In "The North That Never Was," Vilhjalmur Stefansson wrote,
   "... my parents moved to the United States when I was only a year old, and I have been through the regular mill of American education -- common school, high school, and university to the Bachelor of Arts Degree at the State University of Iowa. I then had three years of post-graduate study at Harvard [1904-06], held a scholarship and two fellowships there, and even became an instructor in a minor capacity. It is, therefore, reasonable to suppose that during the period of my formal and informal education I absorbed the same general type of misinformation as does the average American. When I went North and became an explorer I found that nine out of ten of my ideas about the polar regions were wrong, and from that I infer that if you are an honor graduate of some university you are probably in a bad case.

Learned freshmanUnlearned explorer
Stefansson as a student...                       and as an explorer.

   "When I was a student at Harvard, Samuel McChord Crothers was preaching just across the way from us [at the First Parish in Cambridge]... Doctor Crothers said that this and other lands are filled with schools and colleges engaged in teaching us things that are not so, and it would be a highly desirable thing if there could be established in each country at least one well-known institution where you might go and unlearn a few of them. This he proposed to call in each country the National University of Polite Unlearning."


Samuel McChord Crothers

   Samuel McChord Crothers (1857-1927) was a prolific popular essayist of subtle and learned wit. He developed this particular theme in a short story set in London, "The Anglo-American School of Polite Unlearning," about a storefront academy devoted to the hopeless task of freeing travelers of misconceptions about their intended destinations.

   Crothers returned to the theme of polite unlearning in many of his other writings, particularly when deploring the state of academic scholarship in his day -- which differs but little from the scholarship of our own. In "The Pleasures of an Absentee Landlord" he wrote,

   "The historian starts with a modern political or economic theory, then he searches the records of the past for instances to support it. The facts once discovered and verified, he fits them together with mechanical precision, and lo, a new history!

   "There is no question about the facts presented. They are chosen to illustrate his thesis. But I cannot help thinking of the innumerable little facts which he leaves out. They were very much alive once. My heart yearns for these non-elect infants."

   It has been a hundred years since Doctor Crothers first made his modest proposal. Harvard and other schools are older and larger now, but in essence little changed. With the wider diffusion of formal education since 1904, the need for polite unlearning has increased in direct proportion.

   Yet still no institution of this sort exists. We must each unlearn on our own, often at great effort and expense. Many ultimately fail in the attempt, unlearning nothing from a lifetime of experience. Some never even try -- content to read the captions beside the frames, but never really looking at the paintings. Theorists have taught them what to think. Observation would only confuse them.

   So my goal henceforth is to encourage, support, and perhaps even help to disorganize a National University of Polite Unlearning. Its curriculum will be as flexible as water, and of course there will be no admissions requirements, classes, or diplomas. Tuition will be charged on a sliding scale based on gullibility. Faculty will be self-appointed, and tenure voluntary. The campus will be wherever we hang our hats, or wherever it was that I lost my green one with the John Deere emblem...

What's on YOUR unlearning curriculum?

Our Emblem
Genuine Model 9 Unlearner, from the Chicago Stockyards c1900.