Quote about academia: worst of all kinds of politics because the stakes were so small (Charles Frankel 1969)

Garson O'Toole adsgarsonotoole at GMAIL.COM
Sat Mar 26 14:54:58 UTC 2011

Academic politics is the most vicious and bitter form of politics,
because the stakes are so low.

The saying above is referred to as Sayre's Third Law of Politics in a
Wall Street Journal article dated December 20, 1973.  The Yale Book of
Quotations lists this quotation and includes a remark from the
political scientist Herbert Kaufman that suggests Wallace S. Sayre may
have originated the quip as early as the 1950s. Nevertheless, the 1973
cite is the earliest known example of this class of maxims (until
now). Fred discussed the quote on the Freakonomics blog in 2009.

Short version:  http://goo.gl/qI4tg

Ralph Keyes covers this quote as the first topic in the Quote
Verifier. Wikipedia has an entry on "Sayre's Law" that provides some
background. Modern quotemongers typically assign this type of quote to
Henry Kissinger.


There are many ways to express the central idea of the aphorism above.
I think the key distinguishing features of this class of quotations
are [1] an inversion of the cliche "the stakes are so high" and [2] a
reference to politics within academia. Here are selected citations
plus a bonus remark by Samuel Johnson from 1765.

Cite: 1969, Your AASA in Nineteen Sixty-Eight-Sixty-Nine, Official
Report: American Association of School Administrators, GB Page 75,
Published by American Association of School Administrators, Washington
D.C. (Google Books snippet; Not yet verified on paper; Data may be


I have not checked the cite above on paper yet, but I did check the
cite below and it is a reprint of the 1969 article.

Cite: 1971, In Defense of Academic Freedom by Sidney Hook, "Education
in Fever" by Charles Frankel, Page 35, Pegasus [Division of
Bobbs-Merrill Company], New York. [Article notation states it is
reprinted from "Your AASA", official report for the 1969 Convention of
the American Association of School Administrators] (Google Books
snippet; Verified on paper)

Charles Frankel, Old Dominion Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University.

It used to be said of politics on the university campus that it was
the worst of all kinds of politics because the stakes were so small.
We should be able to take at least minor comfort, then, from the
present situation in the educational world: the stakes today are not
at all small.


Cite: 1970, The American University: A Public Administration
Perspective edited by Clyde J. Wingfield, The University in Relation
to the Governmental-Political by Dwight Waldo, Start Page 19, Quote
Page 31, Southern Methodist University Press, Dallas, Texas. (Google
snippet view; Verified on paper)

Dwight Waldo, Schweitzer Professor in the Humanities, Syracuse University

We can no longer use our little joke that campus politics are so nasty
because the stakes are so small. They are now so nasty because the
stakes are so large.


The 1976 citation below is included because the textbook "The Great
Issues of Politics" has a large number of editions spaced over
decades. I checked the 1976 edition on paper, and it contains a
version of the quote under investigation. I also electronically
searched the 1970 edition (and some others) in Google Books, and I do
not thing that the quote is in it. Other editions include 1954, 1960,
and 1965. I do not think the quote is in these early editions, but I
have not seen them on paper. GB contains an edition that it dates to
1958 that contains the quote. But probes reveal that the date is
wrong. The purported 1958 edition is really 1985 or later.

Cite: 1976, The Great Issues of Politics: An Introduction to Political
Science by Leslie Lipson, Fifth Edition, Footnote 45, Page 120,
Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. (Google Books snippet;
Verified on paper)

One professorial cynic has said: "The reason why campus politics are
so dirty is that the stakes are so small."


Samuel Johnson wrote a wonderful passage on this topic as noted by
Richard B. Schwartz in his book "After the Death of Literature".

Cite: 1765, Mr. Johnson's Preface to His Edition of Shakespear's Plays
by Samuel Johnson, Page lvii, Printed for J. and R. Tonson, H.
Woodfall, J. Rivington, etc., London.

It is not easy to discover from what cause the acrimony of a scholiast
can naturally proceed. The subjects to be discussed by him are of very
small importance; they involve neither property nor liberty; nor
favour the interest of sect or party. The various readings of copies,
and different interpretations of a passage, seem to be questions that
might exercise the wit, without engaging the passions. But whether it
be, that small things make mean men proud, and vanity catches small
occasions; or that all contrariety of opinion, even in those that can
defend it no longer, makes proud men angry; there is often found in
commentaries a spontaneous strain of invective and contempt, more
eager and venomous than is vented by the most furious controvertist in
politicks against those whom he is hired to defame.


Thanks to Fred for suggesting this quotation for investigation.

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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