Henry Kissinger? Wallace Sayre? Charles Frankel? Samuel Johnson? Jesse Unruh? Courtney Brown? Laurence J. Peter?
Dear Quote Investigator: The following saying is often attributed to the prominent U.S. foreign policy figure and Nobel laureate Henry Kissinger:
Academic politics are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small.
But I have also seen it attributed to the political scientist Wallace Sayre. Could you examine this adage?
Quote Investigator: There are many different ways to state this basic idea. Here are some additional forms to help depict the range of possible expressions:
Academic politics is the most vicious and bitter form of politics, because the stakes are so low.
Politics on the university campus are the worst of all kinds of politics because the stakes are so small.
Campus politics are so nasty because the stakes are so small.
The republic of learning and letters works by especially bitter squabbling because the stakes are so small.
This exploration begins with a fascinating precursor in 1765 from the pen of the lexicographer and celebrated man of letters Samuel Johnson. In the following excerpt a “scholiast” referred to an academic commentator:
It is not easy to discover from what cause the acrimony of a scholiast can naturally proceed. The subjects to be discussed by him are of very small importance; they involve neither property nor liberty; nor favour the interest of sect or party. The various readings of copies, and different interpretations of a passage, seem to be questions that might exercise the wit, without engaging the passions.
But whether it be, that small things make mean men proud, and vanity catches small occasions; or that all contrariety of opinion, even in those that can defend it no longer, makes proud men angry; there is often found in commentaries a spontaneous strain of invective and contempt, more eager and venomous than is vented by the most furious controvertist in politicks against those whom he is hired to defame.
Another precursor was delivered in 1964 by Robert M. Hutchins whose long career included service as Dean of Yale Law School and President of the University of Chicago. Hutchins called academic politics “the worst kind”, but he did not include the sardonic explanation given in the full version of the saying:
Though I do not know much about professional politics, I know a lot about academic politics — and that is the worst kind. Woodrow Wilson said that Washington was a snap after Princeton.
The earliest direct evidence known to QI of a full statement that fits in the grouping above was printed in the transcript of a speech given in February 1969 at the annual convention of the American Association of School Administrators. The speaker was Charles Frankel who was a Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University, but his phrasing indicated that the adage was already in circulation, and he provided no attribution:
It used to be said of politics on the university campus that it was the worst of all kinds of politics because the stakes were so small. We should be able to take at least minor comfort, then, from the present situation in the educational world: The stakes today are not at all small.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.