An interviewer once asked Malcolm X where he went to college. His answer was simple: “Books.” (In fact, he’d literally started with the dictionary).
Of course, this was the real alma mater of many of the most successful and important people in history. I’m not sure if its funny or sad how often their thoughts and personal paths to education differ from the conventional wisdom that is passed on to most young people.
“Get good grades.”
“Go to college.”
“Go to class.”
“Get an internship.”
I’ve been collecting thoughts on education and self-education for my commonplace book for a long time. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that you’ll never see smart people repeat those tropes. In fact, they almost always say the opposite. They don’t all explicitly tell you to drop out of traditional education but they are unanimous in their judgement: education is hard, it’s a lifelong job and the responsibility to do it rests solely on you.
Below is some of their wisdom. It’s helped me and kept me going, I hope it helps you too.
Blessed youth, board your skiff and flee from all education. Epicurus
Every person has two educations, one which he receives from others and one, more important, which he gives to himself. Gibbon
Quae legeris memento (what you read, remember).
No man ever read more thoroughly and thoughtfully than [Edmund Wilson] ; in his judge-like way, he read as though the author was on trial for his life. – Paul Johnson, Intellectuals
I am a machine condemned to devour books. Marx
If you want to understand the spirit of our nation, the good and the bad, you can enroll in college, sign up for classes, take notes and pay tuition or you can study the life of Sam the Banana Man. – Rich Cohen, The Fish That Ate The Whale
Many who have learned from Hesiod the countless names of gods and monsters
never understand that night and day are one. – Heraclitus
Not everyone you learn from is gonna be nice. Some of them might be evil. However, at the end of the day, it’s what you learn from these interactions that determines your success or failure. – Russell Simmons
Jerry: Are you reading my VCR manual? Kramer: Well, we can’t all be reading the classics, Professor Highbrow. Seinfeld
Wisdom cries out in the streets. Nicholas of Cusa
The mission of a great school is not to cram you with facts so that you can regurgitate them…This gives many boys such a distaste for learning that they never read another book as long as they live. No, the mission is to inspire you with a taste for scholarship–a taste which will last you all your life. – David Ogilvy
I must try everything so that I may achieve something and so stop being a servant to me and have time for literature. Poggio
Churchill’s greatest intellectual gift was for picking on essentials and concentrating on them. – Jock Colville (Churchill’s personal secretary)
Laboranti numen adest (Divine power attends the men who work hard).
A book should be an axe to break the frozen sea within us. Kafka
Fools say that they learn by experience. I prefer to profit by others experience. B.H. Liddell Hart (paraphrasing Bismark)
Don’t trust the report. Samuel Zemurray
When stuck, hit the road. John Fante
Life is more fun when you open your mouth. Neil Strauss
Dog bark at what they can’t understand. Heraclitus
To forgive and forget means to throw away dearly bought experience. Schopenhauer
I would rather be my own tyrant than have someone else tyrannize me. Henry Flagler
When you are not practicing, remember, someone is practicing, and when you meet him, he will win. Bill Bradley
Every bondman in his own hand bears the power to cancel his captivity. Shakespeare, Julius Caesar
I suspect anyway that the important things we learn we never remember because they become a part of us, we absorb them…we don’t absorb multiplication tables. William Alexander Percy
All the days of his life he should be reading, as faithfully as his partaking of food; reading, watching, listening. John Fante
The process may seem strange and yet it is very true. I did not so much gain the knowledge of things by the words, as words by the experience I had of things. Plutarch
Books give delight to the very marrow of one’s bones. They speak to us, consult with us and join with us in a living and intense intimacy. Petrarch
We haven’t time to spare to hear whether it was between Italy and Sicily that he ran into a storm or somewhere outside the world we know–when every day we’re running into our own storms, spiritual storms, and driven by vice into all the troubles that Ulysses ever knew. Seneca
There are quite as many distinguished orators, writers, lawyers and doctors amongst those who have never been to college as are to be found amongst those who have. But there must still be opportunity, there must still be books, there must be society, there must be congenial minds. Charles Hay (father of John Hay)
Marking a book is literally an experience of your differences or agreements with the author. It is the highest respect you can pay him. Edgar Allen Poe
There are two parts of a college education–the part you get in the schoolroom from the professors and the part outside of it from the boys. That’s the really important part. For the first can only make you a scholar, while the second can make you a man. Old Gorgon Graham
My father never permitted anything which I learnt to degenerate into a mere exercise of memory. He strove to make the understanding not only go along with every step of the teaching but…precede it. John Stuart Mill
My advice is really this: what we hear the philosophers saying and what we find in their writings should be applied in our pursuit of the happy life. We should hunt out the helpful pieces of teaching and the spirited and noble-minded sayings which are capable of immediate practical application–not far far-fetched or archaic expressions or extravagant metaphors and figures of speech–and learn them so well that words become works. Seneca
The best part of every man’s education is that which he gives to himself. Sir Walter Scott
I’m sure I’m missing a million other profound quotes but these are the ones that struck me during my education. Share yours below. I can’t wait to add them.
If you don’t collect your own — whether its in in a .txt file, notecards, a notebook, Dropbox, or whatever — I strongly urge you to start. Nothing will keep you on the path, keep you inspired and keep you thinking quite like your own commonplace book.
Remember: education is your job. No one else’s. Even if you’re in school, it’s on you to get the most of it.