Did someone tell you that ‘experience is the best teacher’? What does this mean, and where does the saying come from?
‘Experience is the best teacher’ is an old proverb that was first recorded by Julius Caesar. It means that people learn more and gain more wisdom from actual observation and contact with events or facts rather than hearing about these events or facts secondhand. In short, it means that actually doing a task or having an experience will impart deeper lessons than being taught the same thing in a book or in school.
‘Experience is the best teacher’ is a proverb that means that most wisdom is gained through actual real-life experience rather than through books or school. The word ‘experience’ can be used as a noun or a verb, with the following primary definitions:
Essentially, this proverb means that life is a more effective communicator of knowledge and wisdom than studying books or attending school. The implication is also that the lessons that we learn from our actual lived experience are more lasting than the lessons we are taught via second-hand accounts.
There’s a good chance that you have experienced this phenomenon yourself. If you’ve ever tried to learn something from a book and struggled to fully grasp its meaning but then later learned the same lesson from you’re actual life experience, that you have learned firsthand that ‘experience is the best teacher!’
This proverb has a very long history. According to the book Wise Words and Wives' Tales: The Origins, Meanings and Time-Honored Wisdom of Proverbs and Folk Sayings Olde and New by Stuart Flexner and Doris Flexner, the earliest known version of the proverb was recorded by none other than Julius Caesar. Caesar was a Roman general and statesman who served as the dictator of Rome until his infamous assassination in 44 BC.
In his account of the war against Gnaeus Pompeius and the Roman Senate, Caesar wrote (in Latin) that
“Experience is the teacher of all things.”
The Roman author Pliny the Elder also used this phrase more than one hundred years later in ‘Naturalis Historia.’ In this text, he wrote:
“Experience is the most efficient teacher of all things.”
We find the phrase again in the work of Tacitus, a Roman historian who wrote in his ‘Histories’ that:
In terms of English renderings of this phrase, the first example appears in ‘Proverbs or Adagies,’ a text by Richard Taverner.
In the Random House Dictionary of Popular Proverbs and Sayings by Gregory Y. Titelman, the meaning of this proverb is given as follows:
“One learns more from experience than from books.”
It claims that the phrase comes from the Latin phrase ‘experiential docent’ and first appears in English in Roger Ascham’s ‘The Schoolmaster.’
Vern Law, a former baseball pitcher that played sixteen seasons with the Pittsburgh Pirates, once inverted the famous proverb by saying:
“Experience is the worst teacher; it gives the test before presenting the lesson.”
– Vern Law
Using the Google Books Ngram Viewer, we can see the usage of this proverb over the past two hundred-plus years.
In the publication The Homeopathic Record: Medical, Social, and Scientific from 1856, we find the following passage:
“”Everyone has been told,” says the authoress, “that experience is the best teacher and although in early days this maxim may have been laughed at, as somewhat old-fashioned and meaningless, it contains a truth which time renders more and more manifest.””
We also see an example of this phrase in use in an issue of Mechanics Magazine from 1825.
“Whatever, Sir, may be the claims of Alpha to knowledge of this subject, and by what means he has acquired that knowledge, I am unacquainted; I am inclined, however, to think that he will ever find that experience is the best teacher.”
For a third example, let’s look at a short selection from A Guide to Floriculture, an 1847 publication by Thomas Winter.
“To tell the amateur to take a certain portion of this soil, and a certain portion of another, and so on, only serves to distract the mind of the young beginner, mystifying their culture when there is no mystery about it. The best plan is to encourage the culture of plants; experience is the best teacher on this head, and of more service than all that could be written by the most experienced gardeners.”
How would you use the phrase ‘experience is the best teacher’ in a sentence? Let’s look at some examples:
‘Live and learn’ and ‘learn the hard way’ are two phrases that convey a similar meaning to ‘experience is the best teacher.’ Both of these expressions are commonly used after someone has learned a lesson by making a mistake or dealing with misfortune.
‘Experience is the best teacher’ is an old proverb that succinctly conveys a fact of life. No matter how much we try and prepare and study for something, we often learn so much more when we actually experience it. Even though we can understand things intellectually, there is something about actual lived experience that helps us learn lessons more effectively. Beyond that, the lessons we learn from experience tend to stick with us longer than those that we learn second-hand.
Are you looking to learn more English proverbs? If so, check out our idioms blog for idioms, proverbs, adages, expressions, and more!
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