Plagiarism, ethics and former school board director Chris Spence

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The script at the Toronto school board this week runs like a remake of Bad Teacher, the 2011 film starring Cameron Diaz. Remakes get done quickly today. It stars (now former) board director Chris Spence, caught plagiarizing in several articles here in the Star. It lacks the redemptive elements of the original but retains some of its irony.

I try to see this mainly from the POV of kids in the public system, though others (board of ed trustees, parents, citizens) are welcome to a slice of the pain. But the kids have been through a rough school year, and a rough week. Premier McGuinty refused to take Yes from the teachers unions to a wage freeze and killed their bargaining rights anyway, then quit his post so he couldn't do anything about the mess he created. Then teachers refused to work on extracurriculars, which is often the redemptive element in school life for students. Now comes Spence, in some ways the unkindest cut, especially for those who identified with him about sports programs, or for minority kids.

This is so especially since Spence put himself as a role model at the centre of his work as an educator. Early in his tenure, he staged a big pep rally at the Air Canada Centre for teachers, filled with inspirational speakers. I asked him afterward if he felt his teachers were depressed or unmotivated. He said, Not at all. Then why three hours of motivational speeches? "Because these are my people," he said, "and I must lead them." Though his own models include Martin Luther King, this contained a big dose of the cult of the CEO from the late 20th century, when figures like Lee Iacocca and Jack Welch were lionized. It hasn't been a good week for showy but underachieving CEO types in Toronto.

Spence's plagiarism was blatant. His original piece was just 500 words and contained five swiped chunks, leaving little remaining space. But -- at least from an educational perspective -- his reaction when caught was worse. He made a fulsome, vacuous apology, straight from the PR manual on how to manage corporate crises. He never said the theft was inadvertent or mentioned other blatant cases, swiftly revealed in the National Post. He didn't say why he did it, which really rots my socks in these "apologies," nor why he only spoke up after being caught. Above all, he didn't quickly resign or offer to. He said he'd register for a journalistic ethics course at Ryerson. He didn't say why this was a problem of journalism rather than education or just plain ethics. Then he left because he had to, not because it was right to. None of this is edifying in a teaching sense.

Kids, however, draw their own conclusions, sometimes it's hard to teach them because they're so much quicker than us. For instance, TDSB students who cheat or plagiarize get a zero, can't retake the course and may be suspended. I heard a student say Spence should have offered kids the same deal he tried for: make a maudlin apology and carry on exactly as you were plus, maybe, a "course." That would be poetic justice and could accomplish more than just turfing him. It would, in other words, be an actual learning process.

I'm not even sure how ethically serious I think plagiarism is, in historical perspective. It's certainly not on the level of murder or warmaking. Under the oral tradition, as Canadian scholar John Watson has written, repetition -- even plagiarism -- were basic. What was well said couldn't be improved and should be reproduced. It's only during the fairly recent "Gutenberg parenthesis" -- a phrase coined by a Danish academic for the 500 years between the rise of the printing press and the Internet -- that authorial originality and intellectual property became prominent notions. And they're under some scrutiny now, due to the collective bent of the Internet. But failure to take responsibility, misleading the young and breaching faith between generations remain heinous in any era.

We're always told kids are "resilient" and it's amazing how true that is. But it would be nice if their elders and mentors (a favourite Spence term) didn't make it much harder for them. The human developmental process is rough enough as is.

This article was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: Marc Abbyad/Flickr

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