Academic journal article Reference & User Services Quarterly

What Makes a Quotation Familiar?

Academic journal article Reference & User Services Quarterly

What Makes a Quotation Familiar?

Article excerpt

This is the debut of an occasional column exploring topics outside the purview of Reference & User. Services Quarterly's regular columns.--Editor

The ideal college is Mark Hopkins at one end of a log and a student at the other." This quotation--or something close to it--has become virtually a slogan among advocates of a liberal education. Even if you don't know who Mark Hopkins was--and I used this quotation for years without knowing anything about him--you get the point with this homely image: Hopkins is the kind of professor who takes the time to really get close to his students. He's not just chatting with students; he's sitting on a log with them. Those of us who like this quotation use it because it has the appeal of a rich, seemingly historical tradition: even if the tete-a-tete between student and teacher took place a long time ago, the symbolic force of the image is still pertinent today: Mark Hopkins sitting on a log with a student seems to combine the grandeur of myth with the homespun quality of a folktale. It also suggests a parable--quintessentially American--about what a real education should be. Even if Mark Hopkins did not in actual fact sit on a log with a student, we want the story to be true.

This aphorism is often used by humanists to criticize penurious "educationists" who are more concerned with academic infrastructure than with people. The idyllic image of the log, student, and teacher is rhetorically very effective--we are churlish if we think a genuine college education requires anything more than the basic ingredients of a teacher and a student. Mark Hopkins and a presumably attentive student thus serve as an ideal symbolic image of an egalitarian, rustic, albeit rather sentimentalized, vision of a college education.

Am I reading too much into this simple image? I don't think so. That's what memorable quotations are all about: they resonate with associations. I think we can argue that the parable I have imagined functions as a significant, albeit minor, work of American cultural and intellectual history.

When the ideal professor-student relationship is pictured so compellingly, who wouldn't want to have a one-on-one with an illustrious scholar-teacher like Mark Hopkins? It turns out that documented history gives credence to the tale I've imagined. Hopkins was a classics professor who was also president of Williams College from 1836 to 1872. This proverbial log image was apparently coined by James Abram Garfield, himself a professor of classics, and later the twentieth president of the United States.

Until I looked up the quotation recently, I did not know exactly who Hopkins was, let alone that Garfield apparently was the author of it. I had read this quotation and even used it once, with what I thought was considerable rhetorical success, at a convention of academic librarians. I stood up as a member of the audience in the question-and-answer period after a panel presentation proposing that librarians act as tutors to students. It pleased me to tell the panel that the innovative tutorial system they thought they were originating had already been invented years ago by Mark Hopkins when he sat on a log with a student. At that time my rhetorical point was made, not because I knew anything about who the real Mark Hopkins was, but simply because the quotation I remembered had the lofty-but-homely associations I've just described. (Oh, yes, it helped my cause that I said the words in a way strongly suggesting I did know what I was talking about.)

I now can claim to know a little more about this quotation and about the real Mark Hopkins. It turns out that there are some interesting differences between the actual Mark Hopkins and the imaginary one I have just described. The real Mark Hopkins published a number of books about ethics as well as being a teacher of Greek and Latin, but he was not a renowned scholar. His reputation both as teacher and president of Williams College centered on his conviction that education of the spirit was more important than education of the intellect. …

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