Those empty vessels

Given the increasing popularity of the blog, I thought it might be a good idea to deal with its title. As I have claimed, William Butler Yeats never said, “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” Neither did Socrates. A thorough search for the origins of the phrase locates it with Plutarch. However, I think that most people miss the sense of it.

Plutarch is writing for the young Nicander. And the title of his essay is, “On listening to lectures.” Clearly, Plutarch is not giving advice to the lecturer but rather to the lectured. There is no sense that Plutarch is commenting on methods of teaching. It seems that Plutarch was urging Nicander to actively think about what was being presented.

I am reminded of the argument of Mayer (2009) that cognitive activity does not necessarily require behavioural activity. The suggestion that it does require behavioural activity represents, to Mayer, the ‘constructivist teaching fallacy’.

I think that Plutarch and Mayer would agree on much. First, here is the section from which the famous quote is extracted:

“For the mind does not require filling like a bottle, but rather, like wood, it only requires kindling to create in it an impulse to think independently and an ardent desire for the truth. Imagine, then, that a man should need to get fire from a neighbour, and, upon finding a big bright fire there, should stay there continually warming himself; just so it is if a man comes to another to share the benefit of a discourse, and does not think it necessary to kindle from it some illumination for himself and some thinking of his own, but, delighting in the discourse, sits enchanted; he gets, as it were, a bright and ruddy glow in the form of opinion imparted to him by what is said, but the mouldiness and darkness of his inner mind he has not dissipated nor banished by the warm glow of philosophy.”

If you are not yet convinced of Plutarch’s message then I offer these other quotes from the same essay:

“Therefore, since listening to lectures is attended by great benefit, but by no less danger, to the young, I think it is a good thing to discuss the matter continually both with oneself and with another person. The reason for so doing is because we observe that a poor use is made of this by the great majority of persons, who practise speaking before they have acquired the habit of listening.”

“But here is the most ridiculous thing in the world: if [young men] chance upon somebody who is giving an account of a dinner or a procession or a dream or a wordy brawl which he has had with another man, they listen in silence, and importune him to continue; yet if anybody draws them to one side and tries to impart something useful, or to advise them of some duty, or to admonish them when in the wrong, or to mollify them when incensed, they have no patience with him; but, eager to get the better of him if they can, they fight against what he says, or else they beat a hasty retreat in search of other foolish talk, filling their ears like worthless and rotten vessels with anything rather than the things they need.”

“As skilful horse-trainers give us horses with a good mouth for the bit, so too skilful educators give us children with a good ear for speech, by teaching them to hear much and speak little.”

If we are to accept Plutarch as a communicator of wisdom through the ages then it is important that we don’t misrepresent what he actually thought.

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4 Comments on “Those empty vessels”

  1. Dick Schutz says:

    Thank you for clarifying the simile, Greg. I had always read it as applying to the instruction rather than to the instructee. With that interpretation the analogy didn’t make much sense. The explicit information the blog post provides, it now makes perfect sense. Also proves, incidentally, that reading isn’t “extracting meaning from text;” the meaning “extracted” is in the individual, not the text

  2. […] centres around the amplification of views. Quotes are shared that are misattributed to Einstein or W B Yeats and everyone retweets them. It’s a bit like the education version of sharing cat […]

  3. […] a fire.” In fact, Yeats never said anything of the sort. The misquote is based upon an out-of-context quote from Plutarch and often falsely attributed to Yeats. Now you might find me pedantic to raise this but it cuts […]


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