David Bruce: Education Anecdotes

Tyler Cowen is a professor of economics at George Mason University. Alex Tabarrok remembers, “Tyler once walked into class the day of the final exam and he said. ‘Here is the exam. Write your own questions. Write your own answers. Harder questions and better answers get more points.’ Then he walked out.” In a 13 August 2012 comment on this blog entry, Ragbatz wrote, “In the 1960’s a Harvard chemistry professor posed a question on a chemistry final examination along these lines:‘10% Extra Credit. Write a question to be used as an extra credit question on a final examination in chemistry. The ideal extra credit question should be worth about 10% of the grade on the examination as a whole, and test facility with the material covered during the course.’ My friend Tom Hervey received full credit with the following answer:‘10% Extra Credit. Write a question to be used as an extra credit question on a final examination in chemistry. The ideal extra credit question should be worth about 10% of the grade on the examination as a whole, and test facility with the material covered during the course.’”

Nathaniel Hawthorne, author of The House of Seven Gables, was a little wild while he was attending Bowdoin College. He played cards and gambled, drank alcohol and smoked tobacco, and cut class—all of which were against the rules of the college. In May 1822, William Allen, the president of Bowdoin, sent his mother a letter that said in part: “By the vote of the executive government of this college, it is made my duty to request your cooperation with us in the attempt to induce your son faithfully to observe the laws of this institution.” After he was caught gambling, the college fined him 50 cents. At the time, that amount of money would buy enough food to feed a person for two days. He wrote his mother and asked her to pay the fine. He also promised not to gamble again—at least until the last week of the term. In May of his senior year, he received a bill. The cost of his tuition was $2, and the cost of his fines was $2.36. The college fined him 20 cents for not turning in papers, 20 cents for missing church, 36 cents for missing prayers, and $1.60 for cutting class.

Growing up with a cartoon creator for your father can have disadvantages. Chuck Jones directed and co-wrote the cartoon “For Scent-imental Reasons,” starring amorous skunk Pepé le Pew. His daughter, Linda, saw the cartoon just before she entered a junior high school spelling bee. She was asked to spell the word “sentimental.” Guess how she spelled it? Chuck remembered, “She came home furious.” By the way, when Linda was little and she and her friends were watching a Bugs Bunny cartoon, she told her friends that her father had drawn the cartoon—which he had. Unfortunately, they did not believe her. One child even said, “Yeah, sure, and my father’s Clark Gable.” Given the time and place the Jones family was living, that may even have been true. Also by the way, when Linda was four years old, she drank a teaspoonful of champagne and sugar to celebrate New Year’s Eve. Asked if she liked it, she said, “Yes, it’s full of jokes.”

Censors can come up with some funny things to object to. For example, in the early 20thcentury, a Midwestern women’s organization objected to the nudity of the Walt Disney cartoon character Clarabelle Cow. Fortunately, this objection was easy to disarm. Mr. Disney simply drew the character a skirt to wear. By the way, being able to draw a convincing cartoon character takes both talent and lots of study. For example, Disney artists study movies of a cow. At first, the cow is a calf, then it grows up, and then it is milked. By studying the movie, Disney artists discover such things as this fact: “Look! No matter how fat a cow gets, her hips still stay bony.” Another artist discovered this fact: “When she eats, she moves her jaw from side to side instead of up and down the way we do.”

Victor Mature and Jim Backus acted together, and they were cadets at military school together. Neither did well at military school; both succeeded in infuriating the Colonel in charge of the military school. The Colonel even bawled them out, told them to stay out of his sight, and predicted that they would end up as gutter bums. A few years later, Mr. Mature and Mr. Backus were successful movie actors. One day, they were making a movie together, and Mr. Mature got an idea. The movie set was a penthouse, and Mr. Mature, Mr. Backus, two starlets, and not much feminine clothing posed together on the set for a photograph that Mr. Mature sent to the Colonel with this note: “Best wishes from Cadets Mature and Backus. P.S. How are your honor students doing?”

Artist James Montgomery Flagg’s father did a very good deed during the Great Blizzard of 1888 in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Massachusetts, during which he got caught in the blizzard. While he was walking home, he came across a young woman who had fainted in the cold. He carried her a mile to her home and then walked the rest of his way to his home, where he used hot towels to melt the ice in his beard. (Young James, then eleven years old, had walked to school in snow up to his waist. When he arrived at the school, he discovered that school had been cancelled.)

As a child, African-American diva Grace Bumbry was very self-critical, often coming home despondent after a voice lesson. Often, her teacher, Kenneth Billups, would call her mother to tell her not to worry about her daughter’s mood: “She’s all right. She just had another voice lesson today.”

Conductor Pierre Monteux taught at a school for conductors, where a student conducted a very light Mozart piece as if it were a heavy, leaden piece. Mr. Monteux stopped the student and informed him, “Mon Dieu! It is not Strauss, it is not Mahler, and it is not Khrushchev!”

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Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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