Fact Check

Did John D. Rockefeller Say 'I Don't Want A Nation Of Thinkers, I Want A Nation Of Workers'?

The quote was first attributed to Rockefeller by a UFO conspiracy theorist in a 2006 documentary.

Published July 7, 2023

 (Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)
Image Via Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images
Claim:
John D. Rockefeller, who founded the General Education Board, once said "I don’t want a nation of thinkers, I want a nation of workers"

A quote attributed to John D. Rockefeller — patriarch of the Rockefeller political dynasty and former richest man on Earth — is often used as an example of how the "elites" view the public education — as a way to create more workers in the furtherance of capitalism and the preservation of their status:

Rockefeller donated millions of dollars to further public education in America, and had strong views about how educational charities should function. He created his own charity, the General Education Board (GEB) in 1903. The charity shut down operations in 1964.  As described by the Rockefeller Center:

The General Education Board (GEB) was devoted to the cause of improving education throughout the United States. Its efforts included a number of key initiatives focusing on public education in the South and the improvement of medical education.

The GEB was incorporated in 1903 to foster "the promotion of education within the United States of America, without distinction of race, sex, or creed. John D. Rockefeller, Sr., (JDR Sr.) made an initial commitment of $1 million to the organization, but his contributions quickly grew to $43 million by 1907. The total of these donations marked, at the time, the largest gift to a philanthropic organization in the history of the United States.

The GEB had faced persistent allegations that it unfairly pushed poor and minority students toward vocational schooling, limiting their upward mobility, as described in a 1992 history of the organization:

The GEB is known for its expenditures that rescued schools from desperate circumstances. Yet the programs that they recommended time and again advocated vocational offerings for students who would not attend college. 

Again, the problem is not with opening doors to poor children, as the philanthropists viewed their donations, but with closing doors to any other area a student might choose to pursue; it is with the belief that a student's lot was known and that there the future lay.

The GEB continued their influences beyond their first 20 years. but much of the foundation for vocational education, for training to specific ends, was laid within this very short period of time.

The alleged quote about wanting workers, not thinkers, broadly fits within that characterization of the GEB. There is, however, no evidence Rockefeller or anybody else associated with the GEB said it. 

The earliest reference to quote, as far as Snopes can identify, stems from a 2006 documentary, One Nation Under Siege, whose experts included a wide variety of conspiracy theorists, including the now-famous anti-vaccine activist Sherri Tenpenny. As described on the films' website:

One Nation Under Siege presents disturbing facts never before disclosed to a majority of the sleeping American public.  Through the research of over a dozen internationally distinguished authors, journalists, physicians, and ex-military — you will begin to understand the massive and ceaseless control projected onto an unsuspecting populace by a government that seems to have questionable motives and mendacious answers. 

One of the main experts in the documentary — JFK and UFO conspiracy theorist Jim Marrs —  attributed the quote in question to Rockefeller. That quote also appears on the film's website:

John D. Rockefeller, I think, voiced the beliefs of this ruling elite that wants to try to homogenize our education system when he was quoted as saying 'I don't want a nation of thinkers - I want a nation of workers'. 

So I think the education system is not only pushing people into a socialized version of government, but also dumbing the individual down to the point to where he'll be a good worker in the factory or he'll be a good worker in silicon valley - he may know a lot about computers, but he is not gonna' have a classic education that would allow him to take all of the facets of the culture and society and put it together and really form an intelligent opinion as to to what's going on and what might be in the best interest of the individual.

Snopes has not located any earlier formulation of this quote, which Marrs "thinks" Rockefeller said. The alleged statement does, however, sound like a poor paraphrase of statements made by Rockefeller advisor Frederick Taylor Gates. Gates was instrumental in the founding and operation of the of the GEB and described its philosophy this way in his 1916 book "The Country School of Tomorrow":

We shall not try to make these people or any of their children into philosophers or men of learning, or men of science. We have not to raise up from among them authors, editors, poets or men of letters. We shall not search for […] great artists, painters, musicians nor lawyers, doctors, preachers, politicians, statesmen, of whom we have an ample supply…

The task we set before ourselves is very simple as well as a very beautiful one, to train these people as we find them to a perfectly ideal life just where they are… So we will organize our children into a little community and teach them to do in a perfect way the things their fathers and mothers are doing in an imperfect way, in the homes, in the shops and on the farm.

While this is in line with the sentiment attributed to Rockefeller and was in line with his own views on education, it was authored by another individual. As such, there is no proof that Rockefeller ever used those words. 

All evidence points to this quote as being poorly paraphrased and misattributed. However, Snopes is unable to definitively debunk the assertion that Rockefeller once said these words. As such, the claim remains Unproven. 

Sources

Flemming, Louise, and Rita Saslaw. Rockefeller and General Education Board Influences on Vocationalism in Education, 1880-1925. 1991, https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED349475.pdf.

"F.T. GATES DEAD; ROCKEFELLER AIDE; Was Confidential Adviser and Almoner to John D., Sr., for a Generation. STRICKEN ON ARIZONA VISIT Former Head of General Education Board--"Architect" of the Rockefeller Charities. His Meeting With Rockefeller. Was on Thirteen Boards." The New York Times. TimesMachine, http://timesmachine.nytimes.comhttp://arch-timesmachine-fe-prd-40741-2-575473780.us-east-1.elb.amazonaws.com/timesmachine/1929/02/07/95877097.html?pageNumber=22. Accessed 7 July 2023.

Gates, Frederick Taylor. The Country School of To-Morrow. New York, 1916. Internet Archive, http://archive.org/details/countryschoolof00gate.

One Nation Under Siege - A William Lewis Film. https://undersiegemovie.com/moreinfo.html. Accessed 7 July 2023.

Rockefeller, John Davison. Random Reminiscences of Men and Events. Doubleday, Page, 1913.

"Without Distinction of Race, Sex, or Creed': The General Education Board, 1903-1964." Rockarch, https://resource.rockarch.org/story/the-general-education-board-1903-1964/. Accessed 7 July 2023.
 

Alex Kasprak is an investigative journalist and science writer reporting on scientific misinformation, online fraud, and financial crime.