Students today depend on paper too much. They don’t know how to write on a slate without getting chalk dust all over themselves. They can’t clean a slate properly. What will they do when they run out of paper?That passage was said to have appeared in a “principal’s publication” in 1815.
I liked how that passage hinted at the change in American pedagogy over the years. Many of us have an image of past education based on literature and art from the mid-1800s, with slates, blackboards, globes, and boys and girls on opposite sides of the same classroom. In fact, in Boston’s Revolutionary-era public schools, there were only boys in the classroom (except during private lessons); there were no geography lessons; and most boys learned their lessons in handwriting and basic arithmetic using ink and paper, not slates.
But when I looked more carefully at that quotation, I got suspicious. The sentences seemed too short and informal for 1815, and the educational field hadn’t yet specialized enough to create a “principal’s publication.”
It turns out that passage is one in a long series of similar complaints, the first dated to 1703 when a “teacher’s conference” supposedly lamented that students didn‘t have enough “bark” to write on. But the wording of the passages was similar from one era to the next, with no stylistic evolution. In other words, they were all fake, and the more of them got lined up, the more obvious the falsehood was.
The “quotations” appear to have been printed first in the winter 1978 issue of The MATYC [Mathematics Associations of Two-Year Colleges] Journal, in a “Viewpoints” column under the headline “Probable Quotes from History.” That publication’s editor, Gene Zirkel, told the Quote Investigator in 2012 that he’d made them up for a satirical essay.
The “quotations” were then reprinted in the May 1988 issue of The College Mathematics Journal and David M. Thornburg’s Edutrends 2010, published in 1992. Both those publications credited Fr. Stanley Bezuska of Boston College. Bezuska, who died in 2008, was a Jesuit mathematics professor active in applying technology to education—he issued lessons on audiocassettes in the early 1970s, for example. Apparently he had taken the quotations as authentic, or hadn’t passed along the joke.
As early as 1999, Chris Grant reported on a bulletin board for math teachers that the credited sources were untraceable:
The publications referred to (PTA Gazette, The Rural American Teacher, and Federal Teacher) do not appear in the online catalog of the Library of Congress. The 1943 Manual of the National Congress of Parents and Teachers doesn’t mention the PTA Gazette, and the 1941 Proceedings of the National Congress of Parents andBut the “quotations” continued to be reprinted and adopted in presentations about educational technology.
Teachers omits the PTA Gazette from its list of congress publications.
Today, online databases make it easier to search for such publications and for the quotations before 1978 and find they don’t exist. The internet made it possible for Prof. Zirkel to spot the Quote Investigator discussing his old article and for him to confirm that it was fiction. Yet the internet also makes it possible to spread the false quotations faster than they can be refuted. They now appear in over a dozen publications, not to mention websites.