Did Yeats really say "Education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire"?
December 19, 2003 8:24 AM   Subscribe

Everyone seems to agree that William Butler Yeats said something along the lines of "Education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire." If Google's any guide, it's become a staple of education-based speeches. But nothing I've found yet confirms it as Yeats. This page has apparently not been able to find a source, but then that seems to be the norm there for some reason. Most suspiciously, it's not in Bartlett's 16th Edition. Can anyone either say where this is from (whether Yeats or not) or point to something that debunks it?

posted by soyjoy to Education (6 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I can't specifically debunk this, but I can say that as a self-taught semi-expert on Yeats*, I have *never* read that quotation before and I've never seen it attributed to him.

My gut instinct is that he didn't say it. It doesn't sound like him at all. If no one else has answered this in more detail by the time I get home, I'll see what I can dig up in my collection of books by and about WBY.

*that is, I wrote my undergrad honors thesis on him and if I'd gone to grad school I was going to write any future theses on him as well.
posted by eilatan at 8:47 AM on December 19, 2003

Just attended a lecture given by Joel Myerson about Emerson on education - I don't recall the exact quote, but it was something along the lines of "[teachers should] prime the pump, not fill the bucket." Seems similar enough to look into, but the semester's over and I'm feeling particularly lazy today.
posted by ferociouskitty at 10:55 AM on December 19, 2003

Response by poster: Thanks, both of youse - any additional perspective from books and parts of books by Yeats that aren't online would be welcome. And ferociouskitty that does sound similar, but I don't see it in Bartlett's either. I'll see what I can dig up. Thanks.
posted by soyjoy at 10:08 PM on December 19, 2003

It's common on the net to see a UL-like metastasization of quoted material. Typically, the attribution is lost, or sometimes deliberately changed, to reflect an authorship that seems correct.

The interesting times story is instructive, as is the now-canonical example of Wear Sunscreen; see also the possible origin of 'the whole nine yards'. More on point, perhaps, is What Twain Didn't Say. More rare by far is the successful attribution of an elusive quote. Typical might be this search for the origin of publish or perish; and the surprisingly obvious origin of out of Africa. There was actually a book published a year or so back about one scholar's search for the origin of a certain phrase, but I can't find it for the life of me. Oh, wait: On the Shoulders of Giants, by quotemeister Robert Merton et al..

I have the distinct impression that people's lives were easier when we didn't have this mountain of data at our fingertips. We could just tag such things as 'proverbs' and be done with it.

As to your example, a quick search of Google Groups shows that in the early 90s it first appears as a Yeats attribution in someone's .signature, and later gets passed around in a 'canonical list of education humor'. Not much help, but you can see how quickly a misattribution can spread.
posted by dhartung at 12:41 AM on December 20, 2003

A useful source of misattributed quotes is Nice Guys Finish Seventh by Ralph Keyes; I'd check my copy but I'm still in the beginning stages of unboxing all my books after the move. In fact, I'd better stop wasting time here and get back to it before my wife notices I'm slacking.
*shuffles off*
posted by languagehat at 12:09 PM on December 21, 2003

Response by poster: Thanks for all the links, dhartung. It's fascinating stuff. I wish someone would do an exhaustive search on this the way the guy did on Murphy's Law and a couple of those other ones. Perhaps it hasn't been "officially" a Yeats quote long enough to get traction. And languagehat, thanks for the reference - if you think of it after you get all your books unpacked, and you're so inclined, check in Nice Guys Finish Seventh for me, will ya? It seems to be out of print...
posted by soyjoy at 10:53 AM on December 22, 2003

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