Students Today Can’t Prepare Bark to Calculate Their Problems

Teachers’ Conference in 1703? The Rural American Teacher of 1929? Gene Zirkel? Apocryphal?

edutech05Dear Quote Investigator: Everyone who works in the area formed by the intersection of education and technology has probably seen a hilarious collection of quotations that outlines the remarkable historical changes in education. Last month I saw these quotes, yet again, in a slide show. The first one starts with this sentence:

Students today can’t prepare bark to calculate their problems.

Usually there are six or seven quotes organized chronologically. Unfortunately, I have been unable to find solid citations for any of these quotes. Can you help?

Quote Investigation: This set of statements was printed in the Fall 1978 issue of “The MATYC Journal”, a publication that focused on mathematics education. The quotes were assigned the dates: 1703, 1815, 1907, 1929, 1941, and 1950. But QI believes these statements were actually constructed for the article in 1978. Copies of these quotes have been widely distributed and posted on many websites. They also have been published in multiple books and periodicals.

In 1978 the words were printed on a page labeled “Viewpoints” and the title displayed was “Probable Quotes From History”. The use of the word “probable” signaled that these quotes were designed with a humorous intent. Here are the six quotes and the final sentence: 1

“Students today can’t prepare bark to calculate their problems. They depend upon their slates which are more expensive. What will they do when the slate is dropped and it breaks? They will be unable to write!”  Teachers’ Conference, 1703

“Students today depend upon 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?” Principals Association, 1815

“Students today depend too much upon ink. They don’t know how to use a pen knife to sharpen a pencil. Pen and ink will never replace the pencil!” National Association of Teachers, 1907

“Students today depend upon store bought ink. They don’t know how to make their own. When they run out of ink they will be unable to write words or ciphers until their next trip to the settlement. This is a sad commentary on modern education.” The Rural American Teacher, 1929

“Students today depend upon these expensive fountain pens. They can no longer write with a straight pen and nib (not to mention sharpening their own quills). We parents must not allow them to wallow in such luxury to the detriment of learning how to cope in the real business world, which is not so extravagant.” PTA Gazette, 1941

“Ballpoint pens will be the ruin of education in Our Country. Students use these devices and then throw them away! The American virtues of thrift and frugality are being discarded. Businesses and banks will never allow such expensive luxuries.” Federal Teachers, 1950

“Today’s students depend too much on handheld calculators . . .

This post continues with additional analysis and citations in chronological order.

Several of the quotes begin with the phrase “Students today”. This is a stylistic technique that provides a parallel structure which emphasizes the continuity of the series. It also highlights the changes of each historical era. QI believes that it is unlikely that real quotations would conform to this convenient pattern.

In addition, QI has searched several massive full-text databases for evidence of these words before 1978, and QI was unable to locate any previous citations in the time periods indicated.

The author name listed after these quotes in 1978 was Gene Zirkel of Nassau Community College who wrote a column for the MATYC journal and was designated the ‘Humorous editor’. Zirkel taught and wrote extensively about mathematics and computers. He is now a Professor Emeritus, and he has appended a valuable message below in the comment section of this article stating:

I did indeed create those quotes for MATYC.

QI communicated with SUNY Nassau Community College to verify the contact information for Zirkel and exchanged emails with the educator confirming that he claims coinage for these quotations. The journal article was not intended to be deceptive. The piece was written by the publication’s humor columnist, and it reflected the ongoing and historical changes in educational technology with a clever satirical edge.

Many periodicals and books have treated the quotes as genuine. For example, in 1988 a Florida newspaper printed this: 2

Teachers at a conference in 1703 complained that their students depended on slates and could not ”prepare bark” to calculate their problems with notches.

They didn’t believe in change, said Romanger J. Fredericks, supervisor of Mathematics and Compensatory Education for the Volusia County school district.

In 1929, a teacher blamed students for using store-bought ink and not knowing how to make their own.

And it was in 1959 that a teacher said, ”Ballpoint pens will be the ruin of education.”

The reader can use Google to locate many more examples of these quotations being presented without a cautionary note. Indeed, many modern readers find the words plausible.

In some cases the quote collection has been updated with the additional material. Here is an appended quote: 3

Students who are continually allowed to do word processing on a computer are not given enough handwriting practice.  Without practice using pencils and pens, students’ handwriting will become illegible.  Handwritten work should continue to be an essential part of a student’s education.  What happens when there is no computer available? – SOME TEACHERS TODAY – THE 21st CENTURY

In conclusion, QI believes that these quotations were synthesized by Gene Zirkel and published in 1978 as a work of humor. The set has evolved over time, and sometimes novel quotes have been annexed to the list. Of course, there may be other genuine quotations from the time periods designated that reflect comparable attitudes.

Image Notes: Quill Pen from Nemo. Calculator from PublicDomainPictures. Chalk from Sharky. All three images from Pixabay.

(The construction of this query and the initiation of this exploration were motivated by a tweet from Andrew Old.)

Update: On January 23 and January 25, 2014 QI updated the article after exchanging emails with the commenter named Gene Zirkel below. The editorial title given Zirkel was changed to ‘Humorous editor’ as listed in MATYC.


  1. 1978 Fall, The MATYC Journal [Mathematics Associations of Two-year Colleges journal], Volume 12, Number 3, Page title: Viewpoints, Article Title: Probable Quotes From History, Page 189, MATYC Journal, Inc., Garden City, New York. (Verified with scans; Many thanks to the Science Library of the University of Georgia, Athens especially the helpful Reference Librarian. This librarian pointed out that the repeated phrase “Students today…” provided evidence of the artificiality of the quotes.)
  2. 1988 April 13, The Orlando Sentinel, Section: Volusia Sentinel, Calculators: Adding Up For Students by Pat LaMee, Page 1, Orlando, Florida, Sentinel Communications Co. (Newsbank Access World News)
  3. CharacterAccess webpage, Title: “It’s Been Said”, [This version of the list of quotations included an acknowledgement to The Oneida County Historical Society] (Accessed at April 21, 2012)

2 thoughts on “Students Today Can’t Prepare Bark to Calculate Their Problems

  1. Gene Zirkel

    I did indeed create those quotes for MATYC. Gene Zirkel, Professor Emeritus, Nassau Community College

Comments are closed.