Wednesday, August 6, 2014

A Few Credits Shy

 Senator John Walsh

It would be an exaggeration to say that the week’s news has consisted of nothing but major disasters.  Simply by moving away from the front page of the New York Times I was able to find some minor ones, including the fact that Senator John Walsh of Montana has plausibly been accused of plagiarism.  Walsh, a “decorated war veteran” who was appointed to fill out the term of Max Baucus, who resigned the Senate to become our ambassador in Beijing, was already facing a difficult contest in the upcoming November election.  He now faces possible ignominy greater than his probable political defeat.  United States senators are not required to write term papers, but when they do, they ought not to cheat.  His excuse is at least novel.  He does not claim that the dog ate the paper.  Instead he suggests that PTSD “may have been a factor” in inhibiting his recourse to quotation marks and footnotes.  “My head was not in a place very conducive to a classroom and an academic environment.”

            Walsh is a Democrat, and since the balance of party power in Congress is very much an issue of interest at the moment, the partisan angle has been prominent in the news coverage.  That is not my angle, however.  There is perhaps not much that is truly bipartisan in our current political life except the political sleaze.  I am less offended by what Walsh has said about it than by the judgment of his fellow Montana senator, Jon Tester.  “…I don’t think it’s that big a deal, I really don’t.  Look, Walsh is a soldier, he’s not an academic…”

            Really?  Plagiarism, which combines theft with lying, is a quintessential violation of fair dealing just as stock market fraud, embezzlement, and scamming little old ladies with unneeded roof repairs are violations of fair dealing.  All too frequently we discover a major league embezzler in an academic institution.  Ordinarily the response is not “This is no big deal…Schnackenfuss is an academic, not a banker…”  It is hardly the case that academic credentials accrue no material gain.  As a matter of fact Walsh is not a soldier but a politician who once was a soldier and apparently once considered an advanced academic degree sufficiently important or valuable to invest time and effort in its pursuit.

            I have a couple of professional reactions to the situation.  The medievalist in me first scorns, then pities the post-romantic cult of the ego that makes plagiarism possible and commonplace.  Medieval plagiarism was abundant, but it was of a completely different sort.  The idea was to pass off your work as somebody’s else’s, not vice versa.  Nobody knew who Schnackenfuss was, but if Augustine wrote it, it must be good.  If somebody wrote some great mystical theology in Greek, it must have been Dionysius the Aereopagite (see Acts 17:34).
 Pseudo-Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite, taking a dim view of the proceedings

            My other reaction is slightly more severe.  The occasion of the alleged plagiarism was Walsh’s master’s paper—it has also been called a “thesis”—at the United States Army War College in Carlisle, PA.  The paper is fourteen pages long and apparently contains “several” unacknowledged borrowings from various sources, some of them verbatim.  One of the things that is making egregious plagiarism of this sort less common than it once was is that it is so easy to spot.  Anybody who has a reasonable familiarity with the scholarly literature in a field and knows how to do a Google search can expose it in five minutes.  But it appears that nobody at the War College questioned the paper in 2007.  That role was perhaps reserved for an “opposition researcher” in a political campaign seven years later.

            What is the “War College”?  One might be curious to know more about an institution where a master’s thesis can be fourteen pages long.  If you visit the institutional website you will learn that it is a fully accredited institution of higher education.  American higher education is somewhat peculiar in its system of “voluntary” accreditation.  It is not some government bureaucracy that licenses colleges and universities, at least not directly.  It is instead one of the several autonomous regional accrediting agencies that have developed over many years.  For several years I served as one of the members of the Commission on Higher Education of one of the largest of them—Middle States—covering a geographical area including the seaboard states from New York to Maryland, plus Washington, D. C. and Puerto Rico.  That last venue was particularly useful for Commission meetings.

            One of the glories of American higher education is its amazing variety.  We have colleges with 50 students and universities with 50,000.  There are professional and trade schools of every kind.  The system of two-year junior colleges is vast, and has served as a conveyor belt toward social improvement for millions.  I happen to remember very well discussions concerning the War College.  While it would not be proper to tell tales out of school, you can perhaps imagine that even in a context of toleration and inclusiveness at least one commissioner might have found the educational mission of the U. S. Army War College a little elusive.  Anyway, the institution is now undertaking a "thorough" investigation of the senatorial term paper.