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Archive for May 18th, 2010

Soiled fish

with 2 comments

The following quote:

It is important that students bring a certain ragamuffin, barefoot irreverence to their studies; they are not here to worship what is known, but to question it.

is attributed to Jacob Chanowski. It appears, with attribution to Jacob Chanowski, in several books, including this one, this one, this one, this one… it even appears in translation in a couple of French papers. There’s even a Graduation speech at the University of Iowa containing the quote, with “twentieth-century educator Jacob Chanowski said…”. If books and papers and speeches have it, what of the internet? Of course there are hundreds of webpages with this quote, also attributing it to Jacob Chanowski.

The only problem is, Jacob Chanowski doesn’t exist.

The quote is actually by Jacob Bronowski. He said this in his book The Ascent of Man, p.360, as cited here, here, here, etc. Also see this thread, wondering about the same question.

But there’s a further unnecessary twist. For some perverse reason, the questioner here stands his ground, claims it has been incorrectly attributed to Bronowski, and it is actually by “Jacob Chanowski (1908–1974)”, of whom nothing can be found on the internet other than this quote (and a couple other misquotations of quotes also attributed to Bronowski). Now it turns out 1908–1974 was Bronowski’s lifetime, so the guy on that thread is probably just confused. He does point out something suspicious: there are too many quotes all attributed to p. 360 of The Ascent of Man, which hardly seems plausible — until you realize all the quotes are about Göttingen, so it’s possible they are on the same page.

I think this is conclusive enough that it’s by Bronowski, and Chanowski doesn’t exist.

The only moral of this time-wasting story is that something frequently repeated isn’t necessarily trustworthy, and that the perils of propagation are only amplified on the internet. Quotes have a way of picking up a life of their own, finding several new authors and sometimes getting stuck with the wrong one. Some people are quote magnets for these assorted debris, people like Oscar Wilde, Bernard Shaw or Winston Churchill. This is why Uncyclopedia has a running gag of making up quotes attributed to Oscar Wilde, and Dorothy Parker said:

If with the literate I am
Impelled to try an epigram,
I never seek to take the credit;
We all assume that Oscar said it.


Written by S

Tue, 2010-05-18 at 17:11:32

Posted in quotes