PLAGIARISM—WHY AMERICANS CANNOT NOT CHEAT

Colorado GOP gubernatorial candidate Scott McInnis is but the latest reminder that, in the Internet Age, one can run but cannot hide from one’s words: Plagiarism is getting increasingly difficult to hide—as McInnis has discovered to his chagrin. Former University of Colorado regent Jim Martin, in his “Dishonesty in the Internet Age” (The Denver Post, July 15, 2010), notes that “A story several years ago on NPR’s ‘All Things Considered’ profiled a University of Virginia professor’s new innovation to catch Internet cheaters—a search engine that can locate patterns of phrasing and match them to other works. The device has already turned up a number of cheaters not only in academia, but also in other areas of our lives.”

As a long-time English and writing professor I can testify that it is incredibly easy to spot cheating in term papers, for once I get a feel for an individual’s style of writing (in controlled writing assignments in classrooms), any significant stylistic deviance from the norm jumps out at me. The difficulty heretofore has been to track down the source the student copied from. No longer: my teaching colleagues tell me that it’s amazing how quickly they can track down an original source thanks to Google et al.

Which brings us to the core issue: Why do we cheat?

Increasingly, we cheat because we cannot not cheat. Permit me to explain why. Before I wrote my book, Remote Controlled (Review and Herald Publishing, 1993), I first researched the subject of the impact of television on the American people for over 30 years. One of the key resulting epiphanies of that research was this: the ability to think, write, and create is not a given; it is extremely difficult to achieve because it can only come into being by having an inquiring mind; a sense of wonder; by questions that never stop; by voracious reading in books, magazines, and newspapers; by daily journaling. Where writing is concerned, we are all works in progress—we never arrive, because knowledge is increasing by the nanosecond. That’s why the Chinese have a proverb: “If you haven’t read in three days, you aren’t worth listening to.” Staying in tune with the Zeitgeist has never been more difficult than it is today.

Nor is it easy to be a researcher (the job Scott McInnis was paid $300,000 for). I tell my students, “It’s not easy to write a good term paper. Unless you so immerse yourself into reading about your chosen subject, and writing notes from all those sources, you’ll never experience that mysterious breakthrough marathon runners talk about: when you literally break through a mental or physical barrier into a new dimension—you’ll know you’re there when you start dreaming about it. When that happens, you can write your paper in your own style. Otherwise, you’ll only be capable of a String of Pearls term paper: one quotation followed by insipid words leading to another quotation—on and on and on. Because the subject never became part of you.”

And that’s the tragedy of our age. We encourage our children to follow the path of least resistance—they faithfully follow our suggestion. How? By staring zombie-like into electronic screens hour after hour. But virtually none of that imagery can ever be their own: it was all created by someone else, and thus it was blasted straight into their mental archives without any involvement of the receiver’s brain. That’s why, when I tell a class of Freshman Composition students to take out a sheet of paper and begin to write, the reader (having many stylistic templates to draw from) can hardly wait to begin writing; the non-reader, however, can only stare at the piece of paper, being incapable of writing a coherent sentence or paragraph.

That’s why millions who grow up plagiarizing cannot not cheat: because of years of mental laziness, there is nothing original (unique to them alone) in their brains to draw from. So they have only two alternatives: fail the course—or cheat.

But when they grow up and enter the workaday world, sooner or later there will come a day of reckoning, when the boss will discover that this particular employee is incapable of original thought. Fortune 500 CEOs have developed a test for prospective employees that involves a series of interlocking steps leading to a solution. When the prospects take the test, they discover that a step was left out (such as A, B, D, E); the reader, having developed a part of the brain scholars call “the library,” where the brain talks to itself, is able to bridge the gulf, or synapse, en route to a solution. The non-reader can only stare at the gulf till Doomsday, unable to move on.

Which brings us back to Jim Martin, who concludes his insightful commentary with these sober words:

Our age of instant information offers in nearly every aspect of business, academia and media the temptation to exalt outcome over process, to value doing something quickly over doing it effectively and honestly.

Somehow, our citizens have come to believe that money or pride matters more than integrity. And we have allowed this to happen.

Our lessons about achieving excellence, getting into the “best” schools and colleges, getting elected to public office and the general opulence and promise offered of e-business have sent a dangerous message to our citizens people: you can have it all and have it now.

Maybe public exposure will put an end to this character defect, but I doubt it. In the long run, society at large will have to re-establish the values of effort and process, rather than simply holding up too high the rewards of success, power, being elected, or money.

All in all, this will be a difficult task, but the message must go out loud and clear—that there is no such thing as instantaneous writing, and that those shortcuts shortchange.

That message may sound old and familiar, but that’s because it is lifted from the familiar lessons of life, not some site on the Internet.

