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What Is Education? Insights from the World's Greatest Minds

Forty thought-provoking quotes about education.

What is education?
As we seek to refine and reform today’s system of education, we would do well to ask, “What is education?” Our answers may provide insights that get to the heart of what matters for 21st century children and adults alike.

It is important to step back from divisive debates on grades, standardized testing, and teacher evaluation—and really look at the meaning of education. So I decided to do just that—to research the answer to this straightforward, yet complex question. Looking for wisdom from some of the greatest philosophers, poets, educators, historians, theologians, politicians, and world leaders, I found answers that should not only exist in our history books, but also remain at the core of current education dialogue.

In my work as a developmental psychologist, I constantly struggle to balance the goals of formal education with the goals of raising healthy, happy children who grow to become contributing members of families and society. Along with academic skills, the educational journey from kindergarten through college is a time when young people develop many interconnected abilities.

As you read through the following quotes, you’ll discover common threads that unite the intellectual, social, emotional, and physical aspects of education. For me, good education facilitates the development of an internal compass that guides us through life.  

Which quotes resonate most with you? What images of education come to your mind? How can we best integrate the wisdom of the ages to address today’s most pressing education challenges?

If you are a middle or high school teacher, I invite you to have your students write an essay entitled, “What is Education?” After reviewing the famous quotes below and the images they evoke, ask students to develop their very own quote that answers this question. With their unique quote highlighted at the top of their essay, ask them to write about what helps or hinders them from getting the kind of education they seek. I’d love to publish some student quotes, essays, and images in future articles, so please contact me if students are willing to share! 

What is education?

What is Education? Answers from 5th Century BC to the 21st Century

  1. The principle goal of education in the schools should be creating men and women who are capable of doing new things, not simply repeating what other generations have done. -- Jean Piaget, 1896-1980, Swiss developmental psychologist, philosopher

  2. An education isn't how much you have committed to memory, or even how much you know. It's being able to differentiate between what you know and what you don't.-- Anatole France, 1844-1924, French poet, novelist

  3. Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.  -- Nelson Mandela, 1918-2013, South African President, philanthropist

  4. The object of education is to teach us to love beauty. -- Plato, 424 – 348 BC, philosopher mathematician

  5. The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character - that is the goal of true education -- Martin Luther King, Jr., 1929-1968, pastor, activist, humanitarian

  6. Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school. Albert Einstein, 1879-1955, physicist

  7. It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it. -- Aristotle, 384-322 BC, Greek philosopher, scientist

  8. Education is the power to think clearly, the power to act well in the world’s work, and the power to appreciate life. -- Brigham Young, 1801-1877, religious leader

  9. Real education should educate us out of self into something far finer – into a selflessness which links us with all humanity. -- Nancy Astor, 1879-1964, American-born English politician and socialite

  10. Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire. -- William Butler Yeats, 1865-1939, Irish poet

  11. Education is freedom. – Paulo Freire, 1921-1997, Brazilian educator, philosopher

  12. Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself. -- John Dewey, 1859-1952, philosopher, psychologist, education reformer 

  13. Education is the key to unlock the golden door of freedom.-- George Washington Carver, 1864-1943, scientist, botanist, educator 

  14. Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught. – Oscar Wilde, 1854-1900, Irish writer, poet

  15. The whole purpose of education is to turn mirrors into windows. -- Sydney J. Harris, 1917-1986, journalist

  16. Education's purpose is to replace an empty mind with an open one. -- Malcolm Forbes, 1919-1990, publisher, politician

  17. No one has yet realized the wealth of sympathy, the kindness and generosity hidden in the soul of a child. The effort of every true education should be to unlock that treasure. – Emma Goldman, 1869 – 1940, political activist, writer

  18. 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, 1912-2002, Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare under President Lyndon Johnson

  19. Education is simply the soul of a society as it passes from one generation to another.-- Gilbert K. Chesterton, 1874-1936, English writer, theologian, poet, philosopher

  20. Education is the movement from darkness to light. -- Allan Bloom, 1930-1992, philosopher, classicist, and academician

  21. Education is learning what you didn't even know you didn't know. -- Daniel J. Boorstin, 1914-2004, historian, professor, attorney

  22. The aim of education is the knowledge, not of facts, but of values. -- William S. Burroughs, 1914-1997, novelist, essayist, painter

  23. The object of education is to prepare the young to educate themselves throughout their lives. -- Robert M. Hutchins, 1899-1977, educational philosopher

  24. Education is all a matter of building bridges. -- Ralph Ellison, 1914-1994, novelist, literary critic, scholar

  25. What sculpture is to a block of marble, education is to the soul. -- Joseph Addison, 1672-1719, English essayist, poet, playwright, politician

  26. Education is the passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today. -- Malcolm X, 1925-1965, minister and human rights activist

  27. Education is the key to success in life, and teachers make a lasting impact in the lives of their students.  -- Solomon Ortiz, 1937-, former U.S. Representative-TX

  28. The very spring and root of honesty and virtue lie in good education. -- Plutarch, 46-120AD, Greek historian, biographer, essayist

  29. Education is a shared commitment between dedicated teachers, motivated students and enthusiastic parents with high expectations.  Bob Beauprez, 1948-, former member of U.S. House of Representatives-CO

  30. The most influential of all educational factors is the conversation in a child’s home. – William Temple, 1881-1944, English bishop, teacher

  31. Education is the leading of human souls to what is best, and making what is best out of them. -- John Ruskin, 1819-1900, English writer, art critic, philanthropist

  32. Education levels the playing field, allowing everyone to compete. -- Joyce Meyer, 1943-, Christian author and speaker

  33. Education is what survives when what has been learned has been forgotten. – B.F. Skinner, 1904-1990, psychologist, behaviorist, social philosopher

  34. The great end of education is to discipline rather than to furnish the mind; to train it to the use of its own powers rather than to fill it with the accumulation of others. – Tyron Edwards, 1809-1894, theologian

  35. Let us think of education as the means of developing our greatest abilities, because in each of us there is a private hope and dream which, fulfilled, can be translated into benefit for everyone and greater strength of the nation. -- John F. Kennedy, 1917-1963, 35th President of the United States

  36. Education is like a lantern which lights your way in a dark alley. – Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, 1918-2004, President of the United Arab Emirates for 33 years 

  37. When educating the minds of our youth, we must not forget to educate their hearts. -- Dalai Lama, spiritual head of Tibetan Buddhism

  38. Education is the ability to listen to almost anything without losing your temper or self-confidence.  -- Robert Frost, 1874-1963, poet

  39. The secret in education lies in respecting the student. -- Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1803-1882, essayist, lecturer, and poet

  40. My mother said I must always be intolerant of ignorance, but understanding of illiteracy. That some people, unable to go to school, were more educated and more intelligent than college professors. -- Maya Angelou, 1928-, author, poet

What is education?

Marilyn Price-Mitchell, PhD, is a developmental psychologist working at the intersection of youth development, leadershipeducation, and civic engagement. Subscribe to Updates at Roots of Action to receive email notices of Marilyn’s articles.  

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©2014 Marilyn Price-Mitchell. All rights reserved. Please contact for permission to reprint. 

Marilyn Price-Mitchell, Ph.D., is a developmental psychologist and researcher in the field of positive youth development and youth civic engagement.

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