Universities Are Full of Knowledge; the Freshmen Bring a Little In and the Seniors Take None Away

Abbott Lawrence Lowell? Jonathan Swift? James Pycroft? University of Michigan Students? George Edgar Vincent? Arthur MacMurray? J. Brooks Atkinson? Charles William Eliot? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The people, laboratories, and libraries of a university embody a vast storehouse of knowledge. How did this knowledge accumulate? A humorous response to this question has often been attributed to Abbott Lawrence Lowell who was the President of Harvard University from 1909 to 1933. Would you please examine the history of this witticism?

Quote Investigator: Tracing this jest has been difficult because the phrasing and vocabulary has evolved over time. The earliest match located by QI appeared in 1844 within a book titled “A Course of English Reading: Adapted to Every Taste and Capacity” by Reverend James Pycroft of Trinity College, Oxford. The major literary figure Jonathan Swift received credit. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

Swift said that the reason a certain university was a learned place was, that most persons took some learning there, and few brought any away with them, so it accumulated.

This article has been partially updated and has not yet been fully updated.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

This joke and attribution continued to circulate during the ensuing decades. For example, in 1862 “The Weekly Herald” of St. Joseph, Missouri printed the quip with an ascription to Swift. 2 Also, in 1877 “The New Bloomfield, Pa. Times” of New Bloomfield, Pennsylvania printed the same passage and credit. 3

The quip continued to circulate in England, e.g., in January 1878 “The Lancaster Gazette” printed the following version without attribution: 4

‘Why, do you suppose —– College is such a learned place?‘ asked one gentleman of another. ‘I rather suspect,’ was the reply, ‘that as everybody takes a little learning there with him, and nobody ever brings any away, the learning accumulates.

In March 1878 a newspaper in Evansville, Indiana ascribed a version of the joke mentioning Freshmen and Seniors to an anonymous young student in Illinois: 5

Out in Illinois, likewise there is said to live a Freshman who, when asked by Senior, “Do you know why our college is such a learned place?” had the wit to respond, “Of course; the Freshmen all bring a little learning here, and as the Seniors never take any away, it naturally accumulates.”

Another match appeared in 1891 within a student periodical of the University of Michigan: 6

“Why is there so much learning to be had in college?”
“Because the freshmen bring it in, and the seniors don’t take it out.”
—Ex.

The quip above occurred in a section called “Exchanges” which contained miscellaneous pieces of humor with acknowledgements such as “Yale Record”, “Harvard Advocate”, and “Cosmos”. The acknowledgment “Ex.” listed above may have referred to the “Exchanges” section itself.

In 1902 George Edgar Vincent who was a sociologist at the University of Chicago included the joke in speech; however, Vincent credited the President of Harvard: 7

Mr Lowell was once asked how he accounted for the fact that such accumulations of knowledge were to be found in Cambridge. “Oh! that is simple enough,” was his whimsical reply. “You see, the freshmen bring up such quantities of information, and the seniors take nothing away,” We should all like to think this a somewhat overstatement of the facts, and yet we have to admit that the theory of profound erudition must be reluctantly abandoned.

Another match appeared in a Bemidji, Minnesota newspaper in 1912. Vincent who was now the President of the University of Minnesota delivered a speech that included an instance: 8

His humor was bright and everywhere evident. He said, that the reason for there being so much knowledge at the great universities and colleges of the country is that the Freshmen bring some knowledge with them and the Seniors take none of it away.

This article presents a snapshot of current research. Vincent is currently the leading candidate for crafter of this saying. Yet, this citation may be antedated by future researchers, and the preferred ascription may shift.

In 1914 the student newspaper of the University of Kansas located in Lawrence, Kansas credited the jest to local academician Arthur MacMurray who was a Professor of Public Speaking: 9

Professor MacMurray’s Best

Any Old Body: “How is it that there is so much knowledge around the University?”

Prof. Arthur MacMurray: “Each freshman brings a little and the seniors don’t take much away.”

In 1931 J. Brooks Atkinson penned a theater review in “The New York Times”. The play depicted naïve aspiring dramatists traveling to the Promised Land of New York and facing disappointments. As an aside, Atkinson mentioned the joke and attributed it to the President of Harvard: 10

President Lowell of Harvard once remarked philosophically: “Of course universities are full of knowledge. The freshmen bring a little in and the seniors take none away, and knowledge accumulates.”

In the same way New York is heir to all the aspiration that young people, on fire with ambition, squander here.

In May 1935 a student newspaper in Ottawa, Kansas printed an instance without attribution: 11

Did You Know That some of the larger universities are improving in their learning because the freshmen bring a little knowledge with them and the seniors never succeed in taking any away with them.

In October 1935 a version tailored to high schools appeared in a Clinton, Missouri newspaper: 12

There ought to be a lot of learning stored up in Clinton high school. Each freshman brings in a little, and the seniors take none away. If somebody tells us that was first said of Harvard, our reply will be, “We know it. What of it? Same condition obtains here.”

Also in October 1935 Lowell received credit in a filler item in a Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania newspaper: 13

President Lowell of Harvard must have a capacity for satire, to judge from what he is quoted as having said: “No wonder that knowledge accumulates in the colleges—the freshmen always bring in a little and the seniors never take any away.”

In 1942 the reference book “Thesaurus of Anecdotes” by Edmund Fuller ascribed the quip to Charles William Eliot who was the President of Harvard before Lowell: 14

Dr. Charles W. Eliot, the eminent educator of Harvard whose fate it has been to be dubiously immortalized by a five-foot shelf of books, was once asked how Harvard had gained its prestige as the greatest storehouse of knowledge in the nation.

