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.


  1. Here’s what I think happened, and I could be wrong. Yeats most likely said it in a manner of, “Well the great Plutarch once said…” and then paraphrased it. Then in a mode most comparable to the telephone game someone then went on to say, “I heard Yeats say the most fascinating thing the other day…” and it became Yeats’ quotation. Sometimes I think it doesn’t matter to people who said something first but who said it loudest — the more people hear person two, the more likely they are going to think that that is the originator and not the real first person.

    1. Do you have a link to Yeats quoting Plutarch?

      I agree that oftentimes the loudest voice gets the credit — and that very notion goes against the idea of real education and authentic scholarship.

          1. 🙂 I should have started by writing that I could just imagine him at a dinner party years ago, before audio recording devices fit in the pocket and everything you said could be broadcast around the world in seconds.

  2. http://class.georgiasouthern.edu/writling/professional/TechWrite/7-1/palmer/index.html
    Vanilla Ice vs. Queen and David Bowie

    When this case first came to light, rap music was known for sampling previously recorded songs to create a new song. It’s probably a given that half of the samples were used without permission, but the issue involving rapper Vanilla Ice is agruably the most well-known example. In his 1990 hit “Ice Ice Baby”, Vanilla Ice sampled the bass line from the Queen and David Bowie hit “Under Pressure”. He slighty altered the rythym of the phrase thinking that by doing so he would avoid copyright laws and asking for permission. However, there was no denying that the two phrases were identical down to the very last note. Ice still had the audacity to claim that the bass line was still different enough to not be the original. Realizing that he was between a rock and a hard place, Vanilla Ice settled the case out of court for a very large sum of money.

    Musings at the work place:
    Lillian ACTUALLY THOUGHT Vanilla Ice coined/made the intro to his one-hit-wonder. This goes to show how young I am, and underscores the “person two” concept. I honestly had no idea as to the orgination of the first few bars of that song.

    So Gordon’s observation rang true with me, as I would have (if questioned as to it’s origin) answered “Vanilla Ice”. The game of Telephone continues…….. 🙂

  3. Hi,

    When on a teacher training course, here in the UK a couple of years ago, we were presented with a version of this quotation attributed, by the lecturer, to William Butler Yeates, upon which we were to base an ipsative assignment.

    I was familiar with the Plutarch version, predating Yeates by some seventeen centuries, so asked among my classmates whether this was a trick question. For perspective, consider also that we’d recently been lectured upon accurate referencing and attribution of quotations. One, already in possession of a masters degree in another subject suggested I simply “play the game” and get on with the assignment as set.

    Feeling the need to establish whether Yeates was, as so many Victorian writers had been, guilty of consciously or subconsciously plagiarising classical writers, I trawled through so many sites attributing the quotation to Yeates. One of these, which emails inspirational quotations to teachers and others in the “edubiz” is actually called “Light a Fire” and attributes the quotation to Yeates.

    Dissatisfied, I contacted the National Library of Ireland, inquiring as to whether Yeates was ever recorded as having used the phrase in print, or if he had voiced it anywhere. They referred me to Plutarch’s “on Attending Lectures” asserting that Yeates, to their knowledge had not used it.

    I’m convinced now that Yeates never used the phrase, or any variation of it, but am perplexed as to how he is commonly believed to have done so. I’m also disappointed that Further Education here in the UK seems to lack the rigour I had expected.

    1. Thanks for sharing your excellent comment! I appreciate your effort to track down the provenance of the phrase in question. What a conundrum this is so many years after the first fire! SMILE!

      1. In fact the situation is rather more complex than this. However the attribution to Yeats may have come about, it is worth noting that Plutarch is not speaking about education in general but listening to lectures – something closer to what we would call ‘study skills’ than pedagogy. The first use of the image specifically to describe education in general appears to have been by Ralph Cudworth in his *True Intellectual System* (1678), where he writes:

        “all human teaching is … not the filling of the soul as a vessel, merely by pouring into it from without, but the kindling of it from within”

        Now Cudworth will have almost certainly got the image from Plutarch but his use of it is his own, as anyone would see if they read the contexts in which both authors use the image. Cudworth is one of the leaders of the Cambridge Platonists and the truth of this claim is intended to depend upon the Platonic account of learning (e.g. in the Meno).

        So the academic and intellectual sloppiness is much deeper than the mere mis-attribution to Yeats. Even those who know of Plutarch don’t seem interested in what he means by the image and appear to know nothing of its connection with Platonism in Cudworth. Instead they take a nice image and impose their own meaning on it but give that a false authority by attributing the ‘quotation’ to someone famous without making the slightest effort to understand what their predecessors actually intended.

        So there is a big issue of academic rigour amongst educationalists here which goes far beyond the question of what Yeats might have written. The inviolable scholarly law of not quoting someone unless you understand what they meant and the context in which they said it is regularly violated by those who feel their own thoughts are given added gravitas by being embellished with impressive looking quotations.

        Personally I have used the Cudworth quotation when talking to students about pedagogy, but I always tell them it is a premise in a neo-Platonist argument for the existence of the Christian God and that the use I am making of it is rather different from that which Cudworth intended.

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