SPECIAL NOTE

Next week, we begin a four-month series of blogs on our historic national park lodges in the Northwest (we just returned from visiting each one).

Advertisements

“OUTWITTED” AND THE ZANE GREY’S WEST SOCIETY

Twenty-eight years ago it was when the Rev. G. M. Farley (a Pentecostal minister and administrator) and I had a far-reaching discussion having to do with the issue of organizing (or NOT organizing) a society dedicated to celebrating the life and works of the frontier writer, Zane Grey.

At one point in our discussion, G. M. sighed and said, “Unless our conventions turn out to be different from all the other conventions I attend, I’d rather we’d not even start this one.”

“Explain yourself,” I broke in.

“It’s this way, in every convention I attend, it’s always the same: People aimlessly milling around—almost all of them lonely.”

“True, G. M. I’ve noticed the same thing. I’ve often thought, as I walked through the crowd of attendees, and looked enviously at those few who seemed to belong, in occasional clusters of attendees who appeared to know each other, Wouldn’t it be great to belong to at least one of them? To have someone’s eyes light up at sight of me and welcome me in? “But I just don’t know how we could do any better than they.”

“Neither do I,” rejoined G.M., but let’s at least seek out a solution before we give up on our dream.”

At one point in our brainstorming, I happened to mention a poem by Edwin Markham, late in the nineteenth century, Poet Laureate of America. Turns out G.M. was already familiar with it: “The very thing! If that doesn’t work, nothing will! Let’s try it!

Joe Wheeler delivering keynote address

And so we did. At each one of our now 28 consecutive conventions, for the benefit of first-time attendees, I first recite the poem out loud, then I lead out in having us all recite it together (after first explaining the history of its origins and use in our Society, and urging all attendees to each implement Markham’s words in each interaction with others).

Paul and Jeannie Morton

It works. Indeed it works so well that one of the last things G.M. said to me before he died was this: “Thank God for that poem! There are no lonely people in our Society. If anyone sits at a table alone, others walk over and invite them to join them at their table. When they travel, they make a point of visiting each other. They consistently arrive early at the conventions in order to fellowship with each other. In fact, they’re closer to each other than even my own church members are to each other!”

ZGW Society members enjoying an all-day ride on the Rogue River.

I shall conclude with the poem that single-handedly defines the love each member of the Zane Grey’s West Society has for each other:

“He drew a circle that shut me out,
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout;
But love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in.”

“Outwitted,” by Edwin Markham

SPECIAL NOTE

Because of a special blog series on our Northwest national parks beginning the first week in August, we are scheduling our next blog (on Plagiarism) for tomorrow, July 29.

FORMAL EDUCATION—LET THE BUYER BEWARE

In last Wednesday’s blog, I touched on a number of things about formal education that are good, positive, and helpful growth-wise. In this week’s, we’ll deal with formal education’s down-side. Since I’m a product of homeschooling; parochial education; state university education; ivy league education; teaching in junior high, senior high, junior college, college/university, adult education; as well as independent research, editing, and writing, I feel I can now approach formal education objectively.

First and foremost, formal education is not the real world; each segment of it is a self-propelled entity bordering on virtual reality. Thus it is a grave mistake to assume that academic success will equate with real world career-success. In fact, the two are not very compatible with each other. Let me explain:

Once your parents enroll you in formal education—let’s say kindergarten—, it’s like an assembly-line or car-wash; your own engine is left on a siding for it won’t be needed for a long time. Year after year, your teachers and administrators will be your engineers; all you have to do is follow orders. Over time, you become ever more subservient to these academic demi-gods who have such awesome power over you; if they dislike you, they can cripple your future career by lowering your grade or failing you outright, for grading is one of the most subjective and least-understood things on earth—paradoxically, even among educators themselves.

But what happens when you graduate at last and enter the job market? What all too many discover is that their own engine has remained on a siding for so long, it’s all rusted out. They no longer know how to be self -propelling. Many never do get the old engine up and running again; in such cases, they either accept other-directedness or find some job position in academia, the only world they understand. And some (a real serendipity to school administrators and business managers) become perpetual students: always learning but never putting their learning into practice.

Also, in degree areas that ostensibly equate with the real world (such as business, management, economics, technology, engineering, etc.), there is invariably a significant gap between cutting-edge developments in the real world and academic catch-up. For instance, schools of business are now reeling because the template they were basing their degrees on has dramatically revealed its obsolescence in the plunging, undulating roller coasterish stock market in today’s recessionary times, where no one is perceived to have the answers any more: not Wall Street, not economists, not pundits, not talking heads, not overseeing bureaucrats—not even that erstwhile golden boy of investors: Warren Buffett—no one appears to have the answers. Least of all, academia.

