My class hit an interesting bump in the road last Wednesday. In my last blog post I wrote that I couldn’t wait for the surprises my students had in store for me and, true to form, they caught me off guard after handing in the first drafts of their articles. I tried to hide my shock as I realized that many had created a hodgepodge of paragraphs and quotes taken from different sources on the Internet. The first thought through my mind was how brazen they were; I knew a lot of plagiarizers in school, but they all made huge efforts to pass the stolen words off as theirs. These students hadn’t even bothered to reformat the text into a uniform font and color.
I held up the articles to my students. “Did you write these words?” I asked. When they shook their heads, I became even more confused. They weren’t even bothering to lie about copying someone else’s work. “Then where did you get these articles from?”
One boy raised his hand. “From the Internet.” The rest of the students looked at me blankly.
I took a deep breath, trying to find the words I wanted to say. “What this is—this is called plagiarism.” No sign of recognition or guilt registered on their faces. I was starting to feel frustrated. “This is illegal. Do you know that?” The blank faces continued. “Did you guys know that?”
Finally, an answer: “No,” said a girl sitting in the front. The other students came alive with her words, mumbling in agreement and fidgeting.
I tried not to show my genuine surprise. I’ve heard people say that education is a tool of control, a means of training and socializing children to behave and think in a manner accepted by the rest of society. Maybe I am just overly susceptible to conditioning, but I have no doubt that school affected my sense of what is right and what is wrong—and I was taught that plagiarism definitely falls into that second category. From an early age I listened over and over again as teachers lamented the evils of copying another’s work, and I can still remember the horror I felt when my first librarian recited tales of young children who were carted off by federal authorities for plagiarizing and were never heard from again (at the time, I never thought to verify the validity of these ghost stories). Either these experiences succeeded in shaping me into a person that society wanted, or maybe I have a natural tendency to follow rules to a fault, but I have spent the rest of my education diligently citing every source I have ever used.
If my elementary school teachers were to read this post, I’m sure they would triumphantly declare victory. Their efforts were not in vain, after all. Despite the fact that I heard this warning over a decade ago, my automatic aversion to plagiarism proves that at least one student processed through the system absorbed the brainwashing. It’s a very “Clockwork Orange”-esque thought.
I don’t think this lesson should be viewed in such a cynical light, however. The incessant conditioning served a much higher purpose. The fact that we punish plagiarism, and teach our students to avoid it, proves that we think thoughts are worth something. In fact, they are worth so much to us that we are willing to expel, fine, and even jail our citizens to protect original ideas. Everything we do, we do to affirm that your beliefs are your own—and no one else’s.
In my society, I own my words. That is a privilege that I constantly take for granted—and one that my students here in Mauritius have no concept of. I want them to understand the value of respecting other’s work not because it will keep them out of legal trouble, but because it will teach them that their ideas mean something too.
Despite all of my ups and downs with ELI Africa, I feel like I am finally serving the organization’s purpose for the first time. My job is to prove to each child that they matter. Because almost everything can be taken away from us—everything but our thoughts. And these children, who come from so little, deserve to have something of their own. They need to know that, no matter what happens, they will always have sovereignty over their minds.