Wolverhampton - it's never been the same since the plagiarists took over

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The Independent Online

The sad death, betimes, of my good friend John Boulton, one-time head of English at Wolverhampton Polytechnic, reminds me that the teaching of literature was once a humane profession. I recall our both lamenting, in the middle 70s, the birth of systematic plagiarism among students, the hour when a scholar's pride in his originality vanished from institutions of higher, not to say lower, learning.

You could say that the ideology of the times dictated it. Once the author was proclaimed dead and the idea of creativity as an individual act discredited as bourgeois appropriation, no one could stand accused of taking what wasn't his. A more extreme position even held that taking what wasn't yours was an intellectual obligation, enjoined upon you by dialogic necessity and irony, though this always struck me as either a contradiction or a tautology – I couldn't decide which – since if nothing was anyone else's, everything belonged to you already.

Myself, I doubt that the practice of plagiarism, at least in the Humanities Department of Wolverhampton Polytechnic, originated in such subtleties. The advent of theory was to blame all right, but only because students found it so bewildering they had to copy their essays out of books.

Now, of course, as witness what's been happening at Piper High School in Wyandote County, Kansas, they copy off the internet. True, the particular assignment that is causing all the fuss at Piper High, triggering resignations, demonstrations, and a national debate that blames it all on Clinton's refusal to call what he did with Monica Lewinsky sex – an explanation which isn't baffling once you remember that Kansans are capable of confusing plagiarism with fellatio – was hardly theoretically challenging.

"Collect some leaves from the trees in your garden, children, and write about them" – that was the task that had them running to their computers. As a non-leaf person myself, I am in no position to take a tone. Though even I could have managed "They turn brown in fall, Miss Pelton", without recourse to Google.

That science rather than Clinton's dick is to blame for this, I do not doubt. You copy off the internet only when you believe there is complex objective truth out there somewhere, and your business, as a student, is simply to retrieve it. It was the transformation of literary criticism into a science that turned half the students I encountered in 1975 into plagiarists.

Before that, the teaching of English had been simplicity itself. You asked your students to tell you what they thought. They told you they thought Wordsworth was crap. You told them that that hardly amounted to a judgement. They reminded you you'd asked them what they thought. You reminded them you'd asked them to write what they thought about something that had its own existence outside their thoughts. They said OK – they thought crap. You told them that such thoughts were of value only if they attempted to tickle out and identify the crappiness in question.

Thus, little by little, did we stagger towards that "third realm" of Leavis, Santayana and Boulton, that space that is neither wholly private nor wholly public, neither entirely subjective nor entirely objective, wherein true judgement lives.

In this happy garden state did English and all who taught and studied her rub along, until theory flicked its forked tongue in the undergrowth. French was the language we had to think in now. Merde instead of crap, except that we weren't allowed so close to a text – a texte – as to make evaluations of that order.

Thereafter there was no pleasure left in it for any of us. Suddenly, my days and nights were consumed hunting down the originals from which my students, in their desperation, stole. I became a haunter of libraries and esoteric bookshops. When I wasn't able to match passages exactly I began to search for similarity of thumbprint. The merest suggestion of a turned-down page in De Man's Blindness and Insight or a pencil mark in Roman Ingarden's The Cognition of the Literary Work of Art had me breathing heavily in excitement.

How close I came to procuring a wig and false moustache and dogging the footsteps of suspected plagiarists, I would rather not admit. Suffice to say I still have the wig. In the end I had no choice but to resign. All other considerations apart, it was becoming unfair to students of genuine ability that I routinely challenged any essay that had an idea in it.

In America the problem extends beyond Piper High. At least two popular historians – Pulitzer prize winners no less – have been caught kidnapping other popular historians' sentences and blaming the misdemeanour on bad notetaking practices. (Oops – I seem to have written Herodotus.) As though any writer proud of his art cannot tell the difference between his and another person's commas, let alone rhythm, idiom and that individual expression of thought that goes by the name of style. But then if you think it's worth stealing "No amount of practice could have prepared the pilot and crew for what they encountered –B-24s, glittering like mica, were popping up out of the clouds over here, over there, everywhere", you aren't a writer.

Plagiarism is a species of cynicism, sometimes encouraged by panic. So, in my view, is popular history. That the same sort of author should be simultaneously guilty of both crimes doesn't surprise me an iota. Ultimately, the real villains are those who read such tosh. To them I recommend my example: after years of being palmed off with prose that was spurious even before it was purloined, I decided to stop perusing it and get a life. Do thou likewise.

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