A teacher with an apple is a widespread combination in popular culture. It has been a custom to give teachers apples as gifts for decades. That tradition became a trope in visual art and was even commemorated in songs. However, not many people know how that tradition got started in the first place. One of the reasons is practical, as teachers had to accept apples out of necessity. The other reason is philosophical and traces its roots back to the Biblical story of the Fall. If the origins of this particular story are traced, it becomes apparent that the entire philosophical premise of it is based on a mistake.
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In the present, teachers are employed and paid in money, and schoolhouses are state property. Education is tightly regulated, and the federal budget is diverted towards the schools to make them function. That was not always the case, as public schooling in America began even before America became independent. Several hundred years ago, schools were much smaller, and teachers much poorer.
Some towns in the North used tax money for financing their schools if their population was large and prosperous enough (Vinovskis 24). However, frontier settlements often could not afford to do so, and they had to support the teacher in whatever way they could. Many teachers in rural America, being not much better off than the farmers, worked for room and board. Giving teachers apples at that time was not a custom, but a vital necessity (Stone). It was not only apples that the children would bring them, but apples were crucial for another reason: cider.
In ancient times, water-borne diseases were prevalent, and the existence of germs was still a mystery. To combat these diseases, people drank diluted wine, cider, and beer, as the production of these beverages killed harmful bacteria and ensured a long shelf life (Curry). That was the case in Ancient Egypt, as well as in Medieval Europe, and, subsequently, in Colonial America. During the early Colonial era, one of the most popular beverages was hard apple cider, and apple trees were imported from Europe by the first settlers for its production.
Most settlements had apple orchards, and cider making was a useful way to both preserve the apple harvest and make a safe beverage for consumption (“History of Cider”). Teachers were not exempt from this, and it is hypothesized that they made cider from the apples they received from their students’ farmsteads along with other foodstuffs (Stone). Cider was also used to pay tithes and rents, so making it could provide the teachers with a roof over their heads and a valuable trade good to support themselves instead of actual money.
Many view apples as a healthy and delicious snack, and jokingly say that an apple a day keeps the doctor away. That is a relatively modern invention that was marketed to Americans for economic reasons. As potable water was becoming more commonplace and illnesses were prevented by the rise of germ theory and sound medical practices, the need for an alcoholic alternative dwindled. The Temperance movement and the subsequent Prohibition legislature severely damaged the cider-making industry, which threatened apple farmers and their livelihoods.
They promptly created sweeter varieties of apples that tasted better raw and launched a marketing campaign that distanced them from cider production (Binkovitz). By that time, teachers were paid better than in the Colonial era, so apple gifting became a symbolic gesture that benefited from the apples’ newfound status as a delicious and healthy snack.
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The tradition became so prevalent that it became an idiomatic expression. Bringing a shiny and delicious apple to one’s teacher was not only a sign of respect but also a way to earn the teacher’s favor and ensure more benevolent grading. The term “apple polisher” was at first used in the academic context to mean “teacher’s pet”. In the XX century, that term became more widespread and took a meaning analogous to “bootlicker” in a political context (Treguer). From being a noble contribution to a selfless teacher’s survival, apples became a sign of deceit and corruption, however petty.
Aside from the practical reasons for this custom, it also has biblical roots. Many people assume that the Tree of Knowledge, on which the Forbidden Fruit grew, was an apple tree. What cursed Adam and Eve with the original sin also gave humans the knowledge of evil, or, perhaps, knowledge in general. This symbolic nature of the apple might be why people connect it to teachers.
It makes perfect sense in the context of Colonial America, as the nation has been deeply religious throughout its existence, and the first settlers belonged to a Christian sect. Throughout human history, the Bible has been the most influential book that many people learned to read from, as education was often performed in churches. The early American settlers tended to educate their children themselves, and, being religious, they implanted their values and stories in their children.
Often, the father of the household would teach the children literacy and religion, and the two went hand in hand. In the mid-seventeenth century towns of more than 100 households were obligated by law to have a school, and these schools were expected to teach children the religious practices that parents sometimes refused (Vinovskis 22). For these reasons, it is safe to assume that most, if not all, knew the biblical stories of Adam and Eve and the Tree of Knowledge, by the time the teaching profession became common.
Curiously, the early versions of that story never mention that the Tree was an apple tree. King James Bible calls it “fruit”, as do many other versions of the Bible. There are fierce arguments over which fruit it was precisely, and opinions range from figs to wheat (Maller).
That uncertainty survived through several translations of the Scripture, but in the IV century, Pope Damasus requested a translation from Hebrew to Latin. Jerome, a theological scholar, took the task, and when he was confronted with how to translate the Hebrew word for “fruit”, he chose the Latin word “malum”. One meaning for it is “evil”, “harm” or “disaster”, which places additional sinister significance upon the fruit of the Tree. Alternatively, however, it meant “fruit” at the time, as did the other equivalent words used in Hebrew or Greek versions of the Bible (Martyris). With time, however, the meaning of “malum” changed to mean “apple”, and that might have influenced later theologians.
The Latin word “malum” originates from the Greek word “melon”, which means either “apple” specifically, or “fruit” in general. That word was chosen by the translator likely because of the Greek symbolism of apples, rooted in Greek religion and folklore. Prominent examples of such symbolic meanings are a temptation, desire, and eroticism. Some apples in Greek mythology sparked significant conflicts, others were given to each other by lovers as a symbol of love, and some held mystical power (Littlewood 155). This imagery lends itself well to the story of eating a powerful fruit with one’s lover after being tempted by a vile serpent.
By the XVI century, the apple became a trope in visual art and most likely influenced Milton’s “Paradise Lost”. He was a scholar, well-versed in languages, and familiar with many different versions of the Scripture, so he was most likely aware of the many meanings of the word “malum”. He used the word “apple” several times throughout the poem, but at his age, the English word “apple” had a similar meaning to “malum”, and could be used to describe any fleshy fruit with seeds (Martyris). However, by the time Milton’s work was read in American households and churches, the meaning of the word shifted, and illustrations were produced, firmly cementing the Forbidden Fruit as an apple.
The tradition of giving teachers apples as gifts dates back to ancient history and Biblical stories. However, the Tree of Knowledge is unlikely to have been an apple, and its depiction as such is a product of language transformation, translation inaccuracies, and cultural movement more than fact. The more practical roots of the tradition that are rooted in American history, however, are difficult to dispute. Even though the custom is in part based on fiction, the fact is simple: apples are healthy and delicious, and giving them to people is sure to make somebody’s day a little better.
Binkovitz, Leah. “Why Do Students Give Teachers Apples and More from the Fruit’s Juicy Past.” Smithsonian. 2012.
Curry, Andrew. “Our 9,000-Year Love Affair With Booze.” National Geographic. 2017.
“History of Cider.” Washington State University. Web.
Littlewood, Antony R. “The Symbolism of the Apple in Greek and Roman Literature.” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, vol. 72, 1968, pp. 147–181.
Maller, Allen S. “What kind of tree was the tree of the knowledge of good and evil?” The Times of Israel. 2016.
Martyris, Nina. “‘Paradise Lost’: How The Apple Became The Forbidden Fruit.” NPR. 2017.
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Stone, Sarah. “Why Teachers Are Associated With And Traditionally Given Apples.” Today I Found Out. 2014.
Treguer, Pascal. “Origin of ‘Apple-Polisher’ (A Person Who Curries Favor).” Word Histories. 2018.
Vinovskis, Maris (1987). “Family and Schooling in Colonial and Nineteenth-Century America.” Journal of Family History, 12(1): 19-37.