Great Education Quotes From John Stuart Mill’s Autobiography, Chapter 1

Mill’s story of his unusually successful education is worthy of study for every parent, student, and teacher.  Or any lover of clear, precise prose, for that matter.

The single best quote comes from near the end of the chapter:


A pupil from whom nothing is ever demanded which he cannot do, never does all he can.


Here are five others worth pondering:


  1. It was at this period that I read, for the first time, some of the most important dialogues of Plato, in particular the Gorgias, the Protagoras, and the Republic. There is no author to whom my father thought himself more indebted for his own mental culture, than Plato, or whom he more frequently recommended to young student. I can bear similar testimony in regard to myself. The Socratic method, of which the Platonic dialogues are the chief example, is unsurpassed as a discipline for correcting the errors, and clearing up the confusions incident to the intellectus sibi permissus, the understanding which has made up all its bundles of associations under the guidance of popular phraseology. The close, searching elenchus by which the man of vague generalities is constrained either to express his meaning to himself in definite terms, or to confess that he does not know what he is talking about; the perpetual testing of all general statements by particular instances; the siege in from which is laid to the meaning of large abstract terms, by fixing upon some still larger class-name which includes that and more, and dividing down to the thing sought—marking out its limits and definition by a series of accurately drawn distinctions between it and each of the cognate objects which are successively parted off from it—all this, as an education for precise thinking, is inestimable, and all this, even at that age, took such hold of me that it became part of my own mind.

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Letting Me Make Mistakes

Not all trial and error is learning the hard way.  I’ve found that some of my biggest progress in life came after some wiser, older person over me let me stumble along and find my own way.

As a student teacher, my mentors looked over more than a few lesson plans that they knew wouldn’t work, which were full of hypothetical, idealistic experiments that were bound to crash and burn; lessons built more on group creativity than on drills of basic skills, for example.  Doubtless that someone could have told me that I was wasting my time, but actually going through the experience of teaching some embarrassingly poor classes helped me really understand what does work. 

Ditto at church.  In various positions, I’ve tried some dumb stuff to help motivate and serve people–unnecessary assignments, pointless meetings, inappropriate lessons–and the patient people in authority over me have usually let me do my thing, providing that it doesn’t do too much damage. 

The more I think about it, the more impressed I am that so many people have been comfortable enough  and trusting enough to let me grope my way forward in the dim, bleary vision of the rookie, quite like a parent letting a child toddle around and only intervening when he’s going to really hurt himself. 

Am I so mature myself now?  Sadly, no.  I tend to be an obsessive, micromanaging, controlling leader.  I don’t know why; I can’t remember such dominance ever having good results.  I need to become more patient of letting people grow, the way lots of great people have let me grow.