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.

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

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