5,Leeds, West Yorkshire, England. (Newspapers_com)
  9. 1902 April, The Literary News, Volume 23, Number 4, Epigrams (Reprinted from Minna T. Antrim’s “Naked Truths and Veiled Allusions”), New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  10. 1927, Wit and Wisdom of Dean Inge by William Ralph Inge, Selected and arranged by Sir James Marchant, Section: Preface, Quote Page v and vii, Reprint 1968 by Books for Libraries Press, Freeport, New York. (Verified with hardcopy)
  11. 1968, 20,000 Quips and Quotes by Evan Esar, Subject: Experience, Quote Page 285, Doubleday, Garden City, New York. (Verified on paper)