A Drawn-out Myth

A recent post on Andrew Old’s blog reminded me of an etymological matter which I have been planning to deal with for some time.

There is a persistent trope in progressivist articles and books that the word “education” means “a drawing out” of a student’s innate understanding and skills. This dovetails superbly with both Piaget-style constructivist ideas and the sort of naturalistic approach to education envisaged in, for instance, Rousseau’s famous novel Emile.

It is not difficult to find examples of this motif. See here. Or here. Or here. Or here. Or…OK, that’s enough.

The mundane reality is that there are two possible origins of the word “education”, and neither has anything to do with “drawing out” the inner virtues of a child.

The verb “to draw out” in Latin is indeed educere, a combination of the prefix e-/ex- (out of) and the very common verb ducere, to lead or to draw. But if the abstract noun were formed from this verb, it would be eduction, in the same way that producere and inducere give us production and induction respectively.

Instead, education is from educare, whose basic meaning is to nourish or to feed, with a secondary sense (by an obvious metonymy) of “rearing” or “training”. It is possible that educare is a frequentative form* of educere, in the sense of regularly leading animals out to the trough to feed, but it has been argued (very convincingly, in my view) that educare actually has nothing to do with ducere at all, and that it instead derives from the verb edo (esse), to eat.

In either case, education is not “a drawing out”. It is originally “a nourishing” of either young children or animals, and in the former case the nourishment is ultimately furnished to the mind and spirit as well as the body.

One final point: when invoking the “drawing-out” folk etymology, authors often make subsequent references to the questioning methods of Socrates, which do seem to constitute “a drawing out” of philosophical truth. This ignores, once again, the fact that Socrates was generally dealing with people who had already finished their education, after which the expertise reversal effect tends to come into play.

* indicating repeated or persistent action

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