If You Think Education Is Expensive, Try Ignorance

Derek Bok? Ann Landers? Char Meyers? Robert Orben? John Lubbock? P. B. de La Bruère? Rev. S. C. Morris? Charles Duncan Mclver? Albert Einstein? Barack Obama? Anonymous?

library07Dear Quote Investigator: The cost of attending college has been increasing more rapidly than the rate of inflation for decades. Students and parents have been struggling with bills and loan payments. A popular adage offers a provocative perspective:

If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.

These words have been attributed to Derek Bok who was a President of Harvard University and to Ann Landers who was a popular syndicated advice columnist. Would you please explore the provenance of this expression?

Quote Investigator: The earliest exact match known to QI appeared in an advertisement for a realty company in June 1974. A real estate agent named Char Meyers was featured in the ad which was published in a Madison, Wisconsin newspaper. The adage was displayed as an epigraph at the top of the ad, and it was not really connected to the content. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.

NEVER PAINT AGAIN Newly listed west 3 bedroom, family room, all aluminum exterior. Beautifully wooded rear yard.

QI believes that Char Meyers was an unlikely candidate for authorship of the saying. But a set of citations that appeared shortly afterward in July 1974 did point to a likely contender. A newspaper supplement called “Family Weekly” was incorporated into the Saturday issues of multiple papers around the U.S.A. The supplement included a column titled “Quips & Quotes” which contained miscellaneous sayings. The adage was printed in the column and credited Robert Orben: 2 3

Prices are increasing so fast that you need that “double-your-money-back guarantee” just to break even. —Anna Herbert

If you think education is expensive, try ignorance. —Robert Orben

Orben was a very successful comedy writer who supplied jokes to others via books and a newsletter. He also wrote material contractually for other comedians, business executives and politicians. QI conjectures that Orben constructed this precise formulation; however, the remark was not particularly novel.

A variety of statements using the same keywords and expressing the same idea have been circulating since the early 1900s. For example, in 1902 an advertisement for a Conservatory of Music in Ottumwa, Iowa contained the following: 4

“Education is expensive but ignorance is more so.”

The saying was linked to Derek Bok because Ann Landers published a column in 1978 that credited him. However, in 1998 she wrote a follow-up column stating that Bok had contacted her directly and disclaimed authorship of the quotation. Detailed citations are given further below.

Great thanks to top researcher Barry Popik who examined this topic and located key citations. QI and Popik shared research results.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1874 a passage in “The Statistics and Gazetteer of New Hampshire” provided a thematic match and also used similar vocabulary, e.g., “educational”, “expensive”, and “ignorance”. However; the passage was prolix: 5

Our present free educational institutions are of the highest value to the State. The maintenance of them involves a great expense and much care, but it is a wise outlay. Knowledge is less expensive than ignorance. Ignorance is a dangerous and costly factor under any form of government, and under a republican, destructive.

In 1884 an educator named Professor Turner addressed a group of picnickers in Missouri. The following passage matched the vocabulary and theme of the adage, but it was not concise: 6

He urged the importance of making our educational keep pace with our material prosperity; that on the score of economy the young should be educated; that ignorance is far more expensive than intelligence; that often one act done through ignorance cost more than a classical education.

In 1901 a London periodical called “The Library Association Record” reported on a speech delivered by Lord Avebury (John Lubbock) which contained a concise maxim that matched the general meaning of the saying under examination: 7

After declaring the library open Lord Avebury, in the course of his remarks said: “Ignorance cost more than education, and libraries, instead of being an expense, represented a good investment. To-day books were no longer the advantage of the rich, but an advantage which the poor enjoyed equally with the wealthy.

In 1902 an advertisement for a music school in Iowa included the following adage as mentioned previously: 8

“Education is expensive but ignorance is more so.”

In 1903 a Quebec politician named P. B. de La Bruère addressed a group of dairymen and employed an instance of the saying that began with the conditional “if”: 9

The Commissioners should make a judicious choice of teachers, and should know how to estimate their value in offering them fair and suitable pay, that they may excite their zeal and incline them to love their work. If education is expensive, ignorance is still more costly.

In 1909 a book titled “Peace and Happiness” by Lord Avebury (John Lubbock) included another instance in this family of sayings: 10

The system is no doubt expensive, but we should not grudge money spent on schools. Ignorance is even more expensive than education; and it would be well if all through life we spent as much on the mind, and as little on the body, as possible.

