Thursday, May 20, 2010

Pro at Con: How the Case of Adam Wheeler Educates Us

Perfect SAT scores; all A's at one of the nation's best prep schools; several books authored; research; volunteering. Who could believe that an 18-year-old has accomplished all that? You'd better believe it, because that is common for Harvard undergraduates, so common that many students with such a record are turned away. And Harvard admissions officers believed it, except that in the case of Adam Wheeler, they shouldn't have, because Mr. Wheeler only claimed to have this record.

The young man who turned up on Monday in the nation's consciousness was a spectacular con man, who forged letters of recommendation from professors he had never met, somehow managed to send faked SAT scores with his transfer application, fabricated a transcript from a school he never attended, won literary prizes based on plagiarized (stolen) papers, nearly was nominated as one of Harvard's recommended Rhodes and Fulbright nominees, and once kicked out of Harvard kept doing it—at Harvard's own mental health hospital and then as he attempted to transfer into Yale and Brown.


Except that there is much to believe here. Some will claim--and they may very well be right--that Mr. Wheeler is a disturbed sociopath, one for whom social values hold no meaning. Some would wonder about how Harvard's admissions department could possibly have done so very little checking. On blogs I have read people congratulating him for "sticking it to Harvard"—Harvard’s tribulations are gloated over by many who resent its domination—or for learning Wall Street lessons so well that he is sure to find his way to a lucrative field where such cons are rewarded.

But I also think this case raises the opportunity to look broadly and critically at an educational system that has such a focus on credentials and resumes that someone with a disorder like this might be plausible. Many students have inflated high school records, often massaged and managed with the complicity of parents, teachers, administrators, and college admission counselors. Many of our highest-achieving students, such as those chronicled by Alexandra Robbins’ shocking book The Overachievers, claim membership in clubs they never attend, spend years on activities that are meaningless to them, calculate which courses to take that will yield grade-point-averages above perfect. Students learn how to butter up their teachers, how to master test-taking, how to create an image of success that shows that they have mastered, in David Labaree's terms, How to Succeed in School without Really Learning.

Success is what Mr. Wheeler portrayed, and success breeds success. Harvard and other highly (insanely) competitive schools are all about success. A credential from Harvard can set a person on a lifelong upward trajectory. If a person is to aim high, why not the highest? It is risky, but the risks are worth it, if what one seeks is the appearance of success. Such high-stakes competitions, from China’s millennial-long civil service examination to today’s SAT and pre-med courses, invite clever schemas to be one of the winners.

But it seems to me—okay, call me "idealistic"—that education is supposed to be about more than mere credentials and the appearance of success. To be sure, many students indeed learn, change, grow, mature at every level of schooling, but learning, content, growth, meaning are never part of our public discussion of education. When all around us we hear about graduation rates, the level of educational attainment, opportunities for combining high school and college credit (double credit!), grades, and other extrinsic measures, we have an environment that can easily grow a fraud. How can we tell the difference between a fraud and someone who similarly masters the image of success to impress? Impression management, performance, acting like a winner—these are some of the lessons our best schools inculcate, and students learn these lessons well.

But isn't there something else we want our students to learn? How can we set up an educational system that values the CONTENT of our learning, rather than a rush to get through the lessons? What do we want from all the schooling that costs us so much? The case of Adam Wheeler, con man extraordinaire, gives us a chance to learn something valuable. And that’s educational.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Should China Copy the West on Academic Integrity?

Plagiarism. Doesn’t the very word send chills down your spine? It resembles plague, after all (even though it has no genetic connection to it), and a plague must sicken us all. So the cases of plagiarism and academic misconduct, fraud, copying, and misrepresentation that are the latest ills to beset China make for great journalistic stories. China should, by some accounts, take its lead from the “West,” and especially from the United States.

In case you haven’t noticed, the United States too is consumed by worries about plagiarism and violations of academic integrity. But we have the sense that things are worse in China.

The whole topic of plagiarism depends on related ideas of originality. By a certain logic, developed in Western Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, an author should write original works (Woodmansee 1984, Rose 1993), and should be paid—in both money and “credit”—for that contribution, especially because the best authors were seen as geniuses, inspired by their Muse or by God. The unique work of each of these geniuses should be acknowledged. And paid.

Thus was born the notion of copyright, which is connected with but not identical to the admonition to give credit to our sources.

