Aphorisms for Learners and Teachers

Compiled by Richard W. Slatta Professor of History, North Carolina State University, AND
Maxine P. Atkinson Professor of Sociology, North Carolina State University
Updated September 24, 2014
  • See also Thoughts About History from Across the Ages, more than 100 quotations about the noble profession and practice of history. Non-historians will especially enjoy the 30-some cynical views at the bottom of the page.
  • Please forward the names and URLs of other good teaching and learning links or related aphorisms. We'll add them to our page.
  • Some students are satisfied to take a course at face value and to perform the tasks required. Other students wish to know more about the "whys" of a course. Why do we do what we do? What value is it to you? What theory or assumptions lie behind the course design and assignments? The links below explore many of the pedagogical issues important to good course design. Many of the links will also help you know yourself and your special learning needs and challenges better. Many of the tools will help teachers teach better.
  • Return to Links for Learners and Teachers

    Aphorisms on Learning and Teaching

    Sprinkle a few of these gems through your syllabi. Good food for thought-- and discussion. I've taken some of these pithy sayings from a small book titled A Little Learning is a Dangerous Thing, edited by James Charlton. The subtitle (in appropriate, concise British fashion) is "600 Wise and Witty Observations for Students, Teachers and Other Survivors of Higher Education." Published by Robert Hale in London, 1994. Some are sage; some are cynical; some bemuse; some baffle. Hey, just like a good course! I also quoted from Celebrating Teachers: A Book of Appreciation, edited by Carol Kelly-Gangi and Jude Patterson, MetroBooks, 2001. Others come from online sources listed at the bottom of the page.


    1. Thoughts by Paulo Freire
    2. "Speaking of Education, II Additional Quotations Gathered by Rich Felder, Chemical Engineering Education, 33 (3), 196-197 (1999).
    3. "Speaking of Education."More Quotations from Rich Felder, Chem. Engr. Education, 30 (2), 130-131 (Spring 1996).
    4. "Speaking of Everything."Still More Quotes from Rich Felder, Chem. Engr. Education, 27 (2), 128-129 (Spring 1993).
    5. A teacher is one who makes himself progressively unnecessary. ~ Thomas Carruthers
    6. Who dares to teach must never cease to learn. ~ John Cotton Dana
    7. More important than the curriculum is the question of the methods of teaching and the spirit in which the teaching is given. ~Bertrand Russell
    8. Knowledge--like the sky--is never private property. No teacher has a right to withhold it from anyone who asks for it. Teaching is the art of sharing. ~Abraham Joshua Heschel, theologian
    9. If we succeed in giving the love of learning, the learning itself is sure to follow. ~Sir John Lubbock, British naturalist
    10. Those who go to college and never get out are called professors. ~ George Givot
    11. I've learned that teaching children to think and wonder is more important than learning a list of facts. ~Nancy Garrelts, teacher from Duluth, GA
    12. The teacher is one who makes two ideas grow where only one grew before. ~ Elbert Hubbard
    13. To teach is to learn twice over. ~ Joseph Joubert, French ethicist
    14. To me the sole hope of human salvation lies in teaching. ~George Bernard Shaw
    15. That's the difference education as the practice of freedom makes. The bottom-line assumption has to be that everyone in the classroom is able to act responsibly. That has to be the starting point--that we are able to act responsibly together to create a learning environment. ~ bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress, p. 152
    16. We must view young people not as empty bottles to be filled, but as candles to be lit. ~ Robert H. Shaffer
    17. When teaching, light a fire, don't fill a bucket. ~ Dan Snow
    18. Who dares to teach must never cease to learn. ~John Colton Dana, American librarian
    19. The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires. ~ William A. Ward
    20. The art of teaching is the art of assisting discovery. ~Mark Van Doren, American poet
    21. The greatest sign of success for a teacher. . . is to be able to say, "The children are now working as if I did not exist." ~Maria Montessori
    22. Teaching is the greatest act of optimism. ~ Colleen Wilcox
    23. Any genuine teaching will result, if successful, in someone's knowing how to bring about a better condition of things than existed earlier. ~John Dewey
    24. Teaching is the highest form of understanding. ~Aristotle
    25. The teacher's task is not to implant facts but to place the subject to be learned in front of the learner and, through sympathy, emotion, imagination and patience, to awaken in the learner the restless drive to answers and insights which enlarge the personal life and give it meaning. ~Nathan M. Pusey, American educator
    26. In teaching you cannot see the fruit of a day's work. It is invisible and remains so, maybe for twenty years. ~Jacque Barzun, historian
    27. A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops. ~Henry Brooks Adams, historian
    28. A teacher's major contribution may pop out anonymously in the life of some ex-student's grandchild. ~Wendell Berry, American poet


