Post image for A Collection of 100 Quotes About Natural, Self-Directed Learning & Compulsory Schooling

In a few days, we will be celebrating the 4th of July, our day of independence, in the United States. Almost 250 years ago a few brave men (and some women!) broke against the mainstream and fought for a future where they could self-direct their own lives.


African Americans and women had to fight harder and longer for that same freedom.

There’s still a large portion of our population that does not have that freedom: children. They do not experience what it’s like to pursue their passions in freedom, to live their days with self-directed, purposeful tasks and learning goals. They are not allowed real responsibility and freedom when they crave it at a young age and so grow up with their drive and desire to make real contributions to society stunted and sometimes destroyed.

In honor of celebrating the 4th of July (for those living in other countries, please think of the day your country celebrates its own freedom. If you do not live in such a country, my heart goes out for you), I’ve collected 100 quotes from novelists, poets, scientists, presidents, politicians, and others about the nature of true learning, self-directed living and compulsory education. If you’re unfamiliar with any of the people quoted, learn something new and check them out!


1. “We are shut up in schools and college recitation rooms for ten or fifteen years, and come out at last with a bellyful of words and do not know a thing.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

2. “My schooling not only failed to teach me what it professed to be teaching, but it prevented from being educated to an extent which infuriates me when I think of all I might have learned at home by myself.” – George Bernard Shaw

3. “I am always ready to learn, but I do not always like to be taught.” – Winston Churchill

4. “I was happy at home with my toys in my nursery. I’ve been happier every year since I’ve become a man. But this interlude of school makes a somber grey patch upon the heart of my journey. It was an unending spell of worries that then did not seem petty, and of toil uncheered by fruition; a time of discomfort, restriction, and purposeless monotony.” – Winston Churchill

5. “School days, I believe, are the unhappiest in the whole span of human existence. They are full of dull, unimaginable tasks, new and unpleasant ordinances, brutal violations of common sense and common decency.  It doesn’t take a reasonably bright boy long to discover that most of what is rammed into him is nonsense, and that no one really cares very much whether he learns it or not.” – H.L. Mencken

6. “Schooling, instead of encouraging the asking of questions, too often discourages it.” Madeleine L’Engle

7. “You cannot teach a person anything; you can only help him find it within himself.” – Galileo

8. “It is… nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of instruction have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry; for this delicate little plant, aside from stimulation, stands mainly in need of freedom; without this it goes to wreck and ruin.  It is a very grave mistake to think that the enjoyment of seeing and searching can be promoted by means of coercion and a sense of duty.” – Albert Einstein

9. “My grandmother wanted me to have an education, so she kept me out of school.” – Margaret Mead

10. “We know that you highly esteem the kind of learning taught in those colleges, and that the Maintenance of our young Men, while with you, would be very expensive for you. We are convinced, therefore, that you mean to do us Good by your Proposal; and we thank you heartily. But you, who are wise, must know that different Nations have different Conceptions of things; and you will therefore not take it amiss if our Ideas of this kind of Education happen to not be the same with yours. We have had some Experience with it. Several of our young People were formally brought up in the colleges of the Northern Provinces; they were instructed in all your Sciences, but, when they came back to us, they were bad Runners, ignorant of every means of living in the woods, …neither fit for Hunters, Warriors, nor Councellors, they were totally good for nothing. We are, however, not the less oblig’d by your kind Offer, tho’ we decline accepting it; and, to show our grateful sense of it, if the Gentlemen of Virginia will send us a Dozen of their Sons, we will take Care of their Education, instruct them in all we know, and make Men out of them.” –A letter from Native American to settlers in 1774.