Another weakness of formal education is that it is so stratified and straitjacketed by regulations that it more often than not fails to adequately challenge eager learners. All too often, especially in elementary and secondary education, it degenerates into a form of social homogenization and control. If a teacher has 25 – 35 squirming bodies in a given class, s/he cannot possibly do justice to each one, therefore administrators will, more often than not, judge teacher performance by classroom discipline (that’s far easier to measure).

One significant weakness of formal regimented education is that it makes no room for side-trips. You are told to study certain things; and if you regurgitate them according to the teacher’s expectations and demands, you may be awarded an A. Thus, if I am taking a literature course, and told to study only one play by Shakespeare—say King Lear—, there is no incentive for me to also read Hamlet or Richard II. But—if I am taking but one literature class at a time, or being homeschooled, or reading on my own, while I’m at it, I can read Shakespeare clear through. Which I’ve done. But not while taking a full-load in an academic institution. Actually, I’ve experienced far more mental growth taking just one class at a time than I ever have taking a full-load, where I have to rush just to keep up with the teacher’s reading demands.

Also, formal education is hard on individual creativity. In the vast majority of instances, you are not rewarded for creativity, but rather by conformity to the demands of the teacher or the system. Mavericks are tolerated at best. Those who tend to think outside the box are not generally popular in academia—unless you’re a McArthur or Fullbright scholar, of course.

I guess what I’m getting at in this blog is this: I am not suggesting that we throw out the proverbial baby with the bath water. What I am suggesting is that we realize up-front that academia cannot be considered to be “real world”—that is not its function. Thus, if you wish to be truly successful in real life, then that presupposes that you will continue to keep your own engine in good running order, with plenty of independent side trips to give it exercise. Parallel to your formal education ought to be a major emphasis on personal growth (based on such things as voracious reading and journaling from books, magazines, newspapers, judicious use of the media, travel, lectures, personal inquiry, research, writing, etc). If you do these things, you will have a counterbalance to the dependence that invariably results from grade-dominated formal education. Thus you may end up with the best of both worlds.

DON’T LET CONCRETE SETTLE IN YOUR HEAD

The moment you’re satisfied with what you’ve got,
The concrete has begun to settle in your head.”
—Reader’s Digest

Modern technology has made it imperative that education be lifelong rather than merely a stage. Do you remember the feeling, as a child, of holding on to the circular bar of a playground merry-go-round as it went faster and faster, and the centrifugal force was so great you felt that at any moment you’d blindly sail off into space? Sometimes the frantic pace of our lives produces the same feeling. Yet, the price of just letting go is higher than one might think.

Nicholas Murray Butler put it this way: “If your curve of efficiency is ascending at 45, and keeps ascending after that period, it may well move upward for your whole life, but if there is a turn downward at 45, you will never recover.” Of course the age designation of 45 is a relative term.

The good Lord created us to grow at every stage of our lives—and on into eternity. Again and again, in His parables, Christ hammered home the message that continual growth is a divine mandate, not merely an option.

Some years ago, in Texas, I was privileged to develop, implement, and run an adult degree program created for all those who seek to re-board the growth-wagon of life. Those were some of the most energizing years I ever experienced. What a difference between those students and the average college students (18 – 22 years old) who more often than not are clueless about life and rarely pose Life’s Three Eternal Questions: Who am I? Where have I come from? and Where am I going? All too many flounder through their college years, drop out, or graduate without any real sense of purpose, or even direction.

Not so adult students! When they re-enter the academic world they remind you of Shakespeare’s Cassius:

“Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look”

That’s just it: they come back because they are hungry for what they once took for granted, and are frantically trying to make up for lost time. Indeed some keep sighing, “Oh, I keep thinking of all the years I’ve lost,” as though that loss of momentum precludes ever climbing back on Life’s Juggernaut. I refused to accept such a cop-out; most would sheepishly grin and sign up when I posed this reality to them: “You know, five years from now you’re going to be five years older whether or not you begin the degree process—why not at least be aiming somewhere?”

It was surprising to discover how many were back because they’d finally realized one of life’s most brutal realities: they might very well be the men or women who, more than any others, propelled their company or institution to success, but almost invariably someone with that piece of parchment we call a degree was holding the key position of leadership in their sector, and drawing a commensurate paycheck. And it never ceased to amaze me how quickly my adult students would move up the career ladder once their bosses discovered they were enrolled in a degree program and were making steady progress towards that goal.

That’s really what degrees do for you. They don’t by themselves make you more intelligent, but because people perceive that they do, they validate in the public’s eye everything you do, write, or say. Then there is the requisite self-discipline. Employers feel that anyone who has earned a degree has exhibited staying-power, something they’re always seeking in their top employees.

