Previous Challenge Entry (Level 4 – Masters)
Topic: Good and Bad (05/07/09)
TITLE: Lesson Learned
By Carol Slider
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A young man slouched in and sat down without invitation. Dr. Mullins didn’t know all his students yet this semester, but he summed this one up at a glance. Lank brown hair, ripped jeans, t-shirt with indecipherable logo, tattoos up and down the arms, facial piercings, insolent smirk... he knew the type.
“I read your essay, Mr. Pratt,” said Dr. Mullins, coldly formal. “You may be interested to learn that another student submitted an identical paper.”
But Mr. Pratt (otherwise known as "Cody") didn’t look interested. He shifted a little and said,
“Yes,” echoed Dr. Mullins, somewhat annoyed—though not surprised—at Cody’s nonchalance. “I searched the internet and found your paper at a site called ‘Essay Exchange.’ In other words, Mr. Pratt, I know you submitted someone else’s work as your own.”
Cody raised and lowered his shoulders, then said neutrally,
“Plagiarism is a serious breach of university policy, subject to disciplinary action.”
Cody shrugged again.
“You’ll receive a failing grade for the essay,” Dr. Mullins went on, striving to maintain professional detachment. “If you commit another act of academic dishonesty at this university, you may be expelled. Any questions?”
“Nope.” Cody shifted again. “Can I go?”
Only Dr. Mullins’ sense of obligation made him say, with reluctant severity,
“You do realize that plagiarism is <i>wrong</i>?”
For the first time, Cody looked mildly interested.
“What’d you mean, wrong?”
“Plagiarism is a form of lying... lying, stealing, and cheating, in fact...”
“It’s breaking the rules, I get that,” said Cody. “But you can’t say it’s <i>wrong</i>, like, every time. Sometimes you’ve gotta break some rules.”
“It’s always wrong to plagiarize," Dr. Mullins contradicted pedantically, suppressing his anger at having to argue with this smug, smirking <i>child</i>. "You’re cheating yourself out of an educational opportunity...”
“Hold on,” Cody interrupted. “So you don’t believe what you said in class, what you had us write about?”
Uneasily, Dr. Mullins looked down at the stack of essays, with Cody’s submission on top. He remembered the essay prompt he had given the class:
<i>Do concepts like “right and wrong”/“good and bad” really exist? Or are they artificial constructs, created and reinforced by society, religion or upbringing? Using adequate reasons and examples, write an essay developing a point of view on this topic...</i>
He also remembered implying, during class discussion, that only religious fanatics and uneducated trolls believed in moral absolutes.
Cody’s purloined essay began:
<i>As small children, we are told that some things are either “good” or “bad.” We learn, for example, that it is bad to run out into the street. But as we grow, we learn that crossing the street isn’t “bad.” It’s the same way with other things our parents call good and bad. Nothing is bad for all people at all times. Learning this is part of growing up...</i>
Dr. Mullins scanned the paragraph, then looked up, twisting his fingers together more tightly.
“We’re not talking about philosophy, Mr. Pratt. Plagiarism is like stealing from a store...”
“But it’s not,” argued Cody, “'cause the web site says those essays are free to share. And I’m only taking this class 'cause it’s required. I’m working two jobs, I like to hang out. Okay, I broke the rules. I get it. But why’s it so <i>bad</i>?”
<i>It isn’t honorable</i>, Dr. Mullins wanted to say, but couldn’t. “Honor” was one of those old-school traditions he had crusaded against during the turbulent 1960s.
“You believe in God?” asked Cody suddenly.
Dr. Mullins frowned.
“I don’t see what that has to do...”
“I mean, it sorta makes sense, if you think some guy in the sky makes the rules. Otherwise, it’s like that essay says. ‘Good and bad’ are just rules made up by people... parents, schools, the government, whatever.”
Dr. Mullins didn’t argue; he merely reminded Cody that he was on academic probation, and that further offenses would be cause for expulsion. Cody said “Yeah, okay,” and left.
When the door had closed, Dr. Mullins put his hands on either side of his head and massaged his temples. He knew he should make an appointment to talk with the student who had turned in the identical essay...
But not today.
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