“In all likelihood,” said Dr. Eliot slyly, “it is because the freshmen bring us so much of it, and the seniors take away so little.”

In November 1942 “The Hartford Courant” of Connecticut ascribed a different phrasing to Lowell: 15

Of course universities are full of knowledge. The freshmen bring a little in and the seniors take none away, and knowledge accumulates.
—A. Lawrence Lowell.

A few weeks after Lowell’s death in January 1943, a newspaper in Hammond, Indiana suggested that he delivered the quip shortly before expiring; however, as shown previously, Lowell was linked to the joke by 1931: 16

Shortly before his recent death former President Lowell of Harvard said: “No wonder the colleges remain so full of learning. The freshmen bring a little in and the seniors never take any out.”

In 1949 the mass-circulation “Reader’s Digest” printed the remark with an ascription to Lowell and pointed to the Atkinson article from 1931: 17

President Lowell of Harvard, explaining why universities have so much learning: The freshmen bring a little in and the seniors take none out, so it accumulates through the years. — Brooks Atkinson in New York Times

In 1980 “The Official Explanations” by Paul Dickson presented the quip as a formula: 18

Lowell’s Formula. Universities are full of knowledge; the freshmen bring a little in and the seniors take none away, and knowledge accumulates.
(Educator Abbott Lawrence Lowell.)

In conclusion, the earliest evidence in 1912 suggests that George Edgar Vincent may have crafted this joke, and he is currently the top candidate. In 1914 Arthur MacMurray received credit. Years later in 1931 the joke was assigned to Abbott Lawrence Lowell, but the late date of the supporting citation weakens this attribution. The evidence for the ascription to Charles William Eliot is also weak.

Image Notes: Cropped image from a panorama shot of the University of Minnesota Twin Cities east bank campus. Image from Runner1928 licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

(Great thanks to Harry Lewis whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Special thanks to Barry Popik who located valuable citations starting in March 1878.)

Update History: On June 28, 2018 citation in 1844, 1891, 1895, and 1902 were added. On July 5, 2018 citations in 1862, 1877, and 1878 were added.

Notes:

  1. 1844, A Course of English Reading: Adapted to Every Taste and Capacity: with Anecdotes of Men of Genius by The Rev. James Pycroft (Trinity College, Oxford), Quote Page 39, Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1862 April 17, The Weekly Herald, Clippings, Quote Page 4, Column 2, St. Joseph, Missouri. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1877 December 18, The New Bloomfield, Pa. Times, Humorous Column, Quote Page 7, Column 5, New Bloomfield, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
  4. 1878 January 19, The Lancaster Gazette, Wit and Humour, Quote Page 7, Column 6, Lancaster, England. (Newspapers_com)
  5. 1878 March 31, The Evansville Daily Courier, Fresh Freshmen: The Blunders of Embryo Learned Ones at the College—No Wonder They Are Hazed, Quote Page 3, Column 3, Evansville, Indiana. (GenealogyBank)
  6. 1891 March 7, The Chronicle-Argonaut, Volume 1, Number 17, Exchanges, Start Page 242, Quote Page 243, Column 1, Published Weekly During the College Year by the Chronicle-Argonaut Association of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan. (Google Books Full View) link
  7. 1902, Regents Bulletin Number 58, 40th University Convocation of the State of New York, Held June 30 to July 1, 1902, Speech Title: Education and Efficiency, Speaker: Professor George E. Vincent (University of Chicago), Date of Speech: July 1, 1902, Start Page 287, Quote Page 289, Published by University of the State of New York, Albany, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  8. 1912 February 9, The Bemidji Daily Pioneer, Vincent Captivates Bemidji Audience: Minnesota University Head Holds Nearly 1000 Listeners Spellbound Throughout Lecture, Quote Page 1, Column 2, Bemidji, Minnesota. (Newspapers_com)
  9. 1914 October 14, University Daily Kansan, Tales Out o’ School, Quote Page 3, Column 3, Lawrence, Kansas. (Newspapers_com)
  10. 1931 January 18, New York Times, Going Forth: In His New Comedy George Kelly Satirizes The Incipient Dramatists—Technique or Aspiration by J. Brooks Atkinson, Section 8, Quote Page 1, Column 2,New York. (ProQuest)
  11. 1935 May 23, The Ottawa Campus (Oldest Student Publication in Kansas), (Filler item), Quote Page 2, Column 4, Ottawa, Kansas. (Newspapers_com)
  12. 1935 October 10, The Clinton Eye, Cardinal Feathers, Quote Page 3B, Column 4, Clinton, Missouri. (Newspapers_com)
  13. 1935 October 23, Wilkes-Barre Times Leader, (Filler item), Quote Page 12, Column 2, Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
  14. 1942, Thesaurus of Anecdotes by Edmund Fuller, Topic: Learning and the Arts, Quote Page 175, Crown Publishers, New York. (Verified on paper)
  15. 1942 November 27, The Hartford Courant, For Your Scrap Book, Quote Page 8, Column 1, Hartford, Connecticut. (ProQuest)
  16. 1943 January 29, The Hammond Times, (Filler item), Quote Page 18, Column 2, Hammond, Indiana. (Newspapers_com)
  17. 1949 May, Reader’s Digest, Volume 54, Quotable Quotes, Quote Page 7, The Reader’s Digest Association, Pleasantville, New York. (Verified on paper)
  18. 1980, The Official Explanations by Paul Dickson, Quote Page 129, Delacorte Press, New York. (Verified on paper)