Academic writing, which is not always—to say the least—touched by genius, borrows from this sense that the author has made a unique contribution and should be gestured to. But it also has a professional scaffolding, the guild rules, if you will, that uses a person’s prior learning to demonstrate proper deference and training. We do that, as Anthony Grafton showed in his book The Footnote, in our footnotes. They give credit. They allow readers to pursue our line of thinking. And they show that we are following the rules.

These are the rules we teach our students and these are the rules we follow, at least when we do follow them.

In the United States college students fail to follow these rules sometimes; in surveys about 66% of our students admit to using uncited material. They do so for a variety of reasons: The rules are extremely subtle and difficult to master properly. The students are busy with a variety of other compelling activities and don’t want to take the time on a particular assignment. The assignment is meaningless to the student. The student has waited until the last minute and just needs to fill up pages, with anything. Some of these reasons may have to do with integrity and some with failed education.

But you can imagine a different notion of writing, a different path in history that does not regard writing as an individual possession. (Many of our students do, in this age of collaboration and Wikis.)

You could imagine a notion of writing where sharing was more important than hording.

You could imagine an academic system where people were hired and rewarded on the basis of contacts, seniority, and cooperation rather than publication and competition.

You could imagine a notion of education where quoting authority showed the proper deference of youth.

You could even imagine a place where a culture hero claimed “I transmit, I do not invent (or create).” (This saying is attributed to Kongzi, known as Confucius, in The Analects.)

Such a place would have a different set of rules about what is supposed to be found in footnotes and in papers, and writing in this place would not be seen as violating universal morality, but rather as following its own logic.

Until very recently, these have been some of the rules governing academic writing in China.

Now, of course, China has left behind its twentieth-century academic isolation and would like to make intellectual contributions to the global academic world. China is now producing more people with higher education degrees than the U.S. and India combined, according to the BBC ( China is investing heavily in tertiary education ( China’s faculty are no longer rewarded simply for loyalty.

So new rules are evolving.

And like all social change, it is clear that it happens unevenly. Now that several Chinese universities are ranked in the top 100 in the world, and collaborations between Chinese and foreign scholars are common, Chinese universities have agreed to follow “international” notions of academic integrity, meaning that all work must declare its origins. (Never mind that there is great variation among nations in how this is regarded.) Deference has given way to the confident claims of invention.

As in any high-stakes system—the SAT, Wall Street, publication in prestigious fora—one finds some individuals willing to take enormous risks. Some are sociopaths, such as journalist Stephen Glass who fabricated an entire story in The New Republic ( Some claim sloppiness, such as Doris Kearns Goodwin ( Scientists wishing glory may also write fraudulent papers, such as three recent professors at Zhejiang University ( He Haibo copied and fabricated results published or submitted to eight journals; two colleagues were implicated with him. China Daily called it the “biggest-ever academic scandal” (

Here we have a case with several possible explanations:

• Chinese people cheat.

• Some Chinese people cheat.

• Some people cheat.

• China follows imperfectly international guild rules about academic practices.

• China’s acceptance of the rules of academic citation are in flux and so far have been mastered imperfectly.

Which answer is preferable may depend on whether you want China to be similar to or different from people elsewhere, and whether you believe in an enduring Chinese essence.

I believe that in some sense the rules of academic conduct are arbitrary, but like any game, the players must follow the rules. Violations occur occasionally, both in the West and in Asia, and are rarely caught or punished. The American Historical Association recognized its powerlessness in enforcing rules against plagiarism in 2003 (, though it encouraged historians to follow and teach students about proper rules of conduct.

There are some traditional practices that may endure in China, such as having novices quote from authorities as part of their education, and there is a tendency to regard communication as effective based on the results it produces.

But there are also new forces at play in China, having to do with the way academics are compensated for speed of publication and uniqueness of contribution.

In this sense China is copying the economic structure of the Western academy. And in this sense the temptations for cutting corners in order to “scoop” everyone else or at least to pile on publications are just like ours.

In this sense, imitation may be the best form of flattery, but both the source and the copier would profit from a different model.

Sources Cited

Grafton, Anthony. 1997. The Footnote: A Curious History. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Rose, Mark. 1993. Authors and Owners: The Invention of Copyright. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Woodmansee, Martha. 1984. “The Genius and the Copyright: Economic and Legal Conditions of the Emergence of the ‘Author’.” Eighteenth-Century Studies 17: 425-48.

