Gretchen Rubin

An 18th Century Story Makes Me Think About the Importance of Education.

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I’m a tremendous admirer of the work and thought of the brilliant, eccentric 18th-century English writer and lexicographer Samuel Johnson, also known as Dr. Johnson. I love his work. I sometimes disagree with his observations, but even in disagreeing, he helps me understand my own thoughts better, and he always expresses himself so beautifully.

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about education—the crucial nature of education, the value of great teachers and schools, the importance of helping people get the education they strive for, and what happens when people aren’t able to get the education that they need and deserve.

And that made me think back on a little story in Boswell’s book The Life of Samuel Johnson.

Much of what we know about Dr. Johnson comes from this absolutely delightful and celebrated sort-of biography The Life of Samuel Johnson, written by his friend James Boswell.

Boswell recounts a story about a boat ride he took with Samuel Johnson:

Dr. Johnson and I took a sculler at the Temple-stairs, and set out for Greenwich. I asked him if he really thought a knowledge of the Greek and Latin languages an essential requisite to a good education. JOHNSON. ‘Most certainly, Sir; for those who know them have a very great advantage over those who do not. Nay, Sir, it is wonderful what a difference learning makes upon people even in the common intercourse of life, which does not appear to be much connected with it.” “And yet, (said I) people go through the world very well, and carry on the business of life to good advantage, without learning.’ JOHNSON. ‘Why, Sir, that may be true in cases where learning cannot possibly of any use; for instance, this boy rows us as well without learning, as if he could sing the song of Orpheus to the Argonauts, who were the first sailors.’ He then called to the boy, ‘What would you give, my lad, to know about the Argonauts?’ ‘Sir, (said the boy,) I would give what I have.’ Johnson was much pleased with his answer, and we gave him a double fare. Dr. Johnson then turning to me, ‘Sir, (said he) a desire of knowledge is the natural feeling of mankind; and every human being, whose mind is not debauched, will be willing to give all that he has to get knowledge.’”

-James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson, 1763 (with my bolded text added)

I don’t agree with everything that Samuel Johnson said and wrote, but I do agree: it is wonderful what a difference learning makes upon people even in the common intercourse of life, and to help people gain education, and to get it ourselves, is one of our most important duties.

I often think about how my parents worked, and sacrificed—and probably just as important, set a good example themselves—so I could have a good education, and my grandparents before them. I never take it for granted.

Samuel Johnson is one of my patron saints. If you want to read more about why, and about my other patron saints, read here.

And here's a link to Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson. I’ll warn you: I love it and have read it three times, and it’s a major work in the history of biography, but it’s probably not a book that everyone will enjoy. So read a few pages before you commit!

Quote From the Podcast

It is wonderful what a difference learning makes upon people even in the common intercourse of life.
Samuel Johnson

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