By Lindsay Pearlman
I faced my students, holding up their papers. “This is illegal,” I said. “Do you know that?”
I knew that teaching a group of twenty high school children in a developing nation would mean lots of surprises, but there is no way I could have been prepared for this latest shock. My students really caught me off guard with the first drafts of their articles they handed in to me. I tried to hide my disbelief as I realized that many had assembled 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 my school experience affected my sense of what is right and what is wrong—and I was taught that plagiarism unconditionally 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 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.
Since no cultural precedent of owning one’s ideas exists in Mauritius, the government must act through its legislative channels if it is committed to establishing respect for individual thoughts and words. The answer, however, goes beyond simple legislation, as the regulations protecting intellectual property are rarely enforced. The laws mean nothing if those in charge do not act to make ending plagiarism a priority. A newfound appreciation for original words could create massive ripples in Mauritius if successfully instituted, providing much-needed stimulation to the struggling creative and intellectual societal sectors of a country suffering from persistent “brain drain.”
My job as an ELI Africa Summer Fellow is to prove to all the children 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.
Lindsay Pearlman is a sophomore in Morse College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.