In 1910 a report from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching contained the following passage: 11

A national program of education embraces not only the schools, both elementary and secondary, which train for citizenship, but it embraces also the industrial and technical schools, which aim to make of each citizen an effective economic unit. Such a complete system of education is expensive, but it is less expensive than ignorance and inefficiency.

In 1921 the Rev. S. C. Morris delivered an address in South Carolina about the opening of a new school and employed an instance of the saying: 12

Thousands of openings in Government and other departments of work now awaiting the equipped man or woman.
Education is not as expensive as ignorance.

In 1951 a newspaper in Mason City, Iowa printed the following piece of wisdom: 13

Education is expensive—until you compare it with the cost of ignorance.

In 1958 Dr. Gordon W. Blackwell who was the Chancellor of the Woman’s College of the University of North Carolina spoke before a banquet audience and employed a version of the saying, but he disclaimed credit: 14

Dr. Blackwell quoted his famous predecessor. Dr. Charles Duncan Mclver on this point: “Education is expensive; the only thing more expensive is ignorance.”

Finally, in June 1974 an exact match to the modern expression was printed in a real estate advertisement in “The Capital Times” of Madison, Wisconsin as noted previously: 15

If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.

In July 1974 the exact same adage was printed in a newspaper supplement called “Family Weekly”, and the comedy writer Robert Orben was credited as noted previously. 16

In October 1975 Ann Landers printed the saying in her widely-distributed column, and she did not provide an attribution. 17

DEAR MR. AND MRS.: I do indeed believe college tuition should be tax deductible and I have no hesitation about saying so. But if you think education is expensive — try ignorance.

In March 1978 the saying appeared again in the column of Ann Landers. This time the words were ascribed to Derek Bok: 18

Bok’s Law: If you think education is expensive — try ignorance. — Derek Bok, president of Harvard University.

In 1979 a compilation called “The Book of Laws” included the saying with an attribution to Bok based on a citation pointing to Ann Landers: 19

BOK’S LAW
If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.
(Derek Bok, quoted by Ann Landers, in The Poughkeepsie Journal, March 26, 1978.)

In 1998 the expression was printed in the column of Ann Landers yet again, but this time Landers reported that Bok had disclaimed the adage: 20

Dear Readers: I wish to set the record straight. Several years ago, I attributed to Derek Bok (who was then president of Harvard University) the following gem: “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.” Bok let me know that the quote was not his. I failed to acknowledge my error at the time and wish to do so now.

The 2010 reference work “The Ultimate Quotable Einstein” included a variant saying which has been attributed to Albert Einstein; however, the skeptical editor Alice Calaprice placed the statement into the “Probably Not by Einstein” section of the tome: 21

If you think intelligence is dangerous, try ignorance.

In 2013 President Barack Obama delivered a speech in Illinois that included an updated version of the saying for the current century: 22

And if you think education is expensive, wait until you see how much ignorance costs in the 21st century.

Also in 2013 a reporter and editor at “The Chronicle of Higher Education” named Goldie Blumenstyk spoke to Derek Bok about the quotation, and he expressed bewilderment about the common ascription: 23

The quotation you have mentioned was attributed to me in a column in the 1970s by my good friend, the late Eppie Lederer (Ann Landers). Why she attributed it to me I do not know.

. . . I wasn’t the author of the quotation. I did persuade Eppie to correct the error in a subsequent article, but, as usual, the truth has yet to catch up with the perception.

In conclusion, Robert Orben is currently the leading candidate for crafter of this maxim. However, very similar sayings using the same vocabulary have been circulating and evolving for more than one hundred years. The ascriptions to Ann Landers and Derek Bok are not supported because both have disclaimed credit.

Image Notes: Panoramic picture of a library from Pexels at Pixabay.

(Great thanks to Lars Hegemann whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Special thanks to researchers Barry Popik, Ralph Keyes, and Fred R. Shapiro who also have explored the history of this saying.)