11. “As far as I have seen, at school…they aimed at blotting out one’s individuality.” – Franz Kafka

12.  “I was undisciplined by birth, never would I bend, even in my tender youth, to a rule. It was at home I learned the little I know.  Schools always appeared to me like a prison, and never could I make up my mind to stay there, not even for four hours a day, when the sunshine was inviting, the sea smooth, and when it was joy to run about the cliffs in the free air, or to paddle in the water.” – Claude Monet

13. “Nothing that is worth knowing can be taught.” – Oscar Wilde

14. “How is it that little children are so intelligent while men are so stupid? It must be education that does it.” – Alexandre Dumas

15. “Knowledge which is acquired under compulsion obtains no hold on the mind.” – Plato

16. “Education consists mainly in what we have unlearned.” – Mark Twain

17. “How could youth better learn to live than by at once trying the experiment of living?” – Henry D. Thoreau

18. “Self education is, I believe, the only education there is.” – Issac Asimov

19. “Children do not need to be made to learn about the world or shown how. They want to, and they know how.” – John Holt

20. “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will spend its whole life believing it is stupid.” – Albert Einstein

21. “There are only two places in the world where time takes precedence over the job to be done. School and prison.”  –  William Glasser

22. “None of the world’s problems will have a solution until the world’s individuals become thoroughly self-educated.” – Buckminster Fuller

23. ““Study without desire spoils the memory, and it retains nothing that it takes in.” – Leonardo da Vinci

24. “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.”  – Pablo Picasso

25. “School is the advertising agency which makes you believe that you need the society as it is.”  –  Ivan Illich

26. “Schools have not necessarily much to do with education…they are mainly institutions of control where certain basic habits must be inculcatec in the young. Education is quite different and has little place in school.”  – Winston Churchill

27. “It is possible to store the mind with a million facts and still be entirely uneducated.”  – Alec Bourne

28. “If we value independence, if we are disturbed by the growing conformity of knowledge, of values, of attitudes, which our present system induces, then we may wish to set up conditions of learning which make for uniqueness, for self-direction, and for self-initiated learning.”  – Carl Rogers

29. “Children are born passionately eager to make as much sense as they can of things around them. If we attempt to control, manipulate, or divert this process, the independent scientist in the child disappears.”  –  John Holt

30. “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.”  –  Mark Twain

31. “I suppose it is because nearly all children go to school nowadays, and have things arranged for them, that they seem so forlornly unable to produce their own ideas.”  –  Agatha Christie

32. “Thank goodness I was never sent to school; it would have rubbed off some of the originality.”   – Beatrix Potter

33. “What does education often do? It makes a straight-cut ditch out of a free, meandering brook.” –  Henry David Thoreau

34. “Education: free and compulsory – what a way to learn logic!”  – Frank van Dun

35. “Education is a process of living and not a preparation for future living.”  –  John Dewey

36. “When you want to teach children to think, you begin by treating them seriously when they are little, giving them responsibilities, talking to them candidly, providing privacy and solitude for them, and making them readers and thinkers of significant thoughts from the beginning. That’s if you want to teach them to think.” –  Bertrand Russell

37. “Today for Show and Tell, I’ve brought a tiny marvel of nature: a single snowflake. I think we might all learn a lesson from how this utterly unique and exquisite crystal turns into an ordinary, boring molecule of water, just like every other one, when you bring it in the classroom. And now, while the analogy sinks in, I’ll be leaving you drips and going outside.”  – Calvin, from Calvin & Hobbes comic

38. “Real wisdom is not the knowledge of everything, but the knowledge of which things in life are necessary, which are less necessary, and which are completely unnecessary to know.”  – Leo Tolstoy

39. “I believe that school makes complete fools of our young men, because they see and hear nothing of ordinary life there.” – Petronius, Satyricon

40. “From my grandfather’s father, [I learned] to dispense with attendance at public schools, and to enjoy good teachers at home, and to recognize that on such things money should be eagerly spent.” – Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, Roman Emperor

41. “Schools are designed on the assumption that there is a secret to everything in life; that the quality of life depends upon knowing that secret; that secrets can only be known in orderly successions; and that only teachers can properly reveal these secrets. An individual with a schooled mind conceives of the world as a pyramid of classified packages accessible only to those who carry the proper tags.” – Ivan Illich

42. “I loathed every day and regret every day I spent in school. I like to be taught to read and write and add and then be left alone.”  – Woody Allen

43. “Everybody gets so much information all day long that they lose their common sense.”  – Gertrude Stein

44. “Children have to be educated, but they have also to be left to educate themselves.”  – Ernest Dimnet

45. “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” – William Butler Yeats

