Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire

WB Yeats, by GC Beresford, via WikipediaIn an entertaining and erudite article in the Irish Times last week, Robert Strong (William Lyne Wilson Professor of Politics at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, and a visiting Fulbright Scholar as Mary Ball Washington Professor of American History in the School of History and Archives at University College Dublin) searched for evidence that the quote in the title of this post should properly be attributed to William Butler Yeats (pictured left). Although regularly attributed to Yeats, he found no proof to support the attribution; and he drew the following lessons from his quest:

  • Don’t believe everything you hear from a speaker standing at a podium.
  • Don’t believe everything you read in books.
  • Always be suspicious of information you find on the internet.
  • 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 and incomplete.
  • Pursue the truth wherever it takes you.
  • And don’t be afraid to challenge prominent people and published sources if you find evidence they might be wrong.

These lessons are a perfect example of the point of the quote: education really is about lighting a fire, encouraging people to think for themselves, rather than simply fill up with and repeat what they have heard. Research and innovation may be crucial to our economic recovery, and the higher education sector has an important role to play here, where research is funded by agencies by Enterprise Ireland, the Irish Research Council, and Science Foundation Ireland (the remit of which has recently been extended by legislation (pdf)). But, in this relentless focus on scientific research, we are in danger of filling pails with water to douse fires, not kindle them, especially in the context of the arts, humanities, and social sciences. Rather than reduce universities to filling pails with supposedly-necessary skills, we must focus on lighting fires of interest which will sustain ongoing engagement and learning long after the initial skills and information are obsolete. This is the real value of education – whether at school or in university, whether in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or in the arts, humanities and social sciences – that it is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.