Education Is What You Get from Reading the Small Print in a Contract. Experience Is What You Get from Not Reading It

Pete Seeger? Vesta M. Kelly? Mr. Minnick the Cynic? Old Timer? Bill Gold? Evan Esar? Saul Lavisky? Laurence J. Peter? Sydney J. Harris? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Comprehending the details of a complex legal contract is a daunting task. Yet, entrapment by an unnoticed provision of an agreement is a terrible experience. Here is a pertinent saying:

Education is what you get from reading the small print. Experience is what you get from not reading it.

This saying has been attributed to folk singer activist Pete Seeger. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: This quip can be expressed in many ways; hence, it is difficult to trace. The earliest match located by QI appeared in “The Wall Street Journal” within the long-running humor column called “Pepper and Salt” in February 1961. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

Candid Comment
People may get an education from reading the fine print, but what they get from not reading it is usually experience.— Vesta M. Kelly.

Currently, Vesta M. Kelly is the leading candidate for originator of this joke. Pete Seeger did use the expression during an interview published in October 1979. See the citation given further below:

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Later in February 1961 a newspaper in Sioux Falls, South Dakota published a slightly altered version of the statement with the word “but” deleted. Vesta M. Kelly received credit: 2

Vesta M. Kelly in Wall Street Journal
People may get an education from reading the fine print. What they get from not reading it is usually experience.

In November 1961 “The Philadelphia Inquirer” of Pennsylvania printed another phrasing while acknowledging another publication: 3

You can get an education by reading, but what you get from not reading the fine print is usually called an experience. (Rivet.)

In June 1962 a newspaper in Grand Rapids, Michigan printed the following: 4

MR. MINNICK THE CYNIC SAYS—people may get an education from reading the fine print, but what they get from not reading it is usually experience.

On January 25, 1965 a newspaper in Burlington, Vermont printed another phrasing of the joke within a column called “Old Timer Says”: 5

Education is what you get from reading the small print. Experience is what you get from not reading it.

On January 29, 1965 the popular syndicated column of Earl Wilson published the expression with an ascription to Bill Gold: 6

EARL’S PEARLS: Education is what you get from reading the small print in a contract. Experience is what you get from not reading it.—Bill Gold.

In 1968 an instance using the word “knowledge” appeared without attribution in “20,000 Quips and Quotes” compiled by Evan Esar: 7

Knowledge is what you get from reading the small print in a contract; experience is what you get from not reading it.

In 1979 “1,001 Logical Laws” compiled by John Peers printed an instance: 8

Saul Lavisky’s Observation: Education is what you get from reading the small print. Experience is what you get from not reading it.

In October 1979 “Rolling Stone” magazine published an interview titled “Pete Seeger: Still Fighting the Good Fight” by Scott Isler. Seeger spoke the saying, but he described it as “a good line” signaling that he was not the coiner: 9

I was about twelve when I read H.G. Wells’ saying that it was a race between education and disaster. I had no reason to think he was wrong. But I think the word education is a bad choice; it makes people think of reading books. I’ve got a good line for you. Do you know the difference between education and experience? Education is when you read the fine print; experience is what you get when you don’t.

In 1980 a version of the expression appeared in “Mac’s Giant Book of Quips & Quotes”: 10

Education is what you get from reading the small print in a contract. Experience is what you get from not reading it.

Also, in 1980 “Loose Talk: The Book of Quotes From the Pages of Rolling Stone Magazine” appeared, and a brief version of Seeger’s statement was included: 11

“Do you know the difference between education and experience? Education is when you read the fine print; experience is what you get when you don’t.”
PETE SEEGER

In 1982 quotation collector Laurence J. Peter published “Peter’s Almanac”, and he attributed an instance of the saying to himself: 12

Peter’s Small-Print Principle: Education is what you get from reading the small print. Experience is what you get from not reading it.

