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Lila Littlejohn: Wishing you independent thought

Out of the Newsroom

Posted: December 26, 2009 7:08 p.m.
Updated: December 27, 2009 4:55 a.m.
My most memorable encounter with plagiarism occurred a few years back while teaching English at College of the Canyons.

I assigned my students to write an essay responding to a particular online article about a trend in education.

One of my students visited the online publication’s Web site, found a letter to the editor responding to the article, downloaded the letter, put his name on top and turned it in as his essay.

I’m pleased to report that COC has a zero tolerance policy for such cheating, and the student was dismissed from school.

The incident remains with me not just because of the brashness of his offense, but also because of his utter surprise when confronted. Although avoiding plagiarism by employing Modern Language Association guidelines was part of the course curriculum, he appeared flabbergasted that his behavior was unacceptable.

Ironically, the article students were to read and respond to dealt with the decline of original thought in student papers since academic research shifted from the library to the Internet.

It’s no coincidence our nation was founded during the Age of Reason. Our patent and copyright laws say we are a society that values thought and innovation.

Our form of government — America as the great democratic experiment — says we believe citizens, when properly educated (hence our built-in government support for public education), can make the right choices on self-governance — and by extrapolation other important issues.

We are a nation founded on the belief in ideas.

But the Age of Reason is far behind us now, apparently replaced by the Age of Entertainment — or perhaps the Age of Absorption with Trivia.

In his book “Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business,” educator and communications theorist Neil Postman argues television has dumbed down American society, including American politics.

How much more of a threat to thought is the cacophony of non-contextual trivia — tweets, self-absorbed blogs, forwarded e-mail of pop psychology and warm-and-fuzzy puppy snapshots — that bombards us through today’s technology?

It seems we’ve become a nation of input over ideas.

It’s not that technology is inherently bad — or inherently good. It’s a tool. Its value stems from how we use it.

When television first arrived on the scene, it was hailed as the university for the common man. The Internet was established by some of our nation’s most highly regarded universities so they could share research.

Nor, I suppose, is there anything wrong with cute puppy pictures or sappy pseudo-inspirational poetry, per se. But the constant bombardment of trivial electronic messages takes time away from other tasks.

It’s so much easier to chuckle over YouTube or instant-message friends than to ponder an essayist’s meaning and formulate a reasoned response.

And when time’s run out to write that essay, the Internet makes it unthinkably easy to search for, cut and paste, and output others’ ideas, passing them off as one’s own.

It takes time to think original thoughts. One must consider others’ ideas, analyze, synthesize and draw conclusions based on reason.

Being informed is work. Being entertained is so much more fun — and easier.

But it still takes time.

As Santa Clarita Valley residents prepare to welcome 2010, I wish you the blessing of time — time set aside to savor new ideas, to become a better-informed citizen, to teach your children the value and the process of thought, as well as the skill to convey those thoughts.

Happy New Year.

Lila Littlejohn is editor of The Signal. Her column reflects her own views and not necessarily those of The Signal.


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