As we near the end of fall term, the days get shorter, the mornings get colder, and students, teachers, and parents alike get increasingly agitated. Under such conditions, the problems of our schools, real and imagined, are magnified and exaggerated. November is a ripe season for anti-intellectualism and dozens of Tweeters turn every day to one of the most enduring apocryphal aphorisms of America’s leading iconoclast:
— Tim Fargo (@tim_fargo) November 5, 2017
Twain recognized that educational attainment was neither an exclusive product of schools, nor guaranteed by them, but he is not the source of this tired maxim. As Garson O’Toole has shown, one of Twain’s contemporaries and fellow novelists, Grant Allen, inflicted this bit of self-satisfied wit upon his readers half a dozen times, starting more than a decade before it was ever attributed to Twain.
Allen, by the way, earned a degree from Oxford and started his career as a professor. How convenient it is for holders of post-graduate degrees to glorify the school of hard knocks.
Twain, who would receive honorary degrees from Oxford and Yale despite having no formal education beyond primary school, was characteristically self-effacing and cynical about “the self-taught man” who “seldom knows anything accurately” and “does not know a tenth of as much as he could have known if he had worked under teachers.” He cautioned that the man who bragged of his lack of formal education was merely “fooling other thoughtless people into going and doing the same as he himself has done.” These words we can confidently attribute to Twain, as they were part of the posthumously published essay “Taming the Bicycle,” written in 1884.
While there is little to add to Dr. O’Toole’s attribution, I do think it is interesting to note that this aphorism seems to have fallen almost entirely out of circulation during the first half of the 20th century. I found only two, very obscure, invocations of it between 1907 and 1957. Then, in April of ’57 it was part of a profile of Dr. Charles Crampton of Delphi, Indiana. Crampton must have been something of a local celebrity, as the Journal & Courier profile by Joan Burke, who attributed the quote to the good doctor himself, was syndicated to half a dozen other newspapers in the northern half of the state. Soon thereafter, the quote began popping up with greater frequency, always attributed to Twain, most notably finding its way into a dispatch from the nationally syndicated columnist, L. M. Boyd, in 1972.
Given its anti-intellectual undertones it is probably no surprise that the maxim was embraced early and often by social media influencers, making its first appearance on Twitter in August of 2007 and tens of thousands of times since. Over the course of the last decade it has been correctly attributed to Grant Allen 11 times.