Joseph Priestley House

Northumberland, Pennsylvania

Priestley And Education

Compiled by Derek A. Davenport
Department of Chemistry
Purdue University

“What Dr. Priestley added in discoursing from his written lectures (most of which are since published to the world) was pointedly and clearly illustrative of the subject before him, and expressed with great simplicity and distinctness of language, though he sometimes manifested that difficulty of utterance which he mentions in the Memoirs of his life. At the conclusion of his lecture he always encouraged the students to express their sentiments relative to the subjects of it, and to urge any objection to what he had delivered without reserve. It pleased him when any one commenced such a conversation.”
-Autobiography

“When, for the sake of a little more reputation, men can keep brooding over a new fact, in the discovery of which they might, possibly, have very little real merit, till they think they can astonish the world with a system as complete as it is new, and give mankind a high idea of their judgment and penetration; they are justly punished for their ingratitude to the fountain of all knowledge, and for their want of a genuine love of science and mankind, in finding their boasted discoveries anticipated, and the field of honest fame pre-occupied, by men, who, from a natural ardour of mind engage in philosophical pursuits, and with an ingenuous simplicity immediately communicate to others whatever occurs to them in their inquiries.”
-Experiments and Observations on Different Kinds of Air (1790)

“I am sorry to have occasion to observe, that natural science is very little, if at all, the object of education in this country, in which many individuals have distinguished themselves so much by their application to it. And I would observe that, if we wish to lay a good foundation for philosophical taste, and philosophical pursuits, persons should be accustomed to the sight of experiments, and processes, in early life. They should, more especially, be early initiated in the theory and practice of investigation, by which many of the old discoveries may be made to be really their own…”
-Experiments and Observations on Different Kinds of Air (1790)

“At all events, however, the curiosity and surprize of young persons should be excited as soon as possible; nor should it be much regarded whether they properly understand what they see, or not. It is enough, at the first, if striking facts make an impression on the mind, and be remembered. We are, at all ages, but too much in haste to understand, as we think, the appearances that present themselves to us. If we could content ourselves with the bare knowledge of new facts, and suspend our judgment with respect to their causes, till, by their analogy, we were led to the discovery of more facts, of a similar nature, we should be in a much surer way to the attainment of real knowledge.”
-Experiments and Observations on Different Kinds of Air (1790)

“Whatever be the qualifications of your tutors, your improvement must chiefly depend upon yourselves. They cannot think or labour for you. They can only put you in the best way of thinking and labouring for yourselves. If therefore, you get knowledge, you must acquire it by your own industry. You must form all conclusions, and all maxims, for yourselves, from premises and data collected, and considered by yourselves. And it is the great object of this institution to remove every bias the mind can lie under, and give the greatest scope to true freedom of thinking and inquiry.”
-Heads of Lectures (1794)

“…A certain degree of vanity, is, therefore, excusable in young persons; and, indeed, it is by means of it that they are excited to exert themselves in a manner that they would not otherwise have done. But be careful that this temper be not indulged to excess, for it will then be found to have serious ill consequences; the least of which is the precluding future improvement, from being already satisfied with yourselves, and conscious of a sufficient superiority over others.”
-Heads of Lectures (1794)

“Also, as in old cities many buildings will fall to decay, while new ones are added; you must expect to forget much of what you now know. No man can give equal attention to every object; and as we advance in life, we, in general, only learn new things at the expense of the leading principles, which remain with us; while the more useless ones, things to which we give less attention because we find them to be of less use, disappear. Yet it is no uncommon thing for ingenious students to despise old scholars who are not so ready in the minutiae of literature, though they may have forgotten more than those youths ever knew, and may retain what they cannot acquire without forgetting as much.”
-Heads of Lectures (1794)

“I think it most advisable not to trouble beginners with more than a large outline of any branch of science. By this means they are not fatigued by too long an attention to any one subject, a greater variety of articles may be brought before them, and in future life they may pursue any of them as much farther as their inclination may dispose, and their ability and opportunity shall enable, them to do it.”
-Preface to Heads of Lectures (1794)

“In general, I would neither conceal from young persons the knowledge of vice, nor deny that temporal advantages and pleasures may attend vicious indulgences; but let them always be given to understand, that those advantages and pleasures are dearly bought.”
-JRC, p. 67

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