This has also appeared on

The China Beat: Blogging How the East is Read
May 21, 2009

History News Network
May 21, 2009

Thursday, January 22, 2009

"China-ism" Lesson Explains Future of Tibet - Chicago Tribune

Op-Ed in Chicago Tribune, April 18, 2009

"China-ism" Lesson Explains Future of Tibet

Susan D. Blum

Word Magic: Saying Makes It So

Published as an op-ed in the Chicago Sun-Times, January 23, 2009, with the title "Inaugural Oath Like a Magic Spell: The Right Words Matter":,CST-EDT-open23.article

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Reverse Engineering Education

Engineers--according to a friend who is an architect--imagine the product they wish to end up with, and then design the process by which to create such a product.

In designing educational systems, not the ordinary socialization that preceded formal education in much of the world, but the contemporary system that involves bureaucracies and unions, graduate programs and curricula, we might also ask the question of the ultimate goal:

What kind of person do we want to produce through education?

A person with
  • Confidence, but who keeps questioning
  • Compassion
  • Integrity, moral fiber
  • Civic engagement
  • Happiness
  • Curiosity
  • Tenacity
  • Flexibiliy
  • Creativity
  • A sense of community
  • Happiness and a sense of people's right to happiness
  • Non-complacency
  • Acceptance of and openness to others
  • Looking for the good in others
  • Discernment (of information, of action)
  • Internal sense of quality
Life skills
  • Financial savvy
  • Practical knowledge: Laundry, physical care (cooking, replacing a button, cleaning)
  • Enjoyment in technical/practical challenges

Then, how do we do that?

If our goal is education for life, rather than education for school, we might reconsider where our emphasis lies.

I grew up loving school. I made tests for fun, played school--always being the teacher--and derived a sense of self-worth from scores on tests. But now, having spent many years in higher education, having two teenage children, and conducting a project on higher education, I have come to conclude that our schools are self-justifying strait-jackets for many children. Children whose passion is writing, or music, or fashion, or football, or work, are tortured by the requirements that keep them learning chemistry or writing about The Catcher in the Rye. If they were allowed to pursue their interests, they might look forward to school and might put into it the kind of effort that their elders think is appropriate. I used to believe that everyone needed a serious foundation that is "well-rounded," and certainly young people need exposure to the complexity of the world before they focus on their own interests.

I am, however, confident that "everything connects"--this is one of anthropology's central tenets--so that if people start learning anywhere they may end up somewhere else. I have rarely seen people doing what they love and complaining about it.

But for most children and students, including college students, much of their work is, essentially, meaningless in terms of their larger goals. So they do whatever little they have to--unless they are among the small minority planning to attend elite colleges, in which case no meaningless task is irrelevant for the all-important goal of college admission--using whatever methods they can find, including cheating, to be left alone.

This is true as much in college as in high school, as much in high school as in the early years of school. There was a time when colleges had no majors and no "distribution" requirements. Now students are bombarded with English classes, math classes, prerequisites, even entire degrees, which are piled on the poor student who just wants to grow up and hang out with friends, or to get a job, or to spend all day playing a guitar, badly. That doesn't mean we should necessarily let the children or young adults do whatever they feel like--and long-range planning is not the strong suit for children or many young adults--but neither should we be surprised when they cut corners, resist, complain, and celebrate snow days.

Two writers with alternative approaches to the very central notion of schooling are Kieran Egan and Alfie Kohn. Egan proposes "imaginative education" and Kohn champions a variant of "progressive" education. Both argue forcefully against the narrow test-focused rigidity of "traditional" education and suggest that the best education can inspire and prepare children for a lifetime of joy and effectiveness. Neither of these desiterata, however, is easily measured by standardized tests.

As we reverse engineer our educational system, it is helpful to consider at each step where we really would like to end up. This requires serious conversation and cultural examination.

Friday, January 9, 2009

The Plagiarism Spectrum

“Plagiarism” sounds bad, like “plague.” Bad things need cures, require diagnoses, cry out for jeremiads. But like many things—such as “autism,” from which I borrow the term “spectrum”—“plagiarism” is not one simple thing despite the existence of a single term that is used for all its manifestations. Since it is not one simple thing, it is not caused by one single factor and even when it is bad cannot be cured by one single solution.

