Books Will Soon Be Obsolete in the Schools

Thomas Edison? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Ebooks have surged in popularity since Amazon introduced the Kindle and Apple released the iPad. Some futurists believe that paper books will be phased out and replaced by electronic books. But I came across a fascinating false prediction made by the most important innovator of the previous century:

Books will soon be obsolete in the schools. – Thomas Edison

Is this quote accurate? What was the larger context?

Quote Investigator: These words are very close to a phrase that was reportedly spoken by Thomas Edison in 1913. Edison pioneered the development of machines for displaying motion pictures, and he was confident that these devices would be used extensively to help teach students. Here is the pull-quote that was displayed adjacent to an interview with Edison published in The New York Dramatic Mirror in July 1913 [NDTE]:

Books will soon be obsolete in the public schools. Scholars will be instructed through the eye.

The interview article was part of a series of stories in the newspaper about the “Evolution of the Motion Picture”. The well-known Wizard of Menlo Park was asked to speculate about the future.

Here is an extended excerpt [NDTE]:

“What is your estimation of the future educational value of pictures?” I asked.

“Books,” declared the inventor with decision, “will soon be obsolete in the public schools. Scholars will be instructed through the eye. It is possible to teach every branch of human knowledge with the motion picture. Our school system will be completely changed inside of ten years.

“We have been working for some time on the school pictures. We have been studying and reproducing the life of the fly, mosquito, silk weaving moth, brown moth, gypsy moth, butterflies, scale and various other insects, as well as chemical chrystallization. It proves conclusively the worth of motion pictures in chemistry, physics and other branches of study, making the scientific truths, difficult to understand from text books, plain and clear to children.

“I do not think every home will have its own projecting machine, although the wealthier people will possess them, no doubt. The cheapness of film entertainment is due to its popularity among the many. The expenses per capita are extremely small. In a home the cost would be very great. The future will see motion pictures more or less in the home, while in clubs, in theaters and in motion picture houses they will be most popular.

Segments of this interview were reprinted in other newspapers such as the “Cleveland Plain Dealer” of Cleveland, Ohio, [CPTE] and “The State” of Columbia, South Carolina [TSTE] in September 1913.

Also, in September 1913 a newspaper in Oregon restated Edison’s predictions but prefaced them with an interjection that apparently was satirical. The writer may have been suggesting unhappiness or skepticism. Also, the quoted words were slightly altered by the insertion of the word “entirely” [ORTE]:

O joy! Books in the public school will soon be obsolete, Edison predicts. He says further that “scholars will be instructed entirely through the eye. It is possible to teach every branch of human knowledge with the motion-picture. Our school system will be completely changed inside of ten years.”

In December 1914 Edison’s forecasts regarding education were printed in a Syracuse, New York newspaper. The remark about books was labeled a “disconcerting prophecy” [SHTE]:

“Books will soon be obsolete in the public schools.” – Thomas A. Edison

Mr. Edison himself has no doubts as to coming educational matters. He continues, after the disconcerting prophecy quoted above: “Scholars will be instructed through the eye. It is possible to teach every branch of human knowledge with the motion picture. Our school system will be completely changed Inside of ten years.”

Edison’s flawed prognostications were recalled in more recent times. In 1986 an article in the Los Angeles Times about the future of college education quoted the luminary. The word “public” was omitted from this instance of the quotation, the word “soon” was inserted a second time, and the word “inside” was deleted [LTTE]:

It is instructive to recall an ill-fated prophecy of Thomas Edison on the future of education. As the inventor of motion pictures, Edison helped get them adapted for use in schools as early as 1910. Three years later he declared, “Books will soon be obsolete in the schools. Scholars will soon be instructed through the eye. It is possible to teach every branch of human knowledge with the motion picture. Our school system will be completely changed in 10 years.”

Nearly three-quarters of a century later, the book has not become obsolete and most schools still rely primarily on the stand-up teacher lecturing to the class. So in all our dreaming about the future of college education, we must never underestimate the resistance of academia to change.

In 2010 the New York Times magazine contained an article about “The Learning Machines” that included a timeline of events in the development of classroom technology. The entry for 1925 included thoughts from Edison. The word “public” was omitted and the word “soon” was inserted a second time in this version [NMTE]:

c. 1925 FILMSTRIP PROJECTOR The cousin to the motion-picture projector; Thomas Edison predicted that, with the advent of projected images, “books will soon be obsolete in schools. Scholars will soon be instructed through the eye.”

In February 2012 an article in the Los Angeles Times discussed skeptically a presentation by the U.S. Education Secretary and the FCC Chairman that promoted the greater use of digital technology in education. The columnist used a shortened version of the quote without the words “public” and “inside” [LOTE]:

Every schoolchild should have a laptop, they said. Because in the near future, textbooks will be a thing of the past.

Where had I heard that before? So I did a bit of research, and found it. The quote I recalled was, “Books will soon be obsolete in the schools…. Our school system will be completely changed in 10 years.”

The revolutionary technology being heralded in that statement wasn’t the Internet or the laptop, but the motion picture.

In conclusion, Edison did make a statement in 1913 predicting the obsolescence of books in the public schools. He incorrectly thought that motion pictures would rapidly become the prime medium for education. Modern versions of Edison’s quotation are typically slightly altered.

[NDTE] 1913 July 9, The New York Dramatic Mirror, The Evolution of the Motion Picture: VI – Looking into the Future with Thomas A. Edison by Frederick James Smith, Page 24, Column 3, New York. (Old Fulton)

[CPTE] 1913 September 14, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Section: Sunday Editorial-Dramatic, At the Picture Show, Page 4, Column 2, [GNA Page 36], Cleveland, Ohio. (GenealogyBank)

[TSTE] 1913 September 28, The State, With the Plays and Players: Inventor Peers into the Future: Edison Tells What He Sees in Film World, Page 28, Column 1, Columbia, South Carolina. (GenealogyBank)

[ORTE] 1913 September 28, Oregonian, Section Four: The Sunday Oregonian, Photo-Play Notes, Page 2, Column 5, Portland, Oregon. (GenealogyBank)

[SHTE] 1914 December 16, The Syracuse Herald, Odds and Ends: “Movies” Vs. Books in Schools, Page 8, Column 5, Syracuse, New York. (Old Fulton)

[LTTE] 1986 January 31, Los Angeles Times, Your Changing World: Different Course to a College Education by Edward Cornish, Page F4, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest)

[NMTE] 2010 September 19, New York Times, Section: Magazine, Page 53, The Learning Machines by Charles Wilson, Timeline: c 1925, New York. (ProQuest)

[LOTE] 2012 February 5, Los Angeles Times, Hyping tech will not help students by Michael Hiltzik, Page B1, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest) [Online at latimes.com: Title: Who really benefits from putting high-tech gadgets in classrooms? Date: February 4, 2012; Accessed February 15, 2012] link

 

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