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April 19, 2006

Is Knowing How to Learn Enough? Debating Life's Necessities

Der Danse Macabre IV - © 2006 Lee Hobbs
Photograph: 'Der Danzig Danse Macabre IV' © 2006 Lee Hobbs

“They know enough who know how to learn.” ~ Henry Adams (1838-1918)

Adams seems to have it all sorted out. How about you? Can you concur with this bit of pragmatic philosophy or is there more to know than this?

I originally gave my students a choice between . . .

. . . two famous quotations. This one and another by Mahatma Gandhi (see HERE). They overwhelmingly chose the one by Gandhi. I was left wondering why? Was it because it was somehow "truer"? Was it somehow philosophically different from the other one thereby reaching a wider audience? Was the first quotation too difficult to understand? Was it simply not as interesting?

So, while out in the Oak Grove today enjoying this magnificent Spring weather, I asked my students to return to the first quotation and give it a fair try. They'll be asked to first unpack the underlying idea and then form a response.

1. What does the quotation mean? If you are stuck, start with the next two questions:
2. What does it mean to learn?
3. What does it mean to know?
4. What was Adams proposing here? Explain.
5. Do you agree or disagree with the idea? Why or why not?
6. What is your own perosnal "take" on this concept? Is this useful or unnecessary advice?
7. Who do you think this advice directed to?

Please leave your remarks below:

All the best,


*To see other entries with samples of Lee Hobbs's travel photography, please visit the compilation available HERE.

Posted by lhobbs at April 19, 2006 12:25 PM

Readers' Comments:

Professor Hobbs,

I think that this quote means that even if you claim to know nothing about a subject, you can’t use that as an excuse to not learn something about that topic. Everyone has the ability to learn and therefore ignorance is not an excuse for a lack of knowledge in an area.

I completely agree with this quote. I know that it applies directly to my life. If I don’t know a lot about something, I know enough to learn something about that topic.

Kelsey L.

Posted by: Kelsey L. at April 19, 2006 06:23 PM


Learning? Ha.

Great entry but, if the Red Hot Chilli Peppers warmed up for Kenny Rogers for a Spirit Airlines sponsored concert on Palm Sunday, would Katie Couric's replacement, Meredith Vieira, bother to report it on her new job with the morning show? Somehow, the real news, like the Bush Leak reports get pushed aside for pop-journalism stories like the latest gossip on Kim Mathers, Kenzie Dalton or Eva Longoria (of Desparate Housewives fame). Quite frankly, I'll just wait for Passover and watch reruns of old Masters series while I wait for the Chronicles of Narnia to come out on digital cable. That's all I need to know. How's that for an over-the-top pop-cultural statement?

Keep up the good work.

Gene Pitney

Posted by: Gene Pitney at April 19, 2006 06:51 PM

Professor Hobbs,

I feel that the quote by Henry Adams can be broken down to a simple meaning. If a person knows how to learn then they will be able to learn just about anything. By learning I basically mean a person must be able to gain knowledge of different techniques. If a person is capable of doing this then they will be able to “learn” how to do anything from knitting or mathematics to fixing automobiles.

Angela H.

Posted by: Angela H. at April 19, 2006 09:54 PM

Professor Hobbs,

I agree with the comment made in class today. Knowing how to learn is enough to gain great knowledge. If the skills to learn efficiently are the only thing a person knows, then that is not all they will know. They can go on to learn anything. Learning skills are probably the most important thing to take into the process of an education. One can not be educated without knowing how to learn.


Posted by: Cathy at April 19, 2006 10:12 PM

I don't know about Katie Couric being that bad. She really has the stuff. I mean aside from Katie Couric, has there ever been a full time anchor? Connie Chung was fresh, but she was just a back-up, right? And a masquerading Dateline host, not a real Anchor. I think Katie Couric has the goods and will do the job, and her commend of English is excellint. I have ever heard her make a grammer mistake during the Today show for the 15 years she has been on there. I think Couric is going to whip Dan Rahter and Brokau out the kazoo!

But why were we talking about her anyway? I love this colunm and just had to chip in a comment.

Posted by: Rick at April 19, 2006 11:46 PM


When I first examined this quote I didn’t have the slightest idea as to what Henry was talking about. After reviewing it two or three more time I finally got some kind of understanding. I think what Adams is trying to say is that if you have mastered the ability to process information and retain it for use at a later time; learning, then you know a whole lot. In order to acquire information you have to be able to learn it. Without that you have nothing.

Adrianne E

Posted by: Adrianne E at April 20, 2006 11:58 AM

Professor Hobbs,

Henry Adams’ quote could be taken to mean that all a person really needs to know is how to learn. If they know how to learn, then they can acquire the knowledge that they will need in the future. I agree that everyone needs to know how to learn and that learning will help them throughout the rest of their lives. Also, by having the ability to learn, a person will be able to be open to more ideas and opinions. If they learn about things that are different than what they are normally exposed to, they will be able to form their own opinions from the knowledge they have gained, not what some one else told them to think.

Ali L.

