In his speech on Wednesday at Knox College, President Obama declared, “If you think education is expensive, wait until you see how much ignorance costs in the 21st century.” And in The Chronicle’s article on the speech that day, because we knew the origin of that phrase and presumed that some of our readers would be familiar with the line too, we oh-so-helpfully weighed in, noting that Mr. Obama was “paraphrasing a line made famous by Derek Bok, the former Harvard president.”
You could look that up yourself. The Internet is filled with references to the quotation, “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance,” attributed to Mr. Bok.
Except it turns out Mr. Bok never said that. The error was first pointed out to us last night by a reader, Barry Popik, a writer and lawyer in Texas and founder of an etymological Web site called The Big Apple. (Mr. Popik takes credit for explaining the origin of that nickname for New York City.) The Web site ran a post dissecting the misattribution of the “ignorance” quote in July 2012. The piece, prepared with the assistance of Garson O’Toole, of the Quote Investigator Web site, traced the quotation to a 1913 newspaper editorial that said, “Education is ‘expensive’? In a sense, yes. But ignorance is infinitely more expensive.” It also cites other, later versions of the quote.
The explanation sounded plausible, but hey, we’re journalists. We decided to go right to the source. Yes, of all the important issues a higher-education publication might have occasion to discuss with Mr. Bok, 83, our e-mail query to him on Wednesday night was simply, “Is the quote yours?”
At 4 a.m. on Thursday he replied, cheerfully acknowledging that indeed there were probably many more weighty issues we could discuss, but “at least the question you have asked is one to which I can give a clear and reliable answer.”
He continued: “The quotation you have mentioned was attributed to me in a column in the 1970s by my good friend, the late Eppie Lederer (Ann Landers). Why she attributed it to me I do not know. In any case, I have been besieged ever since by questions about the statement. One professor of logic even took me to task for faulty reasoning in a book or article he wrote. In any case, the answer to your question is no, I wasn’t the author of the quotation. I did persuade Eppie to correct the error in a subsequent article, but, as usual, the truth has yet to catch up with the perception.”
We stand corrected. And a little chagrined. At least he signed it, “Best regards.”