Nothing Will Come From Nothing

“Education is what survives when what has been learned has been forgotten.” Is a quote often attributed to Einstein which is actually from a piece by BF Skinner called “New methods and new aims in teaching”, in New Scientist, 22(392) (21 May 1964). The quote was retweeted into my timeline today accompanied by a tweet saying: ‘Focus on 21st century skills, character-building, and the big ideas of your curriculum. Memorization of large quantities of information is temporary–skills are forever. ‘.

I have come across the quote quite a few times before and always thought that it was saying something around the habits of mind one gets from school are the most important things but then I looked again at the quote

and again…

Now far be it for me to take on the great BF Skinner or pretend Einstein for that matter…


it’s nonsense.

What do we ‘learn’ at school? We learn many things, facts, skills, nuggets of knowledge, habits of mind, ways of behaving, when to laugh, when not to laugh… to cry… to think… all these things are things we learn.

Kirschner, Sweller and Clark define “Learning [as] a change in long-term memory” and if we are to accept this definition, which we might argue with should we wish (see Willingham here), then should all this learning be forgotten we could suggest the education received has been an expensive and monumental failure.

Perhaps Skinner is thinking about conscious recall of all the ‘facts’ we have learned but even many of those that we think we have forgotten sometimes find their way into our consciousness when we’re watching a quiz programme on TV or doing one of those time wasting click bait quizzes that crop up online. So do we ever ‘forget’ what we have learnt at school? Some of it. But if we are taught a lot and taught it well we will remember a lot more than someone who wasn’t. And, as the philosopher Julian Baggini puts it:

“…it can only be a good thing to know as many matters of fact as possible.”

So I would suggest changing the quote to:

Education is what survives when you have learned and not forgotten all of it…

As I was sourcing the quote I came across another one of BF Skinner’s bon mots:

“We shouldn’t teach great books; we should teach a love of reading”

I could go on…

but I won’t.

6 thoughts on “Nothing Will Come From Nothing

  1. I think it might be that ‘learning’ stands for facts which are external to the self while ‘education’ stands for an internal fact, the way my mind works. So it is a statement that the autonomous self is primary while the self situated in a world of things is secondary. Though I would argue that it is precisely *as* a situated self, continually learning from the people and things which I encounter, that I become a truly and uniquely individual self.


      1. Yes, I think it does. Especially when you are young. To take an example-
        If you hear gunfire an uneducated mind will immediately think of running away whereas an educated mind will immediately think of dropping to the ground. If education affects your fight or flight response then it’s reached into a very fundamental part of yourself.


      2. Oh hang on, I misunderstood your original comment I think. So education is ‘deeper’ learning? You need to learn something which when adopted by your individual self is the property you call education?


  2. Not exactly. It’s not so much that you have a self which learns stuff so much as you have a self which is changed by the external facts which it encounters. The educated self is not self plus knowledge it is a different self albeit with some continuity to its pre-educated form.


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