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I don’t have the mental oomph this week for a thirty at thirty post, so I thought instead I’d offer you a little anecdote from the Reading Room of the Massachusetts Historical Society. It’s a fascinating example of how historical sources can be unreliable, and knowledge with think we all know turns out to be factually far more complicated than it appeared at first glance.


Yesterday afternoon I took a call from a researcher who was looking to source a quotation about Horace Mann. The researcher gave the quote to me over the telephone as follows

Education really consists of a student on one end of a log and Horace Mann on the other end of the log.

The researcher wanted to find out who had said this. I took their contact information and this morning when I was in the Reading Room I spent some time digging around to see what I could find.

My first stop was the online version of Bartlett’s Quotations, to look up any familiar quotations with “Horace Mann” in or associated with them, since this was my one concrete lead. (The MHS does, in fact, hold a large collection of Horace Mann papers, but since this was a quotation ostensibly about Mann rather than by Mann, I set aside the possibility of wading into those waters until later. Turns out this was a good call!). Bartlett’s didn’t yield anything. So I decided to begin by verifying the wording of the quotation via that wonderfully inexact crowd-sourcing tool known as The Internet.

I navigated to Google.com and typed in “education really consists of a student on one end of a log” and hit search.

Yes, Librarians do it too, and yes sometimes it can actually be an incredibly powerful entry-point for research of this kind.

What I discovered from scanning the first page of results for this phrase was that it wasn’t Horace Mann whose name was most frequently associated with phrases along these lines, but a man named Mark Hopkins, who was the president of Williams College (Williamstown, Mass.) from 1836-1872.

Re-running my search with the “education…” phrase and “Mark Hopkins” took me to a Wikiquotes article on education, where the quotation is given as: “My definition of a University is Mark Hopkins at one end of a log and a student on the other,” and the attribution is described thus:

Tradition well established that James A. Garfield used the phrase at a New York Alumni Dinner in 1872. No such words are found, however. A letter of his, Jan., 1872, contains the same line of thought.

I now had a tentative identification for the individual named in the quotation as well as a possible identification for the individual who had spoken the words.


A search in Google Books and the Internet Archive for various combinations of keywords from the above yielded some fascinating permutations of the elusive quote on education:

The January 1902 issue of the Western Journal of Education contains an address by one E.F. Adams in which he claims, “When President Garfield said that when Horace Mann was on one end of a log and himself on the other there was a university he expressed the spirit of the old education” (p. 18).

In a 1966 issue of the education magazine Phi Delta Kappan, Arthur H. Glogau again attributed the quotation to President Garfield and writes “Garfield once said that a rotten log, with Mark Hopkins on one end of it, and himself on the other, would be a university” (Vol 48, p. 404). The date for the quotation is given in this instance as 1885.

Mark Hopkins was one-time president of Williams College and apparently a former professor of Garfield’s. In a footnote concerning Hopkins in The Collected Prose of Robert Frost, the editor formulates the quote as: “The ideal college is Mark Hopkins on one end of a log and a student at the other” (p. 266).

Since none of these sources either quote Garfield directly or provide a citation to his own writing or speeches, I turned to our own catalog, ABIGAIL, and called for a biography of Garfield from our reference collection.

Unfortunately, this didn’t exactly clear up the mystery.

Robert Granfield Caldwell’s James A Garfield: A Party Chieftain (1931), attributes the quote to another secondary source, B.A. Hinsdale’s President Garfield and Education (1882), and phrases it: “Give me a log hut, with only a simple bench, Mark Hopkins on one end and I on the other, and you may have all the buildings, apparatus and libraries without him” (p. 185). 

This citation appears to lead us back to a 4 February 1879 speech by Garfield before the National Education Association, the full text of which is reproduced in the Hinsdale publication. You can read it online at the Internet ArchiveIn his NEA address, Garfield articulated the idea in this way:

If I could be taken back into boyhood to-day, and had all the libraries and apparatus of a university, with ordinary routine professors, offered me on the one hand, and on the other a great, luminous, rich-souled man, such as Dr. Hopkins was twenty years ago, in a tent in the woods alone, I should say, ‘Give me Dr. Hopkins for my college course, rather than any university with only routine professors’ (338).

So now I have four dates upon which this sentiment was supposedly expressed (1871, 1872, 1879, and 1885) and as many venues (New York Alumni dinner, private correspondence, NEA address, and an unknown context for the 1885 attribution). 

What I find fascinating about all of these “quotations” is the aspects of the story that remain roughly constant: the presence of Hopkins, the image of one mentor and one student in dialogue, the language of wood: a log, a log bench, a rotten log, a tent in the woods. My speculative guess, based on the information I have in front of me, is that this was a well-worn anecdote that James Garfield told about his former professor in a number of settings, and that the image was such a striking one to his contemporaries that it was picked up and repeated over time with slight variation, like that game of telephone you’re forced to play as a child at birthday parties where you whisper a message from ear to ear around the circle and see whether the end result bears any resemblance to the original phrase.

So there you have it: an hour or two in the life of a reference librarian.