When a Subject Becomes Totally Obsolete We Make It a Required Course

Peter Drucker? Apocryphal?

textbooks10Dear Quote Investigator: While perusing a book of quotations categorized as outrageous I saw a remark about college education attributed to the famous business guru Peter Drucker:

When a subject becomes totally obsolete we make it a required course.

I haven’t been able to determine where or when this statement appeared. Is this ascription accurate?

Quote Investigator: In 1969 Peter Drucker published “The Age of Discontinuity: Guidelines to Our Changing Society”. Drucker argued that successful organizations must be capable of change and innovation: 1

An organization, whatever its objectives, must therefore be able to get rid of yesterday’s tasks and thus to free its energies and resources for new and more productive tasks.

Drucker indicated that effective ideas for positive change were often readily available, and yet the resistance to alterations within an organization was often very strong. Drucker employed a version of the saying under investigation when discussing the educational domain. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 2

Rather it is organizational inertia which always pushes for continuing what we are already doing. At least we know—or we think we know—what we are doing. Organization is always in danger of being overwhelmed by yesterday’s tasks and being rendered sterile by them.

If a subject has become obsolete, the university faculty makes a required course out of it—and this “solves the problem” for the time being.

In 1976 “Drucker: The Man Who Invented the Corporate Society” by John J. Tarrant was released, and it included a ten-page appendix filled with remarks by Peter Drucker. The Fall 1976 issue of “The Wharton Magazine” from the University of Pennsylvania reprinted seventeen sayings from the appendix. Here are four examples; the third exactly matches the expression given by the questioner: 3 4

We know nothing about motivation. All we can do is write books about it.

So much of what we call management consists in making it difficult for people to work.

When a subject becomes totally obsolete we make it a required course.

The schoolmaster since time immemorial has believed that the ass is an organ of learning. The longer you sit, the more you learn.

In 1992 Drucker crafted another phrasing for his idea. The details are given further below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

The influential 1977 collection “Peter’s Quotations: Ideas for Our Time” by Laurence J. Peter included the quotation above with an ascription: 5

When a subject becomes totally obsolete we make it a required course. —Peter Drucker

The statement with the same credit appeared in other collections such as “The Book of Quotes” (1979) compiled by Barbara Rowes 6 and “The Dictionary of Outrageous Quotations” (1988) compiled by C. R. S. Marsden. 7

In 1992 Drucker published “Managing for the Future: The 1990s and Beyond” which included a third version of the sentiment: 8

In a market economy, innovation comes easier to businesses. In fact it is equally important in every other field of endeavour. But although the principles of innovation and entrepreneurship apply just as well to government institutions or universities, the practice is different. There is nothing more reactionary that a liberal faculty in a university. It is the ultimate in reaction. It is the motto of the U.S. universities that when a subject becomes totally obsolete, then a required course should be built around it. To survive and be useful, they must learn how to innovate.

In conclusion, Drucker can properly be credited with this saying, and the reader is free to select the version of the quotation from 1969, 1976, or 1992.

Image Notes: University lecture from nikolayhg at Pixabay. Textbooks from Hermann at Pixabay.

(Great thanks to Fred Shapiro who requested quotations from business leaders and experts such as Drucker for possible inclusion in the second edition of “The Yale Book of Quotations”. This led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

Update History: On October 22, 2014 the 1976 citation for “Drucker: The Man Who Invented the Corporate Society” was added.

Notes:

  1. 1969, The Age of Discontinuity: Guidelines to Our Changing Society by Peter F. Drucker, Quote Page 193, Harper & Row, New York. (Verified on paper)
  2. 1969, The Age of Discontinuity: Guidelines to Our Changing Society by Peter F. Drucker, Quote Page 193, Harper & Row, New York. (Verified on paper)
  3. 1976 Fall, The Wharton Magazine, Volume 1, Number 1, Bits, Start Page 12, Quote Page 14, Column 1, Published by Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Verified on microfilm)
  4. 1976, Drucker: The Man Who Invented the Corporate Society by John J. Tarrant, Section: Appendix, Quote Page 260, Published by Cahners Books, Boston, Massachusetts. (Verified on paper)
  5. 1977, “Peter’s Quotations: Ideas for Our Time” by Laurence J. Peter, Section: Colleges / Universities, Quote Page 117, William Morrow and Company, New York. (Verified on paper)
  6. 1979, The Book of Quotes, Compiled by Barbara Rowes, Quote Page 170, A Sunrise Book: E. P. Dutton, New York. (Verified on paper)
  7. 1988, The Dictionary of Outrageous Quotations, Compiled by C.R.S. Marsden, Section: Education, Quote Page 29, Salem House, Topsfield, Massachusetts. (Verified on paper)
  8. 1992, Managing for the Future: The 1990s and Beyond by Peter F. Drucker, Quote Page 339, Published by Truman Talley Books/Dutton, New York. (Verified on paper)