Monday, 2 April 2012

On the value of Wikipedia

Mark Twain tells the story of a New Zealand Professor coming to call at Yale. Whether it's true or manufactured - who knows.* But it could be true.

Yale etiquette, says Twain's correspondent, required that foreign visitors be flattered by laudatory comments about their country. But nobody at Yale knew anything about New Zealand other than that it was somewhere near Australia, perhaps connected by a bridge. The visit was very short notice, so the whole of Yale wound up spending the day trying to figure out where New Zealand was and some nice things to say about it.

According to the story, highlighted below, a reasonable part of a major academic institution shut itself down for a good part of the day trying to figure out anything about New Zealand - searching the libraries for anything relevant - while their wives kept the visitor busy and distracted.

Today, we can have a 5 minute flip through Wikipedia before the seminar speaker shows up.

Here's Twain's account of the story recounted him by another, HT: @LyndonHood.
"Last autumn I was at work one morning at home, when a card came up - the card of a stranger. Under the name was printed a line which showed that this visitor was Professor of Theological Engineering in Wellington University, New Zealand. I was troubled - troubled, I mean, by the shortness of the notice. College etiquette required that he be at once invited to dinner by some member of the Faculty - invited to dine on that day - not, put off till a subsequent day. I did not quite know what to do. College etiquette requires, in the case of a foreign guest, that the dinner-talk shall begin with complimentary references to his country, its great men, its services to civilization, its seats of learning, and things like that; and of course the host is responsible, and must either begin this talk himself or see that it is done by some one else. I was in great difficulty; and the more I searched my memory, the more my trouble grew. I found that I knew nothing about New Zealand. I thought I knew where it was, and that was all. I had an impression that it was close to Australia, or Asia, or somewhere, and that one went over to it on a bridge. This might turn out to be incorrect; and even if correct, it would not furnish matter enough for the purpose at the dinner, and I should expose my College to shame before my guest; he would see that I, a member of the Faculty of the first University in America, was wholly ignorant of his country, and he would go away and tell this, and laugh at it. The thought of it made my face burn.

[Nobody at Yale knew anything but that New Zealand was close to Australia...]

"...Lawson must give the dinner. The Faculty must be notified by telephone to prepare. We must all get to work diligently, and at the end of eight hours and a half we must come to dinner acquainted with New Zealand; at least well enough informed to appear without discredit before this native. To seem properly intelligent we should have to know about New Zealand's population, and politics, and form of government, and commerce, and taxes, and products, and ancient history, and modern history, and varieties of religion, and nature of the laws, and their codification, and amount of revenue, and whence drawn, and methods of collection, and percentage of loss, and character of climate, and - well, a lot of things like that; we must suck the maps and cyclopedias dry. And while we posted up in this way, the Faculty's wives must flock over, one after the other, in a studiedly casual way, and help my wife keep the New Zealander quiet, and not let him get out and come interfering with our studies. The scheme worked admirably; but it stopped business, stopped it entirely.

"It is in the official log-book of Yale, to be read and wondered at by future generations - the account of the Great Blank Day - the memorable Blank Day - the day wherein the wheels of culture were stopped, a Sunday silence prevailed all about, and the whole University stood still while the Faculty read-up and qualified itself to sit at meat, "without shame, in the presence of the Professor of Theological Engineering from New Zealand:

"When we assembled at the dinner we were miserably tired and worn - but we were posted. Yes, it is fair to claim that. In fact, erudition is a pale name for it. New Zealand was the only subject; and it was just beautiful to hear us ripple it out. And with such an air of unembarrassed ease, and unostentatious familiarity with detail, and trained and seasoned mastery of the subject-and oh, the grace and fluency of it!

"Well, finally somebody happened to notice that the guest was looking dazed, and wasn't saying anything. So they stirred him up, of course. Then that man came out with a good, honest, eloquent compliment that made the Faculty blush. He said be was not worthy to sit in the company of men like these; that he had been silent from admiration; that he had been silent from another cause also - silent from shame - silent from ignorance! 'For,' said he, 'I, who have lived eighteen years in New Zealand and have served five in a professorship, and ought to know much about that country, perceive, now, that I know almost nothing about it. I say it with shame, that I have learned fifty times, yes, a hundred times more about New Zealand in these two hours at this table than I ever knew before in all the eighteen years put together. I was silent because I could not help myself. What I knew about taxes, and policies, and laws, and revenue, and products, and history, and all that multitude of things, was but general, and ordinary, and vague-unscientific, in a word - and it would have been insanity to expose it here to the searching glare of your amazingly accurate and all-comprehensive knowledge of those matters, gentlemen. I beg you to let me sit silent - as becomes me. But do not change the subject; I can at least follow you, in this one; whereas if you change to one which shall call out the full strength of your mighty erudition, I shall be as one lost. If you know all this about a remote little inconsequent patch like New Zealand, ah, what wouldn't you know about any other Subject!'"
Twain's account of his trip to Christchurch also merits reading.

* At least part of the story seems wrong: The university at Wellington was called Victoria University College - a college of the University of New Zealand. I'm not sure that there ever was a Wellington University. And "Theological Engineering" seems dubious. And the book is known to have a couple of fictional tales included among the non-fiction. How do I know all this? Wikipedia. Except for the dubiousness of "Theological Engineering". [Update: Dave Guerin notes it was indeed called Wellington University.]


  1. Even if it is fake, that story is beautiful

  2. Victoria Uni has always been called Wellington University in the library records (check out interloan codes some time) and (my history book tells me) it was called Wellington University College in the first reading of the bill setting it up, but later they decided to commemorate Queen Victoria's 60th jubilee.

    1. Ok, that'll get hoisted up into the post later.

  3. Wait — there used to be a bridge between Australia and New Zealand?

    Why'd you folks ever take it down?

    1. Biosecurity, mostly. The possums got here by bridge, and the snakes were starting to follow.

  4. Little has changed. Few New Zealanders know much about their country, especially its history; many foreigners know little of New Zealand (outside perhaps the knowledge that Lord of the Rings was filmed in the country). After years of studying at Oxford, I express little surprise at people's ignorance, or perhaps more accurately the global insignificance of our country. Most saliently, on one occasion an American -- a graduate of Princeton no less -- asked a good friend of mine (also an American) whether English was the first language of New Zealanders. He related this to me with particular amusement. I was not amused.

    Thanks for sharing though, Eric.