Notes:

  1. 1974 June 18, Capital Times, Section: Classified Advertisements, (Advertisement for Parkwood Realty). On the House by Char Meyers, Quote Page 1, Column 5, Madison, Wisconsin. (NewspaperArchive)
  2. 1974 July 28, The Gallup Independent, Section: Family Weekly (Newspaper Supplement), Quips & Quotes, Quote Page 15, Column 2, Gallup, New Mexico. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1974 July 28, The Progress, Section: Family Weekly (Newspaper Supplement), Quips & Quotes, Quote Page 19, Column 2, Clearfield, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
  4. 1902 August 28, Ottumwa Semi-Weekly Courier, (Advertisement for the Ottumwa Conservatory of Music), Quote Page 8, Column 6, Ottumwa, Iowa. (Chronicling America) link
  5. 1874, The Statistics and Gazetteer of New Hampshire, Compiled by Alonzo J. Fogg, Chapter VI: Public Schools, Quote Page 508, Published by D. L. Guernsey, Concord, New Hampshire. (Google Books Full View) link
  6. 1884 July 24, Richmond Democrat, The Picnic at Millville by PLUMBAGO, Quote Page 3, Column 7, Richmond, Ray County, Missouri. (Chronicling America) link
  7. 1901 November, The Library Association Record, Volume 3, Part 2, Library Notes and News: United Kingdom, London: Woolwich, Start Page 572, Quote Page 576, Published by The Library Association, Pall Mall East, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  8. 1902 August 28, Ottumwa Semi-Weekly Courier, (Advertisement for the Ottumwa Conservatory of Music), Quote Page 8, Column 6, Ottumwa, Iowa. (Chronicling America) link
  9. 1903, Twenty-First Report of the Dairymen’s Association of the Province of Quebec, Address of Hon. P. B. de La Bruère, Start Page 120, Quote Page 127, Printed by Charles Pageau, Quebec, Canada. (Google Books Full View) link
  10. 1909, Peace and Happiness by The Right Hon. Lord Avebury (John Lubbock), Quote Page 172, Macmillan Company, New York. (Google Books full view) link
  11. 1910 October, Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, Fifth Annual Report of the President and Treasurer, (Report Date: October 1910; Location: New York City), Section: The Training of Teachers, Quote Page 75, The Merrymount Press, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link
  12. 1921 September 22, The Dillon Herald, New Business College at Aynor by Rev. S. C. Morris of Aynor, South Carolina, Quote Page 5, Column 5, Dillon, South Carolina. (Chronicling America) link
  13. 1951 May 11, The Mason City Globe-Gazette, Look Out Below! by W. E. H., Quote Page 4, Column 2, Mason City, Iowa. (Newspapers_com)
  14. 1958 November 14, Greensboro Daily News, Money for Education Is Stressed, Quote Page A12, Column 5 and 6, Greensboro, North Carolina. (GenealogyBank)
  15. 1974 June 18, The Capital Times, Section: Classified Advertisements, (Advertisement for Parkwood Realty), On the House by Char Meyers, Quote Page 1, Column 5, Madison, Wisconsin. (NewspaperArchive)
  16. 1974 July 28, The Gallup Independent, Section: Family Weekly (Newspaper Supplement), Quips & Quotes, Quote Page 15, Column 2, Gallup, New Mexico. (Newspapers_com)
  17. 1975 October 6, Aberdeen American News, Things must be pretty dull by Ann Landers, Quote Page 11, Column 4, Aberdeen, South Dakota. (GenealogyBank)
  18. 1978 March 26, The Hartford Courant, Various ‘Laws’ Are Presented by Ann Landers, Quote Page 26A, Hartford, Connecticut. (ProQuest)
  19. 1979, The Book of Laws, Compiled by Harold Faber, Quote Page 4, Times Books, New York. (Verified on paper)
  20. 1998 June 25, Rockford Register Star, Man seeks mature relationship not trophy wife by Ann Landers, Quote Page 2B, Column 4, Rockford, Illinois. (GenealogyBank)
  21. 2010, The Ultimate Quotable Einstein, Edited by Alice Calaprice, Section: Probably Not by Einstein, Quote Page 478, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey. (Verified on paper)
  22. 2013 July 24, Speech: Remarks on the Economy, Speaker: President Barack Obama, Location: Galesburg, Illinois, , Political Transcript Wire of Roll Call, Inc. (ProQuest ABI/INFORM Complete)
  23. Website: The Chronicle of Higher Education, Article title: Ignorance Isn’t Bliss When It Comes to Quotations About Ignorance, Article author: Goldie Blumenstyk, Date on website: July 25, 2013, Website description: “top destination for news, advice, and jobs for people in academe”. (Accessed chronicle.com on May 4, 2016) link