Is there a difference between “Education” and “Learning”?

“Education” and “learning” seem to be used as synonymous in many instances. One would hear phrases such as “Higher Education institutions” for universities and “Learning Centers” for places in those institutions where people supposedly are involved in acquiring some required knowledge, or one would hear sentences such as “You go to school to learn “ and “I teach them to learn mathematics.” If they are not used synonymously, one word often seems to involve the other. Nevertheless, as I go through their etymology, it appears to me that to settle on a clear distinction between them might not be a straightforward task.

A Latin word for the verb form of learning is accipere meaning to take, to receive, to accept with the senses or with the mind. This has been the meaning I have expected as learning seems to be about this moment of absorbing and processing new information where both the senses and the mind are involved. For instance, one reads a proof to understand a theory, or one strikes the keyboard, listens to sounds, and reads notes to play the piano. Another Latin word that connects learning with the idea of acquiring something is percipere meaning to collect, to take in with the senses or the mind.

For “education,” I was somewhat surprised since the verb form educere, meaning to rear, to raise, to bring up, does not seem to have anything to do with learning. Of the same family are ducere, meaning to lead, and docere, meaning to teach, which might explain its association with learning. Then, educere might suggest the need for a knowledgeable guide who supposedly is qualified to rear or guide others, who might view this guide as an authority figure. Indeed, doctus, meaning learned, well-informed, from which I guess we get “doctor”, seems to confirm this interpretation. Other ramifications of docere further elucidate this association of education to the idea of power relation: its meaning of “to instruct” and words such as doctrina, meaning teaching, instruction, and, more explicitly, disciplina, with link to “military training,” are suggestive examples. Docere also reminds me of the Greek word δοξα (doxa) meaning opinion, and “to opine” comes from the Greek word νομιζειν (nomizein) from which comes νομος (nomos), meaning “law.” Now, this idea of a doctus guide leading other people by making them observe some rules designed with some intention seems to call for the idea of an institution, which could be seen as some complex constructed environment where this authority is practiced.

So, what would that say about education? While the act of “educating” appears to involve some learning in the sense that an authority figure gives instructions to other people who “take in” these rules, the act of learning does not seem to necessarily call for any guide. For example, George Boole is reported to not have had a “formal” university education yet has significantly contributed to mathematical logic. Furthermore, there is some kind of informality that seems to benefit learning while education, on the contrary, seems to call for a set of defined rules that may or may not encourage learning: think of our modern edifice of codes associated with education, such as fixed semesters, standard exams, constant data collection and reports, and letter grades. Could this level of informality imply that learning is independent or could be free from any institution? Or to put it differently: does one need to subscribe to any formal institution to learn anything? Furthermore, does education, seen as a set of rules with intended goals from some authorities, necessarily encourage learning at all?

In the context of mathematics, similar questions could be asked. Could activities considered as part of mathematics education be seen as encouraging learning mathematics? In what sense to want a large group of people to uniformly take exams under several constraints in order to gather data could be seen as an effort to make these people learn mathematics? Ultimately, does “to teach mathematics,” as a set of rules and computations considered as useful by some people, necessarily intends to make people learn mathematics?

So, what do you think?


William Whitacre’s Latin Dictionary:

The University of Chicago Library Woodhouse’s English-Greek Dictionary:



This entry was posted in General. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

HTML tags are not allowed.