Last week I wrapped up a fairly lengthy unit in my frosh English class that was built around the rise of plagiarism, not only in academia but also within our social schema: the notion that ownership of ideas-impressions-creations may be falling by the wayside as people mistakenly believe that access to these abstract concepts (not always in the abstract) somehow equates to a lack of proprietorship. And that, as a means to a more individually relevant end, this behavior (which possibly eradicates the pillars of public good by ignoring the significance of authenticity) ain’t nothing but a thang.
My students read a slew of articles like this one on the rise of academic plagiarism. They looked at statistics. The considered the causes of effects of these behaviors. They debated whether the behaviors, generally focused on in a school setting, may actually act as a gateway phenomenon to more egregious acts of dishonesty – perhaps even plain theft – in society at large. They considered the difference between originality and authenticity [Vanilla Ice syndrome.] They looked at why they cheat in school [pressure, emphasis on grades over knowledge, unreasonable expectations, a simple lack of time to do everything one must do – and sleep occasionally.] Then old GW Bush, bless ‘im, did me the ultimate favor and started his book tour under a huge plagiarism scandal (for the record, my students cut him absolutely no slack on this.)
Using Sherman Alexie as our selected author for the unit, they considered the case of Native Americans in US History and the conundrum of “ownership” of intangibles, as well as of the more tangible effects like relocation and eradication. Sherman Alexie, his talent and cultural heritage notwithstanding, was also selected to be the focus author because he had been embroiled in his own interesting issue of plagiarism.
It was an ambitious project, and their final exam was a Socratic Seminar is which they were fully responsible for moderating and maintaining a 70-minute discussion among themselves that articulated their questions, observations, challenges, opinions and conclusions on all of the material. As a teacher, this was a huge challenge to stand back and let them succeed (or flop…) on their own. But I did it. And they were nothing short of amazing. I introduced Socrates with Bill and Ted, because, well… Bill and Ted are the shit.
They liked the idea of the Socratic Method, which established that their job was to question everything: why why why why why…. Why do we need to know this? Why is this important? Why are we told that practice makes perfect and nobody is perfect? Why are we punished for doing whatever it takes to get grade when we are measured only by said grades? Why does it matter if we cheat in a subject that has no significance to us? How do you prove an idea is your own? Does it matter if someone copies you? Is it worse to copy math or english homework? [They all said english as it was idea based and math was rote… or maybe because they are savvy and they were sitting in an English class…] Is dishonesty mitigated in certain cases? Is it bad to take advantage of opportunities, which may include behavior that is not exactly honest? Does it matter if we illegally download music if Jay Z has enough money? Is cheating in school the same as cheating on your boyfriend/girlfriend? [They said hellz no, because the boyfriend and girlfriend matter more…] Does cheating decline when students study what they want to study? [Statistics said no, even in college where students are ostensibly studying what they want to study, cheating is in full swing.] Can you know what will be important to know or not important today when things change so fast? Who cheats – is it the high achievers or the low achievers, and with no stigma attached to it, who really cares? [Consider the information in this article about a man who writes essays for cash for college students across the country: he says his market is ESL students, hopelessly inept students and rich lazy students. And that the largest group within his clientele is comprised of, get this, future educators.]
They came up with all of these questions.
They are 14 and 15 years old.
In the end it left me simultaneously inspired and perplexed. I started to think about the concepts in the Shift Happens videos.) I have posted these before, but you should watch them if you have not. Some key concepts include:
- India has more honors students than America has students
- The top 10 in demand jobs in 2010 did not exist in 2004
- We are currently preparing students for jobs that don’t exist using technologies that haven’t been invented… in order to solve problems we don’t even know are problems yet
- For students starting a four-year technical degree this means that half of what they learn in their first year of study will be outdated but their third year of study
Think about what that means. Maybe to cheat on something today really doesn’t mean anything educationally. But spiritually or socially or collectively? That is another question. I certainly do not claim to have answers to these questions but I think the dialog matters. I want to believe that people want to know things. Whether this means they are “educated” or not is another question. But if people lose the ability to be curious we are fucked. With 31 billion Google searches a month, one could argue we are curious. Sort of. We might just be lazy if our only effort takes us to Google, which in turn takes us to the same search results, in turn leading to the total homogenization of information, ideas and thoughts, because surveys show that most people never go beyond the top five hits on their Google search.
How do you ensure that people are curious and inquisitive and striving to be, if not original, then at the very least, authentic? *Sigh* I wish I had the answer. Sir Ken Richardson says that schools, in their current incarnation, are killing student creativity – which would of course contribute to the death of curiosity… He says as we run educational systems where mistakes are the worst thing that you can make and that if you are not prepared to be wrong you will never come up with anything original. Therefore we are educating people out of their creative capacities. That sounds like a pretty big whoops. But it sort of speaks to what my kids are complaining about which is that schools are programming them for shit they don’t need or care about. WHOOPS.
If, as my students suggest, relevance is what will keep their interest and therefore their academic (and personal) integrity… wtf are we doing? And I would suggest that the notion that we know what it is that we are preparing them for is rather preposterous. We don’t know. When did it become so scary to admit that? I think that if we admitted that we do not know what it is we need to teach them, but we do know we need to encourage a certain attitude towards education, we may be more successful.
My current principal is really interested in looking at data with regard to students. I do not doubt that this is important or useful, the question I have is how do you measure a students potential or ability in the future when you are using a measure that might not be calculating anything that matters – particularly if the statistics are accurate regarding cheating and therefore the measurable elements of student performance have nothing to do with ability because they are all cheating.
Sir Ken had another talk that spoke specifically to the relevance of education. He suggests, in a rather compelling fashion, that we are alienating millions of kids by “trying to meet the future by offering what we did in the past” and so they see no purpose in going to school. Ding ding ding: We have a winner here!
“The current system of education was designed and conceived and constructed for a different age.” He goes on to say that we penalize kids for being distracted from school in a society that bombards them with information. He is right. He also points out that ADHD occurence has risen proportionately with standardized testing. You don’t say??? The revolutionary words of Robinson’s speech in my mind? We are educating our children by putting them to sleep and we should be waking them up! And how to do this?
One of the things that is the most challenging for me as a teacher is being faced with all of my students conditional, hypothetical, what if, potentialities. Sometimes, I have to say, it can be bloody infuriating. But if you look at it from a more affective and appropriate point of view, this is the way that my students have, maybe the only way, to express what Robinson describes as divergent thinking, which is the acknowledgement of a variety of answers or solutions. Why is this such a drama in school?
My freshmen are now reading Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird. And as we discuss the Finches, the Radleys, the Cunninghams, and the Ewells in the first few chapters, what has absolutely infuriated them is the way that Miss Caroline treats Scout as she begins first grade. You might not even remember that rather small detail in the larger context of the novel, but Miss Caroline tells Scout, “Now you tell your father not to teach you any more. It’s best to begin reading with a fresh mind. You tell him I’ll take over from here and try to undo the damage – ” Scout “mumbled that I was sorry and retired to meditating upon my crime.”
That my kids identified that scene and met it with outrage is telling in so many ways. I want to believe in education. I want to believe in what I do and that there is merit in learning. But to think that we cannot learn from everyone at every moment of the day is tragic and old-fashioned and elitist.
Today I go forward with few, anwers but deep gratitude for the opportunity to learn from those I am assigned to teach, among all the rest.