"culture is what remains when all else is forgotten" -- an original source?

ADSGarson O'Toole adsgarsonotoole at GMAIL.COM
Fri Sep 6 07:41:09 UTC 2013

Thanks for sharing a very interesting question, Geoff.

This initial response is somewhat tangential to your question, but I
wanted to comment about the Einstein attribution because I was asked
about it recently. I believe that Einstein did use the quotation with
"education" instead of "culture" in an essay with the English title
"On Education". The essay was published in the translated collection
"Out of My Later Years" which specified a date of 1936. However,
Einstein attributed the saying to an anonymous wit. So he did not
claim coinage. (This is noted in The Ultimate Quotable Einstein

Here is a link into Google Books.


[Begin excerpt]
If a young man has trained his muscles and physical endurance by
gymnastics and walking, he will later be fitted for every physical
work. This is also analogous to the training of the mind and the
exercising of the mental and manual skill. Thus the wit was not wrong
who defined education in this way: "Education is that which remains,
if one has forgotten everything he learned in school." For this reason
I am not at all anxious to take sides in the struggle between the
followers of the classical philologic-historical education and the
education more devoted to natural science.
[End excerpt]

While performing a preliminary exploration for the Einstein quote I
located some variant quotations in English with "culture" instead of
"education" starting in 1909. (GB has some false matches in 1904.)

Yet, you already have an instance in Italian in 1908. Great!

Here is a link to a version of the saying in 1909 in English:


[Begin excerpt]
This idea that general culture is to be imbibed by attending certain
popular courses is most pernicious. Some one has remarked that culture
is what remains after a man has forgotten what he learned at college.
Carrying this idea a step further some students think it is not worth
while learning what has to be forgotten and try to get the requisite
culture without going through the forgetting process.
[End excerpt]


On Fri, Sep 6, 2013 at 2:09 AM, Geoffrey Nunberg
<nunberg at ischool.berkeley.edu> wrote:
> ---------------------- Information from the mail header -----------------------
> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
> Poster:       Geoffrey Nunberg <nunberg at ISCHOOL.BERKELEY.EDU>
> Subject:      "culture is what remains when all else is forgotten" -- an
>               original source?
> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
> Reviewing a paper on Wordsworth submitted to the journal Representations, I ran across this: "As Ezra Pound puts it, “The domain of culture begins when one HAS ‘forgotten-what-book.’” The quote is from Pound's 1938 Guide to Kulcher, in an aphoristic section headed "Rappel A L'Ordre." The full paragraph is "Knowledge is NOT culture.The domain of culture begins when one HAS ‘forgotten-what-book.’”  It's a singularly Poundian remaking of a thought that seems more continental than Anglophone (we were by then diffident about describing people as "cultured," having pressed "literate" into that service instead). But the aphorism has a lot of history elsewhere. It's a Wanderzitat, if i can call that, though I haven't been able to pin down an original source. It's not in YBQ but it deserves a place.
> I was familiar with the sentiment in a slightly different French version, which I had recalled as being due to Renan, as "La culture est ce qui reste quand on a tout oublié." Searching around, though, I couldn't find any mention of this. But I did find a host of other versions and attributions. For example:
> Recent American Sources include the 2012 Report of the Culture Committee of the Swiss Benevolent Society of Chicago is headed "Culture is what is left when everything else has been forgotten—Françoise Sagan)" In the American Scholar, Sven Birkerts writes, "I always liked Ortega y Gasset's epigram that “'culture is what remains after we've forgotten everything we've read.”
> A German site attributes it to Marx: "Die Kultur ist das was bleibt nachdem wir vergessen haben." If that were true, though, you can be sure that everyone would know about it and there wouldn't be so many other subsequent attributions. Another story has it as "Bildung ist das, was übrig bleibt, wenn man alles vergessen hat, was man gelernt hat," which has been falsely attributed to Einstein but is evidently due to Werner Heisenberg in his address on the 100th Anniversary Celebration of the Maximillian Gymnasium in Munich in 1949. (Heisenberg had to have have been familiar with the version with "culture," in one or another language; you wonder if his substitution of Bildung was influenced by the Nazi cliche, often wrongly attributed to Goehring, "Wenn ich ‘Kultur’ höre, nehme ich meine Pistole.")
> Quite a number of French sites attribute the mot to the Third Republic homme politique and académicien  Edouard Herriot, sometimes as  "La culture, c'est ce qui reste dans l'esprit quand on a tout oublié," which one writer describes as having been said "dans les terribles années 1930." It appears in Herriot's Notes et Maximes, published posthumously in 1961 and also available on Google Books, as follows: "La culture, déclare un pédagogue japonais, c'est ce qui demeure dans l'homme lorsqu'il a tout oublié." The mention of the Japanese pedagogue was surely a way of acknowledging that the sentence was effectively proverbial by then, though too particular in its conceit and wording to be really without an author.
> Several Italians have pointed to a 1908 essay "Che cosa è la cultura" by the philosopher Gaetano Salvemini, The essay is available on Google Books, but in it, Salvemini quotes the line without attributing it: "La cultura vera — come un paradosso profondo è stata definita — è 'ciò che resta in noi dopo che abbiamo dimenticato tutto quello che avevamo imparato.'" The quotation confirms that the aphorism was a commonplace by the early 20th century, so that it couldn't have been originated or popularized by Herriot or Heisenberg. But here again it couldn't have been merely "in the air"—you'd figure there has to be a single influential source for it somewhere.
> There are variants that take the aphorism in novel directions, which also testify to its status as a commonplace. Nadine de Rothschild writes, " Si la culture est ce qui reste quand on a tout oublié, l'éducation est ce qui demeure quand on a tout perdu." And my favorite, the only one of them all that escapes the charge of sententiousness, is from the director Jean Vilar: "La culture, ce n'est pas ce qui reste quand on a tout oublié, mais au contraire, ce qui reste à connaître quand on ne vous a rien enseigné."  That's the one you want to tell your students. Otherwise they might figure, Really? Hey, I could save myself all that trouble.
> Geoff
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