    29. I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand. ~Chinese proverb
    30. We cannot learn without pain. ~Aristotle
    31. Learning isn't a means to an end; it is an end in itself. ~ Robert Heinlein
    32. All men who have turned out worth anything have had the chief hand in their own education. ~Sir Walter Scott
    33. It is better to ask some questions than to know all of the answers. ~James Thurber
    34. They know enough who know how to learn. ~Henry Brooks Adams
    35. Try to learn something about everything and everything about something. ~ Thomas H. Huxley
    36. The important thing is not so much that every child should be taught, as that every child should be given the wish to learn. ~Sir John Lubbock, British naturalist
    37. I think the world is run by C students. ~Al McGuire [Editorial note: Yes, any group, even sports announcers, can have a moment of profundity. But don't hold your breath.]
    38. You know, I'm not sure that we want all those that graduated number one or number two in their class to be on . . .our federal judiciary. This is a diversified society. ~Dan Quayle [Editorial note: This memorable political intellect, philosopher king, is also remembered for his address to the United Negro College Fund: "What a waste it is to lose one' mind--or not to have a mind. How true that is." Yeah, Dan, you should know. As the United Negro College Fund slogan reminds us: "A mind is a terrible thing to waste."]
    39. For a man to attain to an eminent degree in learning costs him time, watching, hunger, nakedness, dizziness in the head, weakness in the stomach, and other inconveniences. ~Miguel de Cervantes
    40. Learning is not attained by chance. It must be sought for with ardor and attended to with diligence. ~ Abigail Adams
    41. There is no more beautiful life than that of a student. ~ F. Albrecht
    42. Learning how to learn is life's most important skill. ~ Tony Buzan
    43. Personally, I'm always ready to learn, although I do not always like being taught. ~ Winston Churchill
    44. In the realm of ideas it is better to let the mind sally forth, even if some precious preconceptions suffer a mauling. ~Robert F. Goheen, American educator
    45. To be possessed of a vigorous mind is not enough; the prime requisite is rightly to apply it. ~Rene Descartes
    46. The most useful piece of learning for the uses of life is to unlearn what is untrue. ~Antisthenes, Greek philosopher
    47. Learn as though you would never be able to master it; hold it as though you would be in fear of losing it. ~Confucius
    48. Learning is not compulsory but neither is survival. ~ W. Edwards Deming
    49. "The best thing for being sad," replied Merlyn, beginning to puff and blow, "is to learn something.That's the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it, then: to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting." ~ T.H. White, The Once and Future King [Thanks to Dwight Stephens, NCSU Dept. of Foreign Languages, for this contribution]
    50. Depend upon it, there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones. ~Sir Arthur Conan Doyle


    51. The quality of a university is measured more by the kind of student it turns out than the kind it takes in. ~Robert J. Kibbee
    52. It is not enough to offer a smorgasbord of courses. We must insure that the students are not eating just at one end of the table. ~A. Bartlett Giamatti
    53. A society that thinks the choice between ways of living is just a choice between equally eligible 'lifestyles' turns universities into academic cafeterias offering junk food for the mind. ~George Will [Editorial note: probably the only intelligent thing he ever wrote]
    54. If you feel that you have both feet planted on level ground then the university has failed you. ~Robert F. Goheen, educator
    55. The aim of the college, for the individual student, is to eliminate the need in his life for the college; the task is to help him become a self-educating man. ~C. Wright Mills
    56. At college age, you can tell who is best at taking tests and going to school, but you can't tell who the best people are. That worries the hell out of me. ~Barnaby C. Keeney, American educator
    57. A university should be a place of light, of liberty, and of learning. ~Benjamin Disraeli
    58. The first duty of a university is to teach wisdom, not a trade; character, not technicalities. We want a lot of engineers in the modern world, but we don't want a world of engineers. ~Winston Churchill
    59. The college was not founded to give society what it wants. Quite the contrary. ~May Sarton
    60. No one should escape our universities without knowing how little s/he knows. ~J. Robert Oppenheimer [Editorial note: Gendered language updated]
    61. I find that the three major administrative problems on a campus are sex for the students, athletics for the alumni, and parking of the faculty. ~Clark Kerr
    62. In college, they major in Business Administration. If, to meet certain requirements, they have to take a liberal arts course, they take Business Poetry. ~ Dave Barry, on Yuppies [Editorial Note: Along with Douglas Adams, "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," Barry is one of my cultural heroes. Taking the mundane to new heights!]