Posted by: Ali L. at April 21, 2006 12:06 AM

“They know enough who know how to learn” by Henry Adams is a very confusing quote. The words just do not seem to be in the right order. I honestly have no idea what he is trying to say. But in my own opinion Henry Adams might be trying to say that the people who know how to learn are all ready somewhat intelligent. In other words they already have some knowledge that they can pay attention and learn from someone else who is even more intelligent than they are or learn from themselves. Although I really do not understand this quote very much at all and not exactly sure what Henry Adams is trying to say.

Posted by: Liz L. at April 21, 2006 10:28 AM

Professor Hobbs,

I don’t agree with this quote. While it is very important to know how to learn solely knowing this is not going to get a person through life. One other thing that comes to mind right away is decision-making and personality.

Although a person can learn how to make good decisions and how to have a good personality there is a cretin sense of who someone is that they are born with. I don’t believe this is changeable. It is possible however that it can be altered.

Also things can be taught, but they are not always applied even if you teach someone how to apply things they are taught, that in itself is not always applied. But it seems that in this quote the reader is under the assumption that not only can the person who knows how to learn, learn, but they can apply what they have learned because it’s all part of knowing how to learn.

The problem is in the quote knowing how to learn is very vague. Maybe if there was more to the quote I could better understand it, but I don’t believe that knowing how to lean is the only thing a person needs.

Sam H.

Posted by: Sam H. at April 21, 2006 10:29 AM

Note from Lee:

Sam, an excellent and thoughtful dissection of Adams's words. This is exactly the kind of thinking and argumentation ability I've been looking for in the class. You've got it!

Even if we disagree with an opinion, it's great to know "why." This is where deconstructing an "assumption" such as this one and finding the "holes" in the position (thinking like a laywer) will help you truly understand another's argument (even if you don't agree).

So, you've hit on a good point. Why not, "It is enough for one to understand?" a definite clarification of the ability to learn. Or, "It is enough for one to know how to love." Or, make peace, etc. All equally good virtues! Do you think Adam's notion of learning might transcend these other concepts since they might all be values which could be learned?

Good job.

Posted by: Lee Hobbs at April 21, 2006 10:40 AM

Dear Professor Hobbs,

To me this quote is saying if you have the ability to learn, then you have enough to get through any situation. I agree with it because learning is a very important part of life. When any situation happens, a person learns from it and that knowledge will help guide them for the rest of their life. If they dont have the ability to learn, then they won't know what to do when that situation, or others similar that follow, occurs again. This involves the phrase, survival of the fittest. The ones that can learn and use that knowledge to better themselves will survive. The ones who can not learn will die off.


Posted by: Brendan at April 21, 2006 12:15 PM

Professor Hobbs,

When Henry Adams made this quote, he meant that we have the vital instruments, information, and resources to learn what we need to know. When he said we know enough to know how to learn, he implied that we know enough now to learn about more. He wants us to use our knowledge of life right now to discover new information. Learning is gaining knowledge through processes and experimentation. To know something is to have a good enough understanding of something to be able to reproduce the information.

I agree with this quotation, because we have thousands of resources that can be used to gain information about anything. Sources such as the internet have given us extraordinary powers. We can also talk to people who have more knowledge than us to answer questions that we do not know the answers to. Adams advice is very good and helpful for a number of reasons. This advice should be followed, because he urges us to use what we know to figure out what we do not know. He ultimately says that we are in control of what we learn. If we want to know more, we have look deeper into the subject to find the answer. By taking Adams advice we can all gain a lot of additional knowledge.

When Henry Adams made this statement, he was directing it towards everyone. This advice can be applied to anyone in any situation. Using what we know gives us the ability to learn what we don't.

Kashiff M.

Posted by: Kashiff M. at April 21, 2006 12:34 PM

Professor Hobbs,

I do not believe it is enough to simply know how to learn. Just because you know how to, doesn't mean you can. I know how to juggle, I know the steps it takes and the techniques people use, but I myself cannot juggle for the life of me.

I believe Adams was trying to find the logic in why people either want to learn or don't want to and those that didn't want to, why. Maybe he guessed they thought it was good enough to just appreciate learning or whatever. It doesn't make much sense to me, this quote is a little more than confusing.

Rachael T.

Posted by: Rachael T. at April 21, 2006 12:57 PM

Professor Hobbs:

I think that this quote means that you have to know how to learn in order to learn. I don't believe this to be true, however, because I believe that there are things that you already knows how to do, so you don't have to learn it. For example, when you are born, you don't learn how to breathe. You already know how to do it.

Also, I don't believe this quote to be true, because I believe that we already know how to learn. Although some people are more illiterate than others, I think that it is nearly impossible for someone to not be able to learn something. I don't think that it matters if a person is disabled or not; I believe that there is always a spot in our brains where we hold a bit of knowledge, and room where it is possible to learn more.

Linda M.

Posted by: Linda M. at April 21, 2006 01:06 PM


At first I did not quite understand what Henry Adams meant by this quote. It was only after you asked us to rephrase it, that I got a proper understanding of it. Henry Adams meant by his quote that if one knows how to learn then that is enough. I agree with this only in part. Yes of course it is wonderful to have the skill to learn because from then on, one is able to keep learning and build on that knowledge. After having knowledge about many aspects in life, one then has the potential to put it to some good use. However, just having the skill to learn does not mean that you will actually put these skills into practice. Everyone has the right to do what they will with the knowledge they earn throughout their lives.