Plagiarism has a cousin, copyright infringement. In the case of plagiarism what is withheld is not the economic right to receive royalties, but credit. This is a moral good, stemming from specific cultural ideas about the author as individual, and as genius, who creates original, unique material.

Not all forms of plagiarism should be met with outrage or alarm.

“Plagiarism” applies to everything between buying a paper—better considered fraud—and “self-plagiarism” which means an author publishing, more than one time, something s/he wrote her-/himself. The former is an academic crime in which a student attempts to receive academic credit—which is bought both by tuition money and student effort—without applying the effort. The latter is a crime against the rules of the academic guild, which in the United States prohibit repeat publication even of an author’s own work. The larger goals of student learning and professors’ promotion of knowledge are not really addressed in these rules, which might in some ways seem arbitrary.

Another perplexing variant along the spectrum is inadvertent plagiarism, which could also be akin to independent invention. Two or more people might stumble upon the same formulation, as has happened to me. Sometimes influences are floating in the air, and perhaps a musician might believe she has “invented” a melody when actually she heard someone else play it, but has not remembered the initial encounter. Legally this is sometimes regarded as excusable. Intention is the key.

Perhaps the most commonly encountered plagiarism is that which results from students’ imperfect mastery of the conventions of citation that are particular to academic writing, especially in the social sciences and humanities. In this world, any ideas or exact words derived from another source must be credited explicitly, with the (tricky) exception of “common knowledge.” Students often wonder exactly how to give credit, for example when they use material from their course reading (surely, they often think, the professor knows it’s from the course reading, so why should they bother citing it for their audience of one?). They are confused about providing page numbers—page numbers are never given in journalism, are they?—and about using quotation marks or paraphrasing. This kind of plagiarism is usually the result of years of fuzzy teaching and learning and can be corrected only by more education. It is made more difficult by the fact that professors in different fields, and even within the same departments, often give students different rules to follow.

A newly embraced kind of plagiarism is sampling. This kind of artistic creation, including other artists’ work within one’s own and doing something new with it, has existed for centuries. Bach did it; the Impressionists celebrated it. Some contemporary artists, such as Jonathan Lethem, welcome transformation of their ideas. Commercial holders of copyrights, such as the Disney Corporation, prosecute every possible unauthorized use of their images.

The kind of plagiarism that makes administrators, professors, and the public unhappy, though, is a very specific kind of plagiarism. This is the plagiarism that involves a lazy student knowingly taking material—these days usually located on the Internet—written by someone else and presenting it as his own for credit. It might be a phrase, a sentence, a paragraph, or the earlier-mentioned entire document. This kind of student knows what she is doing, and does it to deceive the professor, to get a good grade, all the while glossing over doing the work herself.

This kind of plagiarism—let’s call it academic-crime plagiarism—also has many causes, but most include the following: 1) the fact that students do not necessarily care about the learning that is supposed to result from doing their own work, 2) the fact that many perceive higher education (and indeed secondary education as well) as a bottom-line endeavor where the most important outcome is a grade or a credential, 3) the fact that higher education is a multi-faceted enterprise sold as a a) combined cultural rite of passage that transforms children into adults, b) an opportunity to learn about oneself and the world, and c) a prelude to work and success. Students are very busy pursuing the activities marketed as the co-curriculum, relegating classes to a small sliver of their time, as well as working to support the high costs associated with higher education.

The only reasons students would choose the long route instead of the short route to academic accomplishment are that 1) they care about the work, or 2) they are afraid of the consequences if they take the short route.

Most solutions to the academic-crime plagiarism epidemic focus either on increasing fear or making plagiarism a moral issue (going far back to the cultural good of originality as demonstrating the value of an individual creator).

But after researching this issue for several years, I have come to believe that the genuine solution is increasing students’ care about their work, allowing them to place academics at the center of the college experience, where they identify with the guild of their instructors and wish to contribute to the creation of knowledge.

I don’t believe we can do that while higher education is so much an entitlement for the upper-middle class, offering pleasure, fun, and a high salary.

Perhaps we could de-couple the rite of passage, career, and educational facets of higher education, and then we could sort out students’ plagiarism along the plagiarism spectrum. And then we could hope to locate solutions to its multiple faces.