Over the course of 25+ years in education, I have dealt with many nefarious things, but plagiarism has been one of the most complex and annoying issues of all. As a classroom teacher (6 - 12th grade), a school administrator, and college instructor, this has been a recurring problem for me in various degrees of seriousness. Technology has made words, images, music, and ideas readily available to anyone and everyone with Internet access. I can definitely say that things have become much worse over the years and there are no signs of it getting better.
Which brings us to the matter at hand: Barack Obama’s alleged act of plagiarism. What exactly did he say? What did the other guy say? Does any of this really matter?
In this excerpt from the article “Clinton Camp Says Obama Plagiarized” by Beth Fouhy of the AP, we see the words Obama used and then the words of Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick from a campaign speech:
“Don’t tell me words don’t matter,” Obama told the Wisconsin audience. “‘I have a dream’ just words? ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal’ just words? ‘We have nothing to fear but fear itself’ just words? Just speeches?”
Patrick used similar language during his 2006 governor’s race to push back on similar charges from his GOP opponent. “‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal’ just words? Just words?” Patrick said. “‘We have nothing to fear but fear itself’ just words? ‘Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.’ Just words? ‘I have a dream’ just words?”
Is this plagiarism? Does it even matter if it is?
Well, in the academic world, plagiarism matters. We educators should start talking about it fairly early on (I am already explaining it to my daughter who is in 1st grade and has to do “book reports”) and often. It is crucial to establish protocols for young readers and writers; among them is the proper use of sources of information and maintaining their integrity.
“Oh, come on,” you might say. “My child was not cheating on that book report. She just put it in her own words.”