I have noticed throughout the years that everyone has the potential to learn. Some are gifted with the sense to pick up on things easily, while others have to try twice as hard in order to grasp the same concept. However, those who try the hardest usually are the ones that end up putting this knowledge to good use. It isn’t that the others didn’t have the same potential; it is just that they did no exactly have a deeper appreciation for what hard work truly means. I am certain that Henry Adams perhaps did not mean just this by his quote, however from these words, this is the only understanding that I can derive from them.

-Emily Suarez

Posted by: Emily S. at April 21, 2006 01:09 PM

Professor Hobbs,

I generally agree with Mr. Adams, although I don't believe any one adage can be the sole advice of life. However, learning is a crucial, fundamental skill that enables us to do virtually all the things we do. Our very minds, ideas, and even our opinions and personalities are molded by what and how we learn.

Learning is a crucial life skill; it is the skill to acquire new skills, and therefore the base of our knowledge and aptitude. With certain limitations, the ability to learn extends our possibilities and acts as the coupling to new proficiencies and talent. Of course, learning is restricted by the nature of what we try to absorb and our own physical and mental capacities.

It can be said that the only skill we truly need is the skill to learn simply because learning opens the doors to personal potential. If we were born with a finite set of skills, lacking the ability to learn, our potential would have a well defined threshold that we could not exceed. The unique power to learn erases such thresholds and defines us in a fluid and much less rigid respect.

To compliment an infamous lecture, learning is the key to knowledge and experience through mistakes and triumph. As we learn, we can apply (or not apply) new ideas and skills to our lives. Trial and error inevitably tests our approaches, and teaches us how each lesson we’ve learned can be applied successfully or unsuccessfully. It is imperative that we be able to observe and learn how such tactics unfold so that we can improve ourselves and our devices, moving toward success and betterment.

Sean O.

Posted by: Sean O. at April 21, 2006 01:32 PM

Professor Hobbs,

“They know enough who know how to learn.”(Henry Adams)

After reading this quote, I came to conclusion that it is referring to the ability to learn. If one is able to learn they are capable of anything. Having the ability to open your mind and absorb new information is giving yourself any opportunity. By having an open mind you are able to teach yourself your ignorance. I believe this is what Adams was trying to propose that if you understand anything, you should know that the ability to learn is one of the greatest opportunities. I agree with him because I also feel knowledge is an important part of my life; it’s the key to everything I strive to be. This quote is for everyone that understands that knowledge is the key; it is also a slam on ignorance.

Samantha V.

Posted by: Samantha V at April 21, 2006 01:34 PM

Dear Prof. Hobbs,

I believe there is truth to this quote by Henry Adams. I believe it because those that know how to learn have an essential tool and that in itself is enough as he states. Being able to utilize this ability is a great strength. This quote simply illustrates the vastness of potential one would have if they knew how to learn. The ability to learn is enough and it sets the foundation for what will be learned.

Learning means to acquire information and/or be instructed. An example of this would be a good reporter that knows where to look for sources. This person knows how to get information to support his or her story. That ability alone is what I believe the writer of this quote was saying.

Posted by: Holden B. Jones at April 21, 2006 01:49 PM

“They know enough who know how to learn.” ~ Henry Adams (1838-1918)

Hello Professor Hobbs,

On the contrary to Sam's stance, I agree with the quote. I believe that if one knows the ways to learn, then it is a rarity for that person not to be able to overcome an obstacle.

When one is handed a task to complete, whether it be academic, mental, spiritual, or physical, they are expected to complete the task as best they can. Even if such a task has never been attempted by this person before, as long as the ability to learn is in them, they can learn how to complete the task at hand with their basic learning skills. Humans mainly learn from experience. With the many experiences of life, much can be learned.

Posted by: Missy Z at April 21, 2006 03:36 PM

Professor Hobbs,

I believe what Henry Adams is saying is that all you need to know is to know how to learn. Even if you do not know anything about a subject you can learn about it and then know about it. Learning is the first step and building block of knowledge. Without learning we would not know anything.

The people who have the most intelligence are the ones who use their learning skills to be where they are at today. I heard someone once say that "the greatest intelligence is knowing that you know nothing at all." Meaning that the intelligence you have is nothing compared to what you could have by learning more and more.

We have so many resources today that go unused that can make us more knowledgeable in all aspects.

Posted by: Thoryn S. at April 23, 2006 02:35 PM

Dear Professor Hobbs,

Using the technique you mentioned in class with moving some words around. I have come to the conclusion that Henry Adams is saying that, To know how learn is to know enough. What he really means is that if you have the skill to learn you will know enough in this world.

Wtih this I can agree that this is true. If you don't know how to learn how do you know anything, or at what point can anyone measure if you know enough. To learn is knowledge.

Posted by: P.Beckles at April 28, 2006 12:40 PM

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