Editor’s Note: This article was originally published by The Spectator World on December 24, 2023 and is crossposted here with permission.
Harvard president Claudine Gay’s troubling history of appropriating other people’s idea and words and passing them off as her own has a well-worn name: plagiarism. Every college and university in the United States prohibits plagiarism. Most present students with explicit rules against it and lay out the possibility of drastic punishments, such as failing a course and, depending on the severity of the offense, expulsion from the college. Typically, instructors in freshman English include lessons on the proper ways to quote, paraphrase and cite sources.
Why? What is so wrong with plagiarism? We don’t punish actors for reciting their lines and failing to add, “Mr. William Shakespeare wrote that.” A young man offering a ring to a young woman doesn’t stop to explain, “I didn’t make it. A jeweler named Isaac on West 47th Street made it and his nephew sold it to me.” On New Year’s Eve people will sing “Auld Lang Syne” without knowing exactly what the words mean (“for the sake of old times”) and without explaining, “Robert Burns wrote the lyrics in 1788, but explained in a letter that he ‘took it down from an old man.’ Older versions similar to Burns’s lyrics have been found, including one from 1711 by a Scottish printer, James Watson, but the version we sing is mostly Burns’s. The melody we use comes is a traditional Scottish dance.” If you try appending this after the last boozy chorus and kiss, you may not be invited to next year’s party.
As Claudine likes to say, “It all depends on context.” Repeating other people’s words without attribution is at the heart of many liturgies. Your own free-form paraphrase of the Lord’s Prayer would be awkward in the services of most Christian denominations. And giving credit to the designer, architect or craftsman occurs only in special situations. “Yes, this is a Frank Lloyd Wright house,” or, “My dress is by Oscar de la Renta.”
So if you are a freshman at Cornfield State College or, say, Harvard, what is so wrong with presenting the words of Harold Bloom when you are asked to write a paper about Cormac McCarthy novel? Bloom probably understood McCarthy better than you. Adopting his views as your own simply shows your good taste. You might wish to change a few words to make his writing sound a bit more like yourself. As for “quoting” him, that’s just pretentious. Go with the flow.
These days, of course, the old taboos on plagiarism have weakened and are sometimes falling. A college student caught plagiarizing may get off with a warning — or even less — from a professor who is concerned about student evaluations at the end of the semester Or said professor may well reckon that if the plagiarist is a person of color, silence may be the better part of discretion. And then too, we are in the middle of the Postmodern Age, when old notions of truth and falsity are exposed as machinations of the powerful few, intent on subordinating everyone else. It is an authentic act of rebellion to defy those “rules” against plagiarism. You call it plagiarism; I call it decolonization. Get your laws off my free expression.
And some cultures are more relaxed about quotation. It’s a way of recognizing that we are part of same community. Language itself is sharing. Apart from a few exceptional individuals such as James Joyce and Joe Biden, most of us work with words that we didn’t invent. Language is born in repeating what others say, perhaps rearranging it a bit, but its essence is unacknowledged quotation. The so-called plagiarist is really just the skilled rearranger. Even Novel Laureate Bob Dylan has been known to breathe new life into other people’s stale old poetry. He also explains, “All the truths of the world add up to one big lie.” So why worry about the source?
I am not sure how the American academy these days would response to these counsels of cynicism. But here are my own observations. The academy — the university in the broadest sense — is an old institution, but not as old as song, music, folktales, gossip or even history and philosophy. Part of what distinguishes the university from those other channels of communication is its dedication to joint pursuit of truth. We work together to figure out the best answers to some of the mysteries of the world. The mysteries that most concern us are the ones that look like they are solved by persistent intellectual inquiry. That means sharing what we know along with the reasons we think we are right and our reflections on what others have said. That puts us into a dialogue with others who have done the same.
This dialogue may have no end. We do our best and pass the matter along to the next generation, which may do better. There is no final word for many of the matters we address, but collectively we hope to get closer to what’s real and what’s true.
Plagiarism is a problem because it breaks the links in that chain. The stolen idea, the purloined quotation and the missing citation send us back into the fog of rumor and gossip. How are we to make progress if, “All the truths of the world add up to one big lie?” That patient and steady search for truth becomes a ride in the getaway car of postmodernism. It is thrilling perhaps, but it ends in the badlands.
That explanation puts the university’s own purposes into the foreground. But I should say the university’s traditional purposes. If the purpose of the university is redefined as, say, “the pursuit of social justice,” or less grandly as “the credentialing of the workforce,” the reasons to forbid plagiarism are weakened. Maybe even abolished.
But there is a second reason to reject plagiarism — or a second set of closely related reasons. Learning the art of properly engaging other people’s thoughts and citing them by name is a powerful resource for the individual. Mastering this art isn’t natural or easy. It takes some concentrated effort, and college is the one place where that skill can be effectively learned. A lawyer needs to cite accurately real legal cases. ChatGPT and similar AI technology may provide assistance, but ChatGPT also seems to conflate real laws with fictional ones — and even invents citations for these fictions. That puts the burden on the student to develop his discernment early on. Freshman English, if not sooner. Fortunately, not all students are destined to be lawyers, but all students who hope to play some meaningful part in our complex society need to develop that lawyerly skill of thinking through what others have thought and said.
And it happens that the traditional university is the best place to learn how to do this. I generally avoid the phrase “critical thinking,” which has become ubiquitous in American higher education, but generally involves misleading ideas about what’s “critical” and hardly any thinking at all. It is a catch-all phrase for criticizing people and institutions by deploying popular clichés. Splashing tomato soup on a famous painting in a museum is not “critical thinking.” It is simply vandalism. And teaching students that Western civilization is founded on oppression and expropriation is also vandalism.
But critical thinking in the true sense is indeed part of what makes the university the university. And to think critically is to think with the utmost serious attention about the sources which warrant your attention. We inevitably grant authority to some views and doubt others, and often we find both views within the works of a single author. Disentangling this play of light and shadow is what critical thinking really entails.
And it falls to pieces if we allow plagiarism or fail to recognize that the plagiarist deals in counterfeit authority.
There are to be sure many things worse than plagiarism. Murder is worse, and mass murder is heinous. Rape is worse, and mass rape is an abomination. Kidnapping is worse. Torture is worse. Propagandizing in support of such things is worse.
Civilization demands that we respond effectively to such crimes. But civilization also demands that we do our best to uphold the central institutions that sustain civilization across the generations, and the university is among those institutions — perhaps first among them. Within the university exist several pillars that make its complex enterprise work. Intellectual freedom is one of them; personal responsibility is another; division of labor yet another. I wouldn’t want to elevate the rules against plagiarism as the standalone guarantor of the university’s integrity. But they are indispensable. Without those rules, the university is just babble pretending to be true speech. And that’s why Claudine Gay must go.
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