Mark Steel: A little plagiarism never did a student any harm

All they have done is take copying one stage further, by swiping stuff without reading it
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The Independent Online

A professor, responsible for "discipline" in his university, has announced that the exam system is falling to bits because hundreds of Oxford students are handing in essays copied off the internet. This could be marvellous news, meaning the upper class have spent a fortune ensuring their offspring get a privileged start and it's all wasted.

But it also exposes the nature of modern education, which is built on copying without understanding. I know of a teacher who encapsulated this philosophy, when she asked her class: "What did the Vikings come in?" Someone said: "Longboats, miss."

"No," she said, exasperated, adding: "Come on, we did this last week." Then came guesses like: "Is it sailing boats, miss?" until she yelled: "Oh for goodness sake you should have remembered this - it's hordes, the Vikings came in hordes."

All the Oxford students have done is take this one stage further, by swiping stuff without reading it. And they don't even seem to be taking care not to get caught. They're probably handing in stuff like the opening pages of To Kill a Mocking Bird, but when the question is: "What is 56 divided by seven?"

The depressing side of this trend is the pressure that's exerted on parents about their kids' exams. By the time a child is six, the schools are testing them, and according to the results they'll tell you either you're nurturing a potential genius, or that they're being placed in a special thickos group where they'll learn vocational skills suited to their potential such as how to sell crack.

So at an early age, there's an urge to cheat. If you're the parent of a nine-year-old whose homework is to write a diary of what they did at the weekend, it's tempting to lift it for them, slightly adapted, out of that day's copy of The Independent. If Robert Fisk happens to be in that day, the homework will read: "On Saturday it was very noisy because there was an explosion and lots of tanks and I spoke to a man with a rocket launcher and he was very cross and in the evening I had ice cream."

The mania surrounding exams isn't the fault of teachers or schools, but a result of modern beliefs about why we have education at all. Its purpose, we're led to believe, is to enable the student to get a job where they can earn more money. You need qualifications, so learn what to write in order to gain them, and it doesn't matter whether you never have the slightest interest in the subject afterwards or not.

For example, when I was writing a programme recently about Chaucer, I was struck by how many people told me they'd studied him at school and found him excruciatingly dull. The reason is teachers insist on teaching him in the old English, apparently unaware that as a result it makes no bloody sense. So their great achievement is to read out tales of sex and drunkenness to teenagers and make them bored.

If they showed their kids porn films they'd manage to bore them, stopping every few moments to say: "When the nurse utters the words 'oh ah oo oh', is this an example of alliteration or of assonance?"

It's distressingly common to hear someone say they can't stand Shakespeare or Dickens or science or the 16th century because "I did it at school and it was so tedious". Most students are told to learn this stuff by rote. They wouldn't get many marks if they said their favourite bit of Richard III was when he said: "A horse a horse, blood I'd give up my block for a horse and mash up the French, you get me bruv."

We're encouraged to think of kids as investments. If your kids aren't passing enough exams, it's as if they're limiting their potential to yield long-term equity. Soon there'll be financial advisers you can turn to in this situation, and they'll say: "It may be necessary to write off your stock as unprofitable liability by selling them into the Vietnamese slave trade and starting again."

Certainly if you appeared on The Apprentice and said: "My plan is to become the most caring nurse and provide patients with the most comfortable bed baths ever, all on the NHS", you'd be slung out of the room with Alan Sugar yelling: "Are you trying to bankrupt me, you loser", and slinging a defunct computer at you.

The result is that even if homework isn't copied off the internet it's probably done by the parents. They don't even seem to try to disguise it, so an essay about Henry VIII will end up: "In conclusion, my assessment of his reign is 'Typical bloody man, they all betray you in the end, if they're not divorcing you to dismantle the monasteries it's to run off with the bloody receptionist. Well sod the lot of them'."

The Wikipedia website, which appears to be the main source for Oxford students' essays, could have a laugh by writing stuff such as President Harry Truman invented gravity and goldfish were discovered by the Belgians, just to see it pop up in hundreds of exam answers.

But none of it matters, as whatever they put in their essays, Oxford students have been to Oxford. For their final exam they should just be asked: "What do you expect to be?" and if they answer "judge" or "owning the television industry", they've got an A in aspirations and confidence and the system has succeeded.

But the strangest ever story of plagiarism must have been the case involving Sting. I don't know the details but I can only imagine it entailed Sting and his accuser stood in court yelling at each other over and over "I never wrote that shite, it was him."