Friday 5 January 2024

The problem is much worse than plagiarism

I studied for a while in an Ivy League college and found the standard to be pitiful. You went to the bookshop at the beginning of term and bought the books you needed. Then you were told to read a few pages before each class. To pass you needed to write a short essay and sit a very short exam. Each course unless it was built on a predecessor assumed absolutely no knowledge whatsoever. So, if you studied physics it was right from the beginning. There was no assumption that you had studied anything at school. You then studied a weird and wonderful set of subjects each of which took you to the same mediocre level and spent the rest of your time playing sports, dating and getting drunk at fraternities. But still there was no problem with plagiarism.

In all the time that I studied I never once came across plagiarism. It was mentioned every now and again, but it wasn’t dwelled on. Everyone everywhere I studied was good enough to study there, so there was no need to plagiarise anyone else. In America it wasn’t that the students lacked talent, it was simply that harder courses awaited them in graduate school. Their studies were merely delayed by the lack of national school leaving exams.

I doubt very much that anyone checked my sources when I was writing. It wasn’t necessary. You can tell instantly just by talking to someone if they understand their subject and are capable of having original thoughts about it.

Citing sources has become in the past decades the most important thing indeed the only thing, but it didn’t use to be that way. If you read some of the great scholars of the nineteenth century and earlier you will find lots of text, very few references and a tiny bibliography.

So too when Ludwig Wittgenstein submitted his thesis he wrote

Indeed what I have here written makes no claim to novelty in points of detail; and therefore I give no sources, because it is indifferent to me whether what I have thought has already been thought before me by another.

There was no need for him to cite any sources because his examiners immediately recognised that although they did not understand all of it Wittgenstein had written a work of genius. No one questioned that the work was his, not least because no one else in the world was capable of writing it.

Times moved on in Cambridge and it became necessary to play the game a bit, but I could still write without any sources and only put them when I’d finished. Again, citing sources and writing a bibliography was necessary, but no one made a big deal about it, because what mattered was that what you wrote was original and showed understanding of the subject. Given this it could be assumed that you were not plagiarising, because you didn’t need to.

It is this that has changed in the years since. People who ought to have left education at school have gone on like the former president of Harvard to obtain a degree and then a higher degree and then a job that should require a high level of intelligence while all the time lacking that intelligence.

This is a process that has been going on since at least the nineteenth century. By the mid twentieth century anyone with ability even if he was from a poor background could study at Cambridge. It meant that the standard of the courses was very high indeed. It wasn’t so much that you were taught, but that you were expected to write and argue your point not just with your peers but with some of the best minds in the country.  You simply couldn’t reach the end point without being talented. There was no point plagiarising because you weren’t being judged on your citations, but on your thought and ability to argue.

This all began to change with expansion. People who would have been incapable of studying at the level up to this point were admitted. Naturally they had to pass. It might be possible to fail a few, but if you failed more than a handful you would go out of business. So, the courses had to be made easier.

You cannot go from 5% of the population passing something to 50% passing and expect the standard to remain the same.

Worse what became important ceased to be intellect. When anyone with an average IQ or even below that could pass, you need to find something other than intellect to distinguish between one and the other.

Whereas previously politics had been a completely nonissue in most subjects to the extent that you might know someone for years and not know how they voted, gradually it became not merely part of each subject but really the whole subject.

Instead of judging intellect what mattered was conformity to a set of rules and opinions.

Issues like race, transgender, homosexuality, feminism and also to an extent leftwing economics, which were at best peripheral previously became the only issues. These became the equivalent of what previously had been footnotes.

It is not just the former president of Harvard who was judged not on her ability to cite sources, nor indeed on her intellect, it was everyone else too.

Critical race theory tells us that black people can’t be racist. Only white people can be racist. It argues that the reason for differences in socio economic status and indeed any ability between black people and white people must be the result of racism not merely now but in history. A black student requires affirmative action in order to get into Harvard. Equality isn’t enough. He needs preferential treatment, because he suffered racism and his ancestors suffered from slavery.

So, it has to be made easier for Claudine Gay to get into Harvard or a similar college. If she struggles with the course, she has to be marked more leniently to make up for the racism she has suffered. When she goes on to study for her Ph.D., we mustn’t check her sources too carefully and if we do spot any examples of plagiarism, we need to ignore them, even if we wouldn’t do the same for someone else who had not suffered from racism.

You begin to perhaps see the problem that has developed. The problem is not so much the plagiarism, it that you have so lowered the standard of what you are doing that it really doesn’t matter if they cite sources correctly or not.

Previously you were judged on your intellect. Can you think? Can you learn? Can you write? Can you argue? Politics didn’t come into it.

Now you are not judged on your intellect, but on your identity and how closely you conform to a set of dogmas no one has proved either experimentally or with reason.

When someone with a mediocre intellect can reach the top of Harvard not because she is intelligent or original or an interesting mind, but simply because of her identity and her willingness to conform to dogma, then we can assume that the education provided at Harvard is essentially worthless. If it worthless there it is similarly worthless everywhere. It’s merely a matter of degree and catching up with this worthlessness.  

The problem is not plagiarism. The problem is not citing or footnotes. The problem is that we have essentially destroyed education.

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