46. “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” – Aristotle

47. “Much education today is monumentally ineffective. All too often we are giving young people cut flowers when we should be teaching them to grow their own plants.”  – John W. Gardner

48. “To me education is a leading out of what is already there in the pupil’s soul. To Miss Mackay it is a putting in of something that is not there, and that is not what I call education. I call it intrusion.” – Muriel Spark

49. “When a subject becomes totally obsolete we make it a required course.” – Peter Drucker

50. “I know of nothing more inspiring than that of making discoveries for one’s self. –  George Washington Carver

51. “Men are born ignorant, not stupid. They are made stupid by education.” – Bertrand Russell

52. “Children require guidance and sympathy far more than instruction.” – Annie Sullivan

53. “When you are genuinely interested in one thing, it will always lead to something else.” – Eleanor Roosevelt

54. “A man ought to read just as inclination leads him; for what he reads as a task does him little good.” – Samuel Johnson

55. “I never did a day’s work in my life. It was all fun.” – Thomas A. Edison

56. “Where my reason, imagination, or interest were not engaged, I would not or I could not learn.” – Winston Churchill

57. “If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.” – Marcus Cicero

58. “All men who have turned out worth anything have had a chief hand in their own education.” – Sir Walter Scott

59. “What a great advantage for leaders that the people do not think.” – Adolph Hitler (Yikes!)

60. “All the world is a laboratory to the inquiring mind.” – Martin H. Fischer

61. “You cannot acquire experience by making experiments. You cannot create experience. You must undergo it.” – Albert Camus

62. “Anything, everything, can be learned if you can just get yourself in a little patch of real ground, real nature, real wood, real anything … and just sit still and watch.” – Lauren Hutton

63. “Do not train children in learning by force and harshness, but direct them to it by what amuses their minds, so that you may be better able to discover with accuracy the peculiar bent of the genius of each.” –Plato

64. “It is shocking to find how many people do not believe they can learn, and how many more believe learning to be difficult. Muad’Dib knew that every experience carries its lesson.” – Frank Herbert

65. “Tell me and I forget. Show me and I remember. Involve me and I understand.” – Chinese Proverb

66. “The true order of learning should be: first, what is necessary; second, what is useful; and third, what is ornamental. To reverse this arrangement is like beginning to build at the top of the edifice.” – Lydia H. Sigourney

67. “Formal education will earn you a living, self-education will earn you a fortune.” – John Patterson

68. “Much of the material presented in schools strikes students as alien, if not pointless.” – Howard Gardner

69. “The uncreative mind can spot wrong answers, but it takes a creative mind to spot a wrong question.” –  Anthony Jay

70. “You learn at your best when you have something you care about and can get pleasure in being engaged in.” – Howard Gardner

71. “To develop a complete mind: study the science of art; study the art of science. Learn how to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else.’ – Leonardo da Vinci

72. “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” –  Albert Einstein

73. “We learn by example and by direct experience because there are real limits to the adequacy of verbal instruction.” – Malcolm Gladwell

74. “Whenever you are asked if you can do a job, tell ’em, ‘Certainly I can!’ Then get busy and find out how to do it.” – Theodore Roosevelt

75. “In the end we retain from our studies only that which we practically apply.” – Johann Von Goethe

76. “I’ve known countless people who were reservoirs of learning, yet never had a thought.” – Wilson Mizner

76. “It has been said that the primary function of schools is to impart enough facts to make children stop asking questions. Some, with whom the schools do not succeed, become scientists.” – Knut Schmidt-Nielsen

77. “Great cycles of history began with vigorous cultures awakening to the needs of children, but collapsing with frayed family ties. Have we failed to learn lessons which Ancient China, Greece and Rome learned too late – about day care and death houses for old folks?  Do we without protest accept accelerating preschool and nursing home cultures which warn ominously that the earlier you institutionalize your child, the earlier he will institutionalize you!” – Raymond S. Moore

78. “Growth and mastery come only to those who vigorously self-direct. Initiating, creating, doing, reflecting, freely associating, enjoying privacy – these are precisely what the structures of schooling are set up to prevent, in one context or another.” – John Taylor Gatto

79. “Historically, much of the motivation for public schooling as been to stifle variety and institute social control.” – Jack Hugh

