Education Is the Inculcation of the Incomprehensible Into the Ignorant by the Incompetent

John Maynard Keynes? Josiah Stamp? Ernest Brown? Anonymous?

university07Dear Quote Investigator: The most outrageous quotation about education that I have ever heard has been attributed to the famous economist John Maynard Keynes. Here are three versions:

1) Education is the inculcation of the incomprehensible into the ignorant by the incompetent.

2) Education: the inculcation of the incomprehensible into the indifferent by the incompetent.

3) Education is the inculcation of the incomprehensible into the indolent by the inept.

Recently, I encountered an attribution of this alliterative remark to Josiah Stamp who was an industrialist, an economist, and a director of the Bank of England. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence located by QI appeared in a book titled “Ideals of a Student” by Sir Josiah Stamp. The preface was dated September 1933, and Stamp wrote that the section containing the quotation was based on a commencement address he delivered “at Toronto this year”. Stamp was probably referring to the University of Toronto. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

What is the position of education in all this? Well, its place in this scheme ought to be easily visible to all of us. The time has gone by when we can say that education is “the inculcation of the incomprehensible into the ignorant by the incompetent.” Now upon us students is the responsibility: for these complexities of economic life require certain qualities of judgment.

Stamp used quotation marks to signal that the expression was already in circulation; hence, he appeared to disclaim authorship. He also expressed disagreement with the statement. Nevertheless, in the following years his name was firmly attached to the saying.

The connection to John Maynard Keynes was established by 1962 when the diplomat Abba Eban wrote an article stating that he heard the saying from Keynes at Cambridge during the 1930s. The detailed citation for this article is given further below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In Spring 1933 a journal called “The Education Outlook” printed an instance grouped together with other miscellaneous sayings in a section titled “Gleanings”. The expression was ascribed to Stamp, but the word “indolent” was used instead of “ignorant”. In the original text the word “Education” was in boldface and “Sir Josiah Stamp” was in italics: 2

Education.
“The inculcation of the incomprehensible into the indolent by the incompetent.”—Sir Josiah Stamp.

In November 1937 a newspaper in Winnipeg, Manitoba reported on remarks made by Stamp during a speech in England. Apparently, Stamp employed the quotation in multiple orations: 3

At a school function at Bury St. Edmunds the other day, Sir Josiah Stamp gave two definitions of education: “The inculcation of the incomprehensible into the ignorant by the incompetent,” and “What you have left when you have forgotten all you know.”

In January 1938 a newspaper in Greeley, Colorado relayed a comment made by Stamp during another speech in England: 4

“Education is the inculcation of the incomprehensible into the ignorant by the incompetent,”—Sir Josiah Stamp in Medley, London. A lot of people will agree with parts of that definition, but many will be the arguments over which part.

In February 1938 the saying was modified and applied to a Canadian politician in the “Winnipeg Free Press” newspaper of Manitoba: 5

And when he got to the problem of income and outgo of Provincial Finance, Mr. McLenaghen was perfect in criticism; he was ace high, tops, in the inculcation of the incomprehensible into the wise by the competent.

In April 1938 a newspaper in Denton, Texas acknowledged another paper while presenting a slightly garbled version of the saying ascribed to an unnamed professor: 6

The Mount Vernon Optic-Herald: “Education,” the professor says, “is the inculcation of the incomprehensible into the ignorance by the incompetent.” Now, just ain’t that sump’n?

In 1940 the statement was ascribed to an archetypal cynic in the periodical of a college based in Virginia: 7

As the cynic has it: “Education is the inculcation of the incomprehensible into the ignorant by the incompetent.” There are those of us who will admit the allegation but impute the charge lower down. Thus a majority of Virginia college deans, when questioned recently by the Richmond Times-Dispatch, expressed the belief and backed it by statistics that our high schools are not adequately preparing their students for the mental rigors of college life.

In January 1942 “The Engineering Journal” reported on remarks made by Ernest Brown who was the Dean of Engineering at McGill University. Brown was given an honorary degree by the University of Toronto, and he included the saying in his speech: 8

Some clever modern cynic defined education as “the inculcation of the incomprehensible into the minds of the ignorant by the incompetent.” While this is clever, it is not profound. Aristotle knew better when he said: “The purpose of education is to enable us to enjoy leisure beautifully.”

In 1946 a periodical called the “Great Lakes Technocrat” presented the saying in the form of a definition which was intended to be subversive: 9

The idea is to redefine words, phrases, slogans, etc. from the viewpoint of social change. Put a new twist on these hoary definitions that will crack down on the Status Quo with the triple lash of ridicule, irony and veracity…

EDUCATION—The inculcation of the incomprehensible into the ‘minds’ of the ignorant by the incompetent.