    63. Science is always wrong. It never solves a problem without creating ten more. ~George Bernard Shaw
    64. I read Shakespeare and the Bible and I can shoot dice. That's what I call a liberal education. ~Tallulah Bankhead
    65. Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire. ~William Butler Yeats, Irish poet
    66. Education is learning what you didn't know you didn't know. ~George Boas
    67. Education is what happens to the other person, not what comes out of the mouth of the educator. ~Miles Horton
    68. Every truth has four corners: as a teacher I give you one corner, and it is for you to find the other three. ~Confucius
    69. A mind is a fire to be kindled, not a vessel to be filled. ~Plutarch
    70. Do not on any account attempt to write on both sides of the paper at once. ~W. C. Sellar and R. J. Yeatman, British writers
    71. The highest result of education is tolerance. ~Helen Keller
    72. Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself. ~John Dewey
    73. I had no patience with schooling and formal education. I dropped out of college in my freshman year and became a full-time disk jockey. ~Rush Limbaugh [Editorial note: Ah, hah, that explains it! -- nothing teaches better than a bad example!]
    74. The academy is not paradise. But learning is a place where paradise can be created. The classroom, with all its limitations, remains a location of possibility. In that field of possibility we have the opportunity to labor for freedom, to demand of ourselves and our comrades, an openness of mind and heart that allows us to face reality even as we collectively imagine ways to move beyond boundaries, to transgress. This is education as the practice of freedom. ~ bell hooks Teaching to Transgress, p. 207.


    75. Sixty years ago I knew everything; now I know nothing; education is a progressive discovery of our own ignorance. ~Will Durant
    76. Everyone is ignorant, only on different subjects. ~Will Rogers
    77. Ignorance is not bliss--it is oblivion. ~Philip Wylie
    78. If you think education is expensive, try ignorance. ~Derek Bok
    79. If most of us are ashamed of shabby clothes and shoddy furniture, let us be more ashamed of shabby ideas and shoddy philosophies. ~Albert Einstein (Editorial note: but then I didn't mention postmodernism, did I?]
    80. This life's hard, but it's harder if you're stupid. ~George V. Higgins, American novelist
    81. It's not the most intellectual job in the world, but I do have to know the letters. ~Vanna White [Editorial note: Happiness is finding your proper professional niche.]


    82. We're drowning in information and starving for knowledge. ~Rutherford D. Rogers, American librarian
    83. Knowledge can be communicated, but not wisdom. ~Hermann Hesse
    84. I will have no intellectual training. Knowledge is ruin among my young men. ~Adolf Hitler [Editorial note: Yeah, probably women too, Addie.]
    85. It is better to know some of the questions than to know all the answers. ~James Thurber
    86. "Know thyself?" If I knew myself, I'd run away. ~Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
    87. The Master said, Yu, shall I teach you what knowledge is? When you know a thing, to recognize that you know it, and when you do not know a thing, to recognize that you do not know it. That is knowledge. ~Confucius

      Zen and Haiku Poetry (Why?) Plums are sweet.

    88. The Old Master held up fluff
      And blew from his palm,
      Revealing the Source itself.
      Look where clouds hide the peak.
      ------Kaigen (China, Southern Sung dynasty, 1127-1279)
    89. Over the peak spreading clouds,
      At its source the river's cold.
      If you would see,
      Climb the mountain top.
      -----Hakuyo (China Southern Sung dynasty, 1127-1279)
    90. The all-meaning circle:
      No in, no out;
      No light, no shade.
      Here all saints are born.
      ------Shoichi (Japan, 1202-80)
    91. [Inscription over his door]
      He who holds that nothingness
      Is formless, flowers are visions,
      Let him enter boldly!
      -----Gido (Japan, 1325-88)
    92. Though night after night
      The moon is stream-reflected
      Try to find where it has touched,
      Point even to a shadow.
      -----Takuan (Japan, 1573-1645)
    93. The question clear, the answer deep,
      Each particle, each instant a reality,
      A bird call shrills through mountain dawn:
      Look where the old master sits, a rock, in Zen.
      ------Sodo (Japan, 1841-1920)
    94. Come, see
      real flowers
      of this painful world.
      -----Basho (Japan, haiku)
    95. Come, let's go
      till we're buried.
      -----Basho (Japan, haiku)
    96. Wind in the west,
      fallen leaves
      gathering in the east.
      ------Buson (Japan, haiku)
    97. One bath
      after another--
      how stupid.
      -----Issa (Japan, haiku)
    98. What a world,
      where lotus flowers
      are plowed into a field.
      ------Issa (Japan, haiku)
    99. Under cherry trees
      there are
      no strangers.
      -----Issa (Japan, haiku)

      Links to More Quotations on Teaching, Learning, Life, and Everything

    100. Quotations on Teaching, Learning, and Education, National Teaching & Learning Forum
    101. Quotation Center
    102. Short Dictionary of Scientific Quotations
    103. Toinspire.com
    104. Quotations Home Page: Tons of Quotes
    105. Creative Quotations

      Other Links

    106. Additional thoughts on education
    107. Additional thoughts on learning
    108. Additional thoughts on teaching
    109. Yes, many more great thoughts exist-- can you contribute just one ????

    Top of this Page