J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, May 07, 2014

The Myth of “Students today depend on paper too much”

Last week I retweeted an image from an educational publication presenting this historic complaint:
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 and
Teachers omits the PTA Gazette from its list of congress publications.
But the “quotations” continued to be reprinted and adopted in presentations about educational technology.

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.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

I can imagine things like this frustrate you as an historian (and yes, the spread of fake quotes is something to be concerned about), but I just have to love this one. Leave it to us math folks to be behind some controversy :-)

I see this as another reason for full employment of mathematicians: keep us too busy to create fake quotes!

Thanks for the smile - Mollie (who finally did get her graphic up, thanks!)

Robin Camille said...

How funny, I was just tracking down the source of this quote, too! So irritating to see it plastered everywhere as a condescending view of short-sighted teachers.

I'm still writing up a blog post with some commentary. I'll be sure to link to yours, too.

J. L. Bell said...

I’m glad this posting proved useful!

I think the original target of the satire was educators wary of change, but it came from within the profession, and was taken up by educators eager for change.

Historians do get frustrated by fake quotations and other myths, but we also want to figure out how those beliefs developed and how people use them. So in a way they're useful material. The emergence or reemergence of a false quotation or claim can't be prompted by the historical record, so it must reflect conditions of the time in which it appeared.

Unknown said...

I googled this quote following a twitter lead, and eventually saw it and similar in a Microsoft slideshare presentation to teachers c.2009 on digital technologies and educators.

So glad I landed here before using it in a major presentation to teachers next week...

Problem is, it's so plausible.

Les Posen
Presentationmagic.com