In 1962 the periodical Jewish Frontier published “Israel in the World of Ideas” by Abba Eban which included the following passage ascribing an instance of the saying to the prominent economist John Maynard Keynes circa the 1930s: 10

Amongst the definitions of education I remember one that I first heard in Cambridge from Lord Keynes (this was in the ‘thirties). “Education” he said, “is the inculcation of the incomprehensible into the ignorant by the incompetent.” The time is now past when such cynical definitions are feasible.

In 1967 the President of the Westinghouse Broadcasting Company addressed a U.S. Senate hearing and employed the saying. Interestingly, the executive asserted that Keynes strongly disagreed with the statement: 11

John Maynard Keynes, the British economist, once remarked that “It is a gross canard to state that education is the inculcation of the incomprehensible into the ignorant by the incompetent because we know that the students are far from ignorant.” Today the medium of television has the opportunity to arm the “incompetent” and to make them far more able than ever before.

In 1979 the humorist Leo Rosten included a version of the saying in his compilation “Infinite Riches: Gems from a Lifetime of Reading”. The phrase was credited to Keynes, but the word “indifferent” was used instead of “ignorant” or “indolent”: 12

Education: the inculcation of the incomprehensible into the indifferent by the incompetent.
— JOHN MAYNARD KEYNES

In conclusion, evidence beginning in 1933 indicated that Josiah Stamp was the key locus in the popularization of this saying, but his book titled “Ideals of a Student” used quotation marks indicating that the expression was already being disseminated. In addition, Stamp expressed disagreement with its import.

The linkage to John Maynard Keynes was weaker because it appeared decades later in 1962, and the evidence was indirect. But it was plausible that the phrase was circulating at the University of Cambridge in the 1930s and Keynes employed it.

Image Notes: Cambridge architecture from blizniak at Pixabay.

(Thanks to K who brought this expression to my attention. Great thanks to John Van Hook and the University of Florida, Gainesville library system; Stephen Goranson and the Duke University library system; and Fred Shapiro and the Yale University library system. Special thanks to my local library.)

Notes:

  1. 1933, Ideals of a Student by Sir Josiah Stamp, Chapter 2: On the Democratic Hope, Quote Page 53, Published by E. Benn, London. (The preface was dated September 1933 and in the preface Josiah Stamp stated that chapter 2 was based on a commencement address he delivered “at Toronto this year”, i.e., at the University of Toronto in 1933) (Verified with scans; great thanks to Stephen Goranson and the Duke University library system)
  2. 1933 Spring, The Education Outlook, Volume 10, Number 1, Gleanings, (Quotation under title “Education”), Quote Page 21, Column 1, Published in London, England. (Verified visually; great thanks to Fred Shapiro and the Yale University library system)
  3. 1937 November 1, Winnipeg Free Press, A Readers Notes, Quote Page 17, Column 6, Winnipeg, Manitoba. (NewspaperArchive)
  4. 1938 January 31, Greeley Daily Tribune, (Untitled filler item), Quote Page 10, Column 1, Greeley, Colorado. (Newspapers_com)
  5. 1938 February 17, Winnipeg Free Press, Under the Dome by C. C., Quote Page 13, Column 6, Winnipeg, Manitoba. (NewspaperArchive)
  6. 1938 April 7, Denton Record-Chronicle, Round About Town, Quote Page 1, Column 1, Denton, Texas, (Newspapers_com)
  7. 1940 January, The Record of the Hampden-Sydney Alumni Association, Volume 14, Number 2, Freshmen and Other Fry by D. M. Allan, Start Page 5, Quote Page 5, Column 2, Published by Hampden–Sydney College, Hampden Sydney, Virginia. (Internet Archive) link
  8. 1942 January, The Engineering Journal, Volume 25, Number 1, Dean Brown Receives Honorary Degree, Start Page 39, Quote Page 40. Column 2, Published by The Engineering Institute of Canada, Montreal, Quebec, Canada. (Internet Archive) link
  9. 1946 November-December, Great Lakes Technocrat, Volume 4, Number 1, Dictionary of the Price System: A Word a Day Keeps the Fog Away by Herb Robbins and Joseph Eble Start Page 13. Quote Page 13, Column 1, Published by Technocracy Inc, Chicago, Illinois. (Internet Archive) link
  10. 1962 October, Jewish Frontier, Israel in the World of Ideas by Abba Eban, Start Page 3, Quote Page 3, Labor Zionist Letters, New York, New York. (Verified with scans; great thanks to John Van Hook and the University of Florida, Gainesville library system)
  11. 1967, United States Congress, Ninetieth Congress, First Session, Senate Hearings, Committee on Commerce, Subcommittee on Communications. Hearings on S. 1160, The Public Television Act of 1967, (Statement made on April 27, 1967 by Donald McGannon, President, Westinghouse Broadcasting Co., New York) Start Page 533, Quote Page 534, United States Government Printing Office, Washington D.C. (HathiTrust Full View) link link
  12. 1979, Infinite Riches: Gems from a Lifetime of Reading by Leo Rosten, Quote Page 165, Published by McGraw-Hill Book Company, New York. (Verified on paper)