In 1992 “The Wit and Wisdom of Politics” credited the individual named previously in the “1,001 Logical Laws”: 13

Education is what you get from reading the small print. Experience is what you get from not reading it.
Saul Lavisky

In 1997 “Proverb Wit & Wisdom” printed a tale from journalist Sydney J. Harris: 14

A professor in a business course, lecturing his students, explained the difference between “education” and “experience” thus: “In reading a contract, education is what you get from reading the small print; experience is what you get from not reading it.” Sydney J. Harris

In conclusion, Vesta M. Kelly is currently the leading candidate for coiner of this quip based on the 1961 citation. Many others have received credit during the ensuing decades, and the attribution may shift if convincing new citations are located.

Image Notes: Public domain illustration depicting cartoonist Thomas Nast drawing caricatures. This illustration appeared in the 1904 book “Th. Nast: His Period and His Pictures”. The image looks somewhat like a man carefully reading a contract.

(QI encountered this saying while researching another saying: “Experience is the only schoolmaster; although the school-fees are somewhat heavy”. QI was inspired to perform this exploration.)

Notes:

  1. 1961 February 14, The Wall Street Journal, Pepper and Salt, Quote Page 12, Column 6, New York. (ProQuest)
  2. 1961 February 23, Sioux Falls Argus-Leader, Awakening (Filler item), Quote Page 4, Column 6, Sioux Falls, South Dakota. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1961 November 18, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Best of Hollywood by Dorothy Manners, Quote Page 16, Column 2, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (ProQuest)
  4. 1962 June 12, The Grand Rapids Press, Fired at Random, Quote Page 20, Column 7, Grand Rapids, Michigan. (GenealogyBank)
  5. 1965 January 25, The Burlington Free Press, The Old-Timer Says, Quote Page 12, Column 3, Burlington, Vermont. (Newspapers_com)
  6. 1965 January 29, The Morning Call, The New York Beat: Ed Binns Glad He’s Known by Earl Wilson, Quote Page 21, Column 4, Paterson, New Jersey. (Newspapers_com)
  7. 1968, 20,000 Quips and Quotes by Evan Esar, Subject: Contract, Quote Page 175, Doubleday, Garden City, New York. (Verified with hardcopy)
  8. 1979, 1,001 Logical Laws, Accurate Axioms, Profound Principles, Compiled by John Peers, Edited by Gordon Bennett, Quote Page 11, Doubleday & Company, Inc., Garden City, New York. (Verified on paper)
  9. Website: Rolling Stone Magazine, Article title: Pete Seeger: Still Fighting the Good Fight, Article author: Scott Isler, Note: Article originally appeared in October 18, 1979 issue of Rolling Stone Magazine, Website description: News and criticism of music together with politics. (Accessed rollingstone.com on June 7, 2021) link
  10. 1980, Mac’s Giant Book of Quips & Quotes, Compiled by E. C. McKenzie, Topic: Education, Quote Page 149, Column 1, Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, Michigan. (Verified with scans)
  11. 1980, Loose Talk: The Book of Quotes From the Pages of Rolling Stone Magazine, Compiled by Linda Botts, Quote Page 189, Quick Fox / Rolling Stone Press, New York. (Verified with scans)
  12. 1982, Peter’s Almanac by Laurence J. Peter, Date: May 8, William Morrow and Company, New York. (Verified with scans)
  13. 1992, The Wit and Wisdom of Politics, Compiled by Charles Henning, Expanded Edition, Topic: Education, Quote Page 75, Fulcrum Publishing, Golden, Colorado. (Verified with scans)
  14. 1997, Proverb Wit & Wisdom: A Treasury of Proverbs, Parodies, Quips, Quotes, Clichés, Catchwords, Epigrams, and Aphorisms, Compiled by Louis A. Berman With Assistance by Daniel K. Berman, Topic: Experience, Quote Page 125, A Perigee Book: The Berkley Publishing Group, New York. (Verified with scan)