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I love the old Guy Debord saying “Plagiarism is necessary. Progress implies it.” Of course, Debord stole the quotation from Comte de Lautréamont’s Poésies II: “Plagiarism is necessary. Progress implies it. It holds tight an author’s phrase, uses his expressions, eliminates a false idea, and replaces it with just the right idea.”

For Debord, the appropriation of Lautréamont was an expression of his idea of détournement, a radical act of defamiliarization that could shake up staid sensibilities. And I very much like the idea of appropriating and twisting familiar quotations. I’m fond, for example, of pointing to Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous proclamation about education technology: “The arc of ed-tech is long, but it bends towards the LMS.”

But I strongly dislike the sharing of misattributed quotations when the purpose isn’t subversion or provocation – when it’s just a matter of shoddy research and the lazy insertion of a familiar quotation hoping that it will do the intellectual and political work for you.

I saw this happen today in an op-ed in Edsurge – an invocation of something that John Dewey most certainly did not say: “If we teach today’s students as we taught yesterday’s, we rob them of tomorrow.” And there are a bunch of these sayings that you’ll see all the time in education circles – on Twitter, in slide decks. “If you judge a fish by its ability to climb tree, it will go its whole life believing it is stupid” – misattributed to Einstein. Also misattributed to Einstein: “education is what remains after you’ve forgotten everything you learned in school.” Or this one that Mark Twain supposedly said: “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.” Or this one attributed incorrectly to Ben Franklin: “Tell me and I forget, teach me and I remember, involve me and I learn.” Or this one that folks give Alvin Toffler credit for: “Tomorrow’s illiterate will not be the man who can’t read; he will be the man who has not learned how to learn.” If you actually read Future Shock, you’d see Toffler cites his source. He’s quoting Herbert Gerjuoy in that passage.

What’s behind all these wrong quotations? Is it something about the compulsion to be pithy on social media? Is it something about the expectations of PowerPoint – you need to include an inspirational sentence from a famous white guy laid over a majestic nature scene? Or does this reflect our current information environment, where we fail to fact-check and prefer to go with our gut? “This feels like something Abraham Lincoln would say.”

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Audrey Watters


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Audrey Watters

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