Thursday, November 7, 2013

Are we failing?

There are days I think that we educators are failing the nation. The right wing says it. The media says it. Every election cycle someone says it, and says they're the person to "fix" it. We've heard all types of call for reform. They say that education should all be given over to private industry, because everything works when it's driven by the market. They say we don't care, that we're lazy, or that we aren't helping our students learn. I don't think they're correct about all of that. But I'm beginning to feel pessimistic and wonder if we aren't failing at what we do.

Consider science. Evolution is a given. We wouldn't have antibiotics without it. Or flu shots. Or knowledge about how retroviruses work. Yet we have people...people have gone to college and recieved BAs, MAs, and PhDs or even MDs (Rep. Paul Broun, from the great state of Georgia for example who suggested as much) who say that evolution isn't real. They paint idea as "only a theory" either unaware of or cynically obfuscating the meaning of the word "theory," which to scientists has an entirely different meaning than it does to lay people. (A good explanation of how this word differs may be found here.)

Consider climate change. All the leading science says it's happening. But holding on to one or two studies that raise some questions, there are those who cling to the idea that global warming is a hoax. This despite much more evidence to the contrary. These people want 100% certainty before they would act. This is not unlike people who continue to believe the Earth is flat, despite all the evidence to the contrary, or people who believe the US never landed on the moon. Seriously, people like this are usually mocked or derided as "flakes," a fringe curiosity. Yet people who hold these beliefs are more prevalent, and are given time on serious news shows with serious reporters who don't really challenge them. These reporters try to make it seem as though they are being "objective" be airing the "other side" of the story, when, because they are not thinking critically, they only allow this bunkum to be promulgated. Would a teacher allow this in a classroom? As an answer on a test? How is it these answers go unchecked, uncorrected?

Now we have a US Senator who has been caught plagiarizing not once, not twice, but on at least four occasions. In one of those instances, three full pages were lifted verbatim from a Heritage Foundation case study, and passed off as his own words. I don't know how many hours I've spent teaching students not to plagiarize. Certainly Senator Paul's caviler attitude or, perhaps, his lack of knowledge about plagiarism suggests that his teachers failed him. (Or perhaps they should have failed him and didin't...they just promoted him.) The Senator does not think he's done anything wrong, when demonstrably, he has. What worries me is that 1) there is a pattern of repeated instances of plagairism; 2) he lacks remorse for what he's done (or if he does, rather than admit a mistake, he simply blames the messenger.) Whatever happened to that good old Republican value of personal responsibility? 

Plagiarism is the most serious of academic sins. It is tantamount to theft. The Senator is, supposedly, an MD, and should have the educational background to know copying a a summary of a movie from Wikipedia is plagiarism--even if you do credit the writers of the movie. (Copying the summary for Hamlet from SparksNotes, by the Senator's reasoning, is not plagiarism. Any high school English teacher will tell you otherwise.)  I don't know how many times I've caught kids doing exactly kind of thing. Kids who wanted to cut and paste whole pages from the internet and submit them to me or to IB as an original essay (lucky for them I caught them, and not IB). And this is why it worries me: Kids will see this and see that nothing really happens. Or, as Senator Paul did when first confronted about this, they can blame the messenger ("You don't like me, that's why you're giving me an 'F'.")  Senator Paul seems to have a sense that the rules don't apply. But they must. If the Senator were to submit an article for peer review to a medical journal that had been plagiarized all of his work would be questioned. But if nothing is done, if there are no consequences, then what kind of message does that send our kids? (To their credit, the Washington Times, who used run a regular column by the Senator, dropped him once they discovered parts of one his columns had been plagiarized.) 

The Senator has said that it was a lack of citations ("footnoting" the Senator's word). But it is much much more than that. Passing off three whole pages as one's own is more than "footnoting." Furthermore, the Senator should know the rules for quoting long passages of text. Or the rules for attribution when it is done in a speech (I'm assuming that at some point in his academic career, the Senator would have had to do an oral defense, or present at a conference, which would've required knowing how to do some basic attribution). Journalists know this. Academicians know this. Most 10th graders know this. The Senator would have us believe that what we know objectively to be a case of plagiarism is little more than a difference of opinion about what plagiarism is.

And that is what is at the root of it all. People are either ignorant of the difference between facts and opinions, or cynically confound the two. But I think, if we have done our jobs, when someone tries to cynically pass off opinion as fact, people who have graduated high school (or better) should recognize it. They should use the critical thinking skills we have taught them to see through the fog of the fiction. And for some reason, people are not. They are buying the snake oil they are being sold.

Evolution is a fact. Climate change is a fact. That Senator Paul plagiarized repeatedly is a fact. Facts are immutable. Facts should inform opinions, but opinions may not substitute for facts. Teaching the difference between facts and opinions is what we teachers are tasked with.  Coupled with critical thinking, it is how create an informed citizenry. When public figures are allowed to spout this kind of nonsense--to confuse fact and opinion willy-nilly--and there is no widespread outrage, I have to ask: Are we failing our students? Are we failing our duty?