Monday, July 20, 2009

Ignorance versus Dishonesty

A line from the 1980 movie Coal Miner’s Daughter has the young and upcoming country music singer Loretta Lynn saying something like “I’m ignorant, not stupid.” The distinction—lack of knowledge versus lack of intelligence—is significant not just for the ignorant person’s self-esteem and confidence to move up in the competitive world, but also as a matter of justice in how others, especially the more highly educated, view such a person who arises from humble beginnings. Unfortunately, some of the more highly educated who themselves have come up from within the ranks do not maintain the distinction when judging their former peers who have not become so accomplished.

A similar distinction can be made between lack of knowledge and knowingly and willingly lying or cheating. A similar lack of perspective—or quickness to condemn—among the more highly educated can also be observed when judging the actions of the less knowledgeable. This became clear recently in a discussion thread among professors in response to a Chronicle of Higher Education news blog about plagiarism. The post reported how one university is instituting a grade lower than F, the “FD,” for academically dishonest students. Over 90% of the 46 comments gleefully cheered the toughness and alleged justness of the act, including one, protected only by Internet anonymity, suggesting that the firing squad be brought back.

Whether this last was sarcasm, steam letting, or Internet silliness is not worth dwelling on, as most comments ignored the possibility that some or many students just might not know how to cite, quote, and paraphrase properly when writing papers. This indeed is the conviction of Brian Martin, who wrote in the Journal of Information Ethics, fall 1994, “Students are apprentices, and some of them learn the scholarly trade slowly.” Martin’s conviction quickly became mine several years ago when I began using an Internet-based plagiarism detection service. Students who say, “You mean a reference is needed even though I put the material in my own words?” and “I didn’t know that that needs to be in quotation marks,” are not dishonest. Far from using the service to catch cheaters, I now use it to teach techniques of the “scholarly trade.”

My students may be a special case because many are first-generation college students. They are not as worldly-wise as those who come from more highly educated families, which means many are ignorant of the ways of citing, quoting, and paraphrasing. Not knowing how to do something, however, and proceeding to do it incorrectly does not make one dishonest. That students should have learned the skills, as professors are quick to point out, in some previous course and did not, perhaps earning a passing grade of D- , does not make them knowledgeable and therefore dishonest in the present. It often means that professors are frustrated over not having students who are as knowledgeable as they are and instead of exhibiting the patience to teach them, some professors go on the offensive to condemn.

Such attitudes of professors reminds me of the cartoon showing a boy holding a report card with an F on it and saying to his teacher, “Which one of us has truly failed?” In a free market sales reps are graded by their customers, not the other way around. And since in a free market in education teachers would be sales reps of knowledge and ideas (or peddlers of ideas), the message of the cartoon is accurate. Teachers need to be teachers, rarely moralists.

There are many reasons why someone may not know what is right or wrong in a particular situation. The bureaucratic state that we live in today, including the state-run schools and universities, erects all kinds of unnatural barriers and confusion to the accomplishment of our goals. Its myriad rules and regulations make it nearly impossible to know what is right according to the bureaucrats, and students are caught in the middle of the kaleidoscope.

Throw in psychology, whether it be rationalization or evasion, selective memory and selective perception, exaggeration or literal mindedness, along with the entire cumulative nature of the formation of character, and you have a very difficult task of discerning willful, knowledgeable deceit from ignorance. The ignorance may be self-created, as in a life of evasion, but how can the judge know in the present what is the cause of an action or statement? Due diligence in gathering information and patience before passing judgment seem to be the sensible response.

Someone may step on my toe by accident or on purpose. Either way I am likely to yell. Prudence calls for patience before further judgmental action is taken.

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