The author says there's no way he could make up the entries.
Anders Henriksson wants you to know that college kids today aren't necessarily more stupid or less informed than they were 30 years ago, and he offers an improbable book full of proof.
The volume is "Non Campus Mentis": non sequiturs, faux facts and boneheaded statements gleaned from three decades of student tests and papers at universities and colleges across North America.
It has inched its way onto the New York Times miscellaneous best-seller list. And it certainly is miscellaneous.
Henriksson insists he's not kidding. One student really did write that "the airplane was invented and first flown by the Marx brothers" and another that "Hitler's instrumentality of terror was the Gespacho."
"But it's been a pretty steady stream over the years," says Henriksson, who chairs the history department at Shepherd College in Shepherdstown, W.Va. "It's not necessarily getting worse."
Here's the real test: Nature, as we know, abhors a vacuum. The real test, Henriksson says, is how creatively students fill the cerebral vacuum they discover when it's test time and they haven't studied, have skipped class, have been imperfectly briefed by other students or just don't have a clue.
Was Noah's wife really Joan of Ark? Was Middle Eastern history really written by Florence of Arabia? Did the Soviets truly erect the Berlin Mall?
"What we have here is the cr & egrave;me de la cr & egrave;me" of student vacantness, he says, "from quite a number of sources and years. It would be dangerous to draw conclusions from this about the preparation of the average student."
Dangerous, maybe. But unthinkable?
Henriksson won't tell you where the culprits went to school. In addition to compiling his own treasury of student howlers, he says, he has been the grateful recipient of thousands of others from colleagues at other schools, most of whom have conditioned their contributions on protection of the source.
But. he promises he hasn't made them up.
"I don't think anyone could make this up," he says. "You'd have to be Mel Brooks or Woody Allen, and I'm not that clever."
Collecting for years: He will say, however, that he has taught since 1985 at Shepherd, source of "quite a few" entries in the book, and was collecting them before that while teaching at the University of Toronto. He also says the book includes submissions from student writing at every sort of public and private college and university, including Oxford, City College of New York and the U.S. Military Academy.
Maybe it was a West Pointer who wrote that "Germany's William II had a chimp on his shoulder and therefore had to ride his horse with only one hand."
Henriksson previously published two compilations of student weirdness in the Wilson Quarterly, each of which prompted outpourings gathered by other professors across the continent. One teacher at Texas Lutheran University, he says, generously proffered a collection from the emptiest minds at that school dating to the 1930s.
The bloopers demonstrate equal-opportunity zaniness, he suggests. "As near as I can tell, they don't break down at all by gender or race or region or class."