In November 2015, Facebook page “The Credible Hulk” shared the following screenshot purportedly showing a lament from an 1815 school principal’s publication suggesting the students of the day had grown too dependent on paper, and lacked the ability to write neatly on slates:
A portion circled in orange highlighter read:
From a principal’s publication, 1815: “Students today depend on paper too much. They don’t know how to write on a slate without getting chalk dust all over themselves. They can’t clean a slate properly. What will they do when they run out of paper?”
Underneath that, what appeared to be a Tumblr user wrote:
Proof that someone has bitched and will bitch about young peoples’ technology throughout all of time and space.
In that format, the meme resembled a similar but broader “kids today” meme, holding that young people believe that images of floppy disks were solely an abstract “save” icon. As the original commenter indicated, the “students today depend on paper too much” quote circa 1815 resonated with social media users because it suggested that the adults of any given era remained unable to adapt to new learning technologies used by subsequent generations.
No commentary or source were shared alongside the original post to “The Credible Hulk” Facebook page, but thousands of users shared it anyway. A cursory search revealed sharing of the comment was not new in November 2019, and a 2014 blog post tried to trace the quote after its author became suspicious:
Last week I retweeted an image from an educational publication presenting this historic complaint:
“Students today depend on paper too much. They don’t know how to write on a slate without getting chalk dust all over themselves. They can’t clean a slate properly. What will they do when they run out of paper?”
That passage was said to have appeared in a “principal’s publication” in 1815.
I liked how that passage hinted at the change in American pedagogy over the years. Many of us have an image of past education based on literature and art from the mid-1800s, with slates, blackboards, globes, and boys and girls on opposite sides of the same classroom. In fact, in Boston’s Revolutionary-era public schools, there were only boys in the classroom (except during private lessons); there were no geography lessons; and most boys learned their lessons in handwriting and basic arithmetic using ink and paper, not slates.
But when I looked more carefully at that quotation, I got suspicious. The sentences seemed too short and informal for 1815, and the educational field hadn’t yet specialized enough to create a “principal’s publication.”
That 2014 post cited a 2012 QuoteInvestigator.com piece headlined, “Students Today Can’t Prepare Bark to Calculate Their Problems.” The site examined a set of six or seven purportedly historical quotations (“a hilarious collection of quotations that outlines the remarkable historical changes in education,” and showcasing “the intersection of education and technology.”
Quote Investigator tracked the meme in its original format back to a 1978 issue of the Mathematics Associations of Two-Year Colleges or MATYC Journal, noting that the larger set of quotes was widely shared on numerous websites at the time:
Quote Investigation: This set of statements was printed in the Fall 1978 issue of “The MATYC Journal”, a publication that focused on mathematics education. The quotes were assigned the dates: 1703, 1815, 1907, 1929, 1941, and 1950. But QI believes these statements were actually constructed for the article in 1978. Copies of these quotes have been widely distributed and posted on many websites. They also have been published in multiple books and periodicals.
Its original format in part showed how the supposed complaints interlocked, each forming the basis of the next one. Individually, the quotes purportedly came from publications such as “the Rural American Teacher,” “the PTA Gazette,” and “Federal Teachers”:
“Students today depend upon store bought ink. They don’t know how to make their own. When they run out of ink they will be unable to write words or ciphers until their next trip to the settlement. This is a sad commentary on modern education.” The Rural American Teacher, 1929
“Students today depend upon these expensive fountain pens. They can no longer write with a straight pen and nib (not to mention sharpening their own quills). We parents must not allow them to wallow in such luxury to the detriment of learning how to cope in the real business world, which is not so extravagant.” PTA Gazette, 1941
“Ballpoint pens will be the ruin of education in Our Country. Students use these devices and then throw them away! The American virtues of thrift and frugality are being discarded. Businesses and banks will never allow such expensive luxuries.” Federal Teachers, 1950
Quote Investigator tracked down the author cited for the original column from 1978, Gene Zirkel. Zirkel confirmed the quotes were a satirical invention for the 1978 column, telling them that he “did indeed create those quotes for MATYC”:
The author name listed after these quotes in 1978 was Gene Zirkel of Nassau Community College who wrote a column for the MATYC journal and was designated the ‘Humorous editor’. Zirkel taught and wrote extensively about mathematics and computers. He is now a Professor Emeritus, and he has appended a valuable message below in the comment section of this article stating:
QI communicated with SUNY Nassau Community College to verify the contact information for Zirkel and exchanged emails with the educator confirming that he claims coinage for these quotations. The journal article was not intended to be deceptive. The piece was written by the publication’s humor columnist, and it reflected the ongoing and historical changes in educational technology with a clever satirical edge.
That outlet also observed that even before the internet was widely used, “periodicals and books have treated the quotes as genuine,” citing a 1988 newspaper as an example. Over time, Zirkel’s humorous writings became decoupled from their source (as they do), landing on Facebook in 2019 and becoming, once again, a novel example of Luddite elders.
The November 2019 post by The Credible Hulk on Facebook featured a purported 1815 quote complaining “students today depend on paper too much,” “don’t know how to write on a slate without getting chalk dust all over themselves,” “can’t clean a slate properly,” and would not know what to “do when they run out of paper.” Although the origins of the quote were revealed to be purely satirical in 2012, it continued to spread in 2019 as a genuine example of hostility to technology in education — unexpectedly offering up a very different and wholly unintentional lesson in technology and how it sometimes unintentionally enables misinformation to spread.