Who started the fire? Was it Plutarch so many years ago, or was it W.B. Yeats not too long ago? The quotation in question — “Education is not filling a bucket, but lighting a fire” — is extensively used in education, and in arguments about scholarship and proper attribution the world over. Here’s that quote, found right on the main page of Gallaudet University’s Department of Education, attributed to “William Yeats:”
History, for the last two thousand years or so, is clearly on Plutarch’s side:
“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.” —Plutarch, “On Listening to Lectures”. (link)
And a closer translation from Penguin Classics:
“For the correct analogy for the mind is not a vessel that needs filling, but wood that needs igniting.” —Plutarch, from Ian Kidd’s translation of Essays. (Google Books link)
How did Yeats become the author of the idea?
Was it a mistake?
Or is it just lazy scholarship and connecting one idea to the concept of a different mind?
You can find many links to that Yeats quote all over the Internet, but there is no direct link to an original Yeats work as there is for the Plutarch quote.
Did Yeats steal from Plutarch? Or is something else happening here?
The greater question is tougher to deconstruct because it exposes the soft underbelly of current scholarship: Google and Twitter and Social Networking websites are never to be trusted as scholarly sources. Google are merely a series of links — there’s no peer review in a re-Tweet — Facebook are more concerned about the number of friends you have and not in the historical accuracy of “Who Came First? Plutarch or Yeats?”
The quotation in question is absolutely inspiring and it shows nothing has changed in two thousand years of educational dyads. Students want their learning ladled into their vessel minds, and teachers want to ignite thought that can burn concepts and create embers for centuries to come.
In the end, it matters that Plutarch said it first, and said it better, and Yeats’ involvement — whatever his real role in the bucket and fire controversy — is one way to keep the fire of the thought alive, as long as we all are able to recognize, and preserve, the initial spark of inspiration that still glows in many of us two millennia later.