Degrees accomplish something else in our lives. Sort of like the Millionaire game show: if you miss a given question, you can only drop back so far (to the last major plateau). Just so degrees offer you achievement plateaus you can drop back to, and build towards the next plateau higher up. They represent solid foundational blocks of achievement.

Nor should we ever discount the difference degrees make in our own attitudes toward ourselves. Deserved or undeserved, we stand taller and straighter with them than without. Though it is a subtle difference, we feel it, and it energizes us to continue growing. Each graduation ceremony may thus be likened to another booster rocket in our life’s trajectory.

Given the current rate of technological change, however, degree programs, and even the textbooks prepared for them, may become obsolete before you can even prepare for them. That’s why what your degree is in means less and less each year that passes; it’s the fact that you completed one that makes you a viable job candidate.

Also, as a former chair of English and Communication departments, and hence coordinator of job placement of our graduates, I can testify that, more and more in a society obsessed with electronics, there is developing an ever more desperate search for women and men who can think rationally, reason from cause to effect, explore different schools of thought without getting argumentative, and articulate coherently and persuasively both in speech and on paper.

So, wherever we are in life, the truly imperative thing is that each of us needs to make sure we’re in a growth mode. Not to be in one is a living death.

I’ll leave the last word today to Phillips Brooks:

The ideal life is in our blood and never will be still. Sad will be the day for us when we become contented with the thoughts we are thinking and the deeds we are doing—where there is not forever beating at the doors of our souls some desire to do something larger, which we know that we were meant and made to do.

SLAUGHTERING CREATIVITY IN THE CHILD

It is both wondrously simple and unbelievably complex: this mind God gave us—that either works, or doesn’t; sings—or sputters.

Famed obstetrician Dr. Frederic Loomis, in his memorable books, The Bond Between Us and Consultation Room, noted that in his long medical career (early to mid twentieth century), delivering over 3,000 babies in California’s Bay Area, invariably the new mother’s first two questions were either, “What is it?” (In those pre-computer days, the baby’s sex was unknown until its birth) or “Is it . . . all right?” and invariably the second question was the one asked with the most trepidation.

So it is that if the answer is positive, and it’s “all right,” the stage is set for the most incredibly rapid rate of brain growth the child will ever experience in life: not sipping life but swallowing it in gulps gallon by gallon. It is during this period of life that the child’s non-stop fusillade of questions about everything drive parents crazy. This period doesn’t ebb until around the age of six, when it is said that we’ve learned half of what we will learn in life. I must qualify that assumption by adding: half of what we need to know in order to function as human beings.

But there is no valid reason why this learning curve should not continue throughout life—unless. . . . And it is this “unless” that is a national tragedy for our nation. The tragedy has to do with the disconnect between the parents who are so euphoric about their babies’ being “all right” and their impatiently squelching, if not outright suffocating, the learning process once it has begun. How? By responding to the little question-machines with, “Don’t bother Mommy! Can’t you see I’m busy? Go bug Daddy!” Or “You and your interminable questions—you’re driving me crazy!” “Give us some peace, and shut up, for Pete’s sake!” Or, the most deadly cop-out of all, Oh, go watch TV, and leave me alone! No, I don’t care what you watch, just get out of my hair!”

And so that God-given creativity is blighted, and begins to shrivel up and die.

It’s that simple.

That dying of the once aspiring mind is accelerated by another tragedy: the wholesale annihilation of print in the home: no books, magazines, or newspapers to be found anywhere—only an impressive stack of electronic gadgetry that attach their tentacles to the child like so many octopus suction cups that drain away what creativity is left.

How?

By by-passing the receiver’s brain and blasting in, like so many moment-by-moment howitzer shells of pre-fab information created and packaged by someone else. Just a few of those results in little damage to the receiver’s creative process; the problem in today’s electronically obsessed society is that it continues day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, and decade after decade. And the more of this pre-fab imagery that stacks up in the mental archives of the receiver the less likelihood that anything created by the receiver’s brain will be left. Over time that person becomes what sociologists label “other directed” rather than “inner-directed” and ceases to function as a creative force at all.

I built a foundation for this new series of blogs on education and creativity with Blog #16 (March 10) – “Little Boy Blue”; Blog #17 (March 17) – “Non-reader’s Doomsday”; Blog #18 (March 24) – “Miracle in Silver Spring”; and Blog #19 (March 31) – “The Child is Father of the Man.” In coming weeks, we shall continue to explore this vital subject.

* * * * *

Every young man and woman is now a sower of seed on the field of life. Every thought of your intellect, every emotion of your heart, every word of your tongue, every principle you adopt, every act you perform, is a seed, whose good or evil fruit will prove the bliss or bane of your afterlife.

—Stephen S. Wise