Category Archives: Edwin E. Slosson

The Professor’s Lecture Notes Go Straight to the Students’ Lecture Notes

Mark Twain? Edwin E. Slosson? Harry Lloyd Miller? Professor Rathburn? Mortimer J. Adler? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Mark Twain is credited with a very funny description of college lectures. For some teachers and students I think this quotation is accurate:

College is a place where a professor’s lecture notes go straight to the students’ lecture notes, without passing through the brains of either.

I would like to use this statement in an academic paper, but I have not found a proper reference. Could you explore this saying?

Quote Investigator: There is no substantive evidence connecting this saying to Mark Twain. The earliest citation located by QI appeared in a 1927 book titled “Creative Learning and Teaching” by the educator Harry Lloyd Miller which contained a version mentioning fountain pens. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

In the inimitable phrasing of Slosson, “Lecturing is that mysterious process by means of which the contents of the note-book of the professor are transferred through the instrument of the fountain pen to the note-book of the student without passing through the mind of either.”

QI believes that the name “Slosson” probably referred to Edwin Emery Slosson, a scientist, editor, and author. QI has been unable to find a statement in his corpus that closely matched the quotation. However, top-notch searcher Dan Goncharoff did locate precursor passages in Slosson’s 1910 book “Great American Universities” that were thematically similar. For example, the following excerpt emphasized the replication of a lecture without understanding: 2

As it is, the professors give too many lectures and the students listen to too many. Or pretend to; really they do not listen, however attentive and orderly they may be. The bell rings and a troop of tired-looking boys, followed perhaps by a larger number of meek-eyed girls, file into the classroom, sit down, remove the expressions from their faces, open their notebooks on the broad chair arms, and receive. It is about as inspiring an audience as a roomful of phonographs holding up their brass trumpets. They reproduce the lecture in recitations like the phonograph, mechanically and faithfully, but with the tempo and timbre so changed that the speaker would like to disown his remarks if he could.

The next excerpt humorously alluded to the curious theory of the pineal gland held by the famous mathematician and philosopher René Descartes who “regarded it as the principal seat of the soul and the place in which all our thoughts are formed”. 3 The pineal gland is a small organ near the center of the brain. Slosson contended that students were duplicating lecture material in their notebooks without thinking about it: 4

They take it down. The secret is that they have, without knowing anything about physiological psychology, devised an automatic cut-off which goes into operation as they open their notebooks and short-circuits the train of thought from the ear directly to the hand, without its having to pass through the pineal gland or wherever the soul may be at the time residing and holding court.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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  1. 1927, Creative Learning and Teaching by Harry Lloyd Miller, Quote Page 120, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York. (HathiTrust full view) link link
  2. 1910, Great American Universities by Edwin E. Slosson, Quote Page 520, Macmillan Company, New York. (Google Books full view) [Thanks also to Stephen Goranson who linked the quote to Edwin E. Slosson] link
  3. 2011 Summer, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Descartes and the Pineal Gland by Gert-Jan Lokhorst, CSLI: Center for the Study of Language and Information, Stanford University, Stanford, California. (Accessed on August 17 2012) link
  4. 1910, Great American Universities by Edwin E. Slosson, Quote Page 520, Macmillan Company, New York. (Google Books full view) [Thanks also to Stephen Goranson who linked the quote to Edwin E. Slosson] link