80. “I believe school makes complete fools of our young men, because they see and hear nothing of ordinary life there.” – Petronius

81. “What’s the difference between a bright, inquisitive five-year-old, and a dull, stupid nineteen-year-old? Fourteen years of the British educational system.” – Bertrand Russell

82. “To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day to make you everybody else – means to fight the hardest battle which any human being could fight; and keep fighting.” E.E. Cummings

83. “School is established, not in order that it should be convenient for the children to study, but that teachers should be able to teach in comfort. The children’s conversations, motion, merriment are not convenient for the teacher, and so in the schools, which are built on the plan of prisons, … are prohibited.” Count Leo Tolstoy

84. “It is important that students bring a certain ragamuffin barefoot irreverence to their studies; they are not here to worship what is known, but to question it.” –  Jacob Brownowski

85. “Spoon feeding in the long run teaches us nothing but the shape of the spoon.” – E.M. Forster

86. “The newer and broader picture suggests that the child emerges into literacy by actively speaking, reading, and writing in the context of real life, not through filling out phonics worksheets or memorizing words.” Thomas Armstrong

87. “Who does not recall school at least in part as endless dreary hours of boredom punctuated by moments of high anxiety?” –  Daniel Goleman

88.” I learned most, not from those who taught me but from those who talked with me.” –  St. Augustine

89. “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer.  Let him stop to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.” – Henry David  Thoreau

90. “It is tempting to impose our goals on other people, particularly on children or our subordinates. It is tempting for society to try to impose its priorities on everybody. The strategy will however be self-defeating if our goals, or society’s goals, do not fit the goals of the others. We may get our way but we don’t get their learning. They may have to comply but they will not change. We have pushed out their goals with ours and stolen their purposes. It is a pernicious form of theft which kills the will to learn.” -Charles Handy

91. “Often it was not in school, but outside of it – in extracurricular activities or during time spent altogether away from school – that calling appeared. It is as if the image in the heart in so many cases is hampered by the program of tuition and its time bound regularity.” – James Hillman

92. “School was the unhappiest time of my life and the worst trick it ever played on me was to pretend that it was the world in miniature. For it hindered me from discovering how lovely and delightful and kind the world can be, and how much of it is intelligible.” – E.M. Forester

93. “The difference between school and life? In school, you’re taught a lesson and then given a test. In life, you’re given a test that teaches you a lesson.”- Tom Bodett

94.Another merit of home is that it preserves the diversity between individuals. If we were all alike, it might be convenient for the bureaucrat and the statistician, but it would be very dull, and would lead to a very unprogressive society.” Bertrand Russell

95. I am beginning to suspect all elaborate and special systems of education. They seem to me to be built upon the supposition that every child is a kind of idiot who must taught to think. Whereas if the child is left to himself, he will think more and better, if less slowly. Let him come and go freely, let him touch real things and combine his impressions for himself, instead of sitting indoors at a little round table while a sweet-voiced teacher suggest that he build a stone wall with his wooden blocks, or make a rainbow out of strips of colored paper, or plant straw trees in flower pots. Such teaching fills the mind with artificial associations that must be got rid of before the child can develop independent ideas out of actual experiences.” – Anne Sullivan

96.I sometimes ask myself how it came about that I was the one to develop the theory of relativity. The reason, I think, is that a normal adult never stops to think about problems of space and time. These are things which he has thought about as a child. But my intellectual development was retarded, as a result of which I began to wonder about space and time only when I had already grown up.” – Albert Einstein

97.What is essential is to realize that children learn independently, not in bunches; that they learn out of interest and curiosity, not to please or appease the adults in power; and that they ought to be in control of their own learning, deciding for themselves what they want to learn and how they want to learn it.” – John Holt

98. “Free the child’s potential, and you will transform him into the world.” – Maria Montessori

99.  “It is better to tolerate the rare instance of a parent refusing to let his child be educated, than to shock the common feelings and ideas by forcible aspiration and education of the infant against the will of the father.”-  Thomas Jefferson

100.  “Academies that are founded at public expense are instituted not so much to cultivate men’s natural abilities as to restrain them.” –  Baruch Spinoza


Photo Credit: Big Sumo


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