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Robert Strong: Advice on Lighting Fires

by Robert Strong
Interim Provost
(This piece first appeared on the Huffington Post and is reprinted here with permission.)

A few summers ago the keynote speaker at a conference on curriculum issues in the liberal arts quoted Irish poet William Butler Yeats, “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” It’s a good quote; I wrote it down.

The keynote speaker went on to say that college instruction should not be dribbling out drops of knowledge that students are expected to collect in a pail and carry around with them for the next four years; it should be about gathering kindling, encouraging students to take risks, letting them play with matches, and hoping that for some of them the materials at hand burst into flame and become life-long intellectual interests. This won’t happen to every student in every class; it won’t necessarily happen when students expect it to, or when professors do. But if it happens occasionally, it makes a liberal education worthwhile.

When the day of conferencing was over I went back to my hotel room and Googled the quote. All kinds of web pages popped up. It’s a very popular quotation. Some of the links took me to commencement addresses. One link was to a book titled something like What To Say If You Have to Give a Commencement Address.

Another link caught my eye. It was a blog entry from someone who asked: Does anyone out there know the source for the quote from Yeats about education and starting fires? The blogger had been looking for a source, but couldn’t find one. There were a number of responses. One was from a classics scholar who suggested the quote was a paraphrase of Plutarch who once wrote “The mind is not a vessel to be filled…”  Another came from a self-proclaimed Yeats expert who said the quote had no source because Yeats never said or wrote it.

That made me curious. I consulted the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. Lots of entries about education; plenty of citations to Yeats. No pail, no fire. Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, same result. I went to Google Book and make a list of all the scanned volumes that contained the quote. There were lots, but when I clicked on some of them I couldn’t find a footnote with any information about where the quote had come from.

When I got back to my campus, I was still curious. I asked a colleague in the English department if he had ever heard of the Yeats quote. The answer was “No, and it doesn’t even sound like Yeats.” I went to the library where we have a multi-volume set of The Collected Works of William Butler Yeats and looked up education in the index. No pail, no fire. On a nearby shelf I found The Collected Letters of W. B. Yeats. That set also has an index with listings for education, but — you guessed it — no pail, no fire.

I began to think that the blogger I had found in my first Google search was right and the quote was a fraud. Maybe someone thought of something clever to say about education and then assumed that it would get more attention if it was attributed to someone famous. Yeats was dead; he wouldn’t mind.

Of course, my own conclusion that the quote is misattributed to Yeats could also be wrong. Proving a negative is nearly impossible.

If and when I address a convocation or a commencement, I plan to use the quote and follow it with my own account of its problematic attribution. Then I can offer some words of advice — advice that is becoming ever more important when information is so readily available and seems so authoritative:

  • Don’t believe everything you hear from someone speaking at a podium.
  • Don’t believe everything you read in books.
  • Always be suspicious of information you find on the internet.
  • Never hesitate to do your own research about something that strikes your fancy.
  • Take some joy in finding things out for yourself even if what you find is complicated, confusing and incomplete.
  • Pursue the truth wherever it takes you.  And if what you find makes some people uncomfortable, that may be a sign that your research has come across something that is true.

“Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” A famous poet may not have said it. I may not know who did say it. But it is true.

At all levels of education, what we as teachers hope for our students is that they’ll get out their matches, that they’ll look for the issues, ideas, authors, experiments, projects and problems they find exciting. We do want them to light those fires.

Robert Strong is interim provost and William Lyne Wilson Professor of Politics at Washington and Lee University. These remarks are adapted from a talk he gave to the Class of 2016 during its orientation this month.