In a tribute to the active acquisition and dissemination of knowledge, Chaucer describes his Oxford clerk — equivalent to a modern-day undergraduate — by saying, “And gladly would he learn and gladly teach.”
Two incidents that bookend the college teaching career from which I retired some time ago illustrate how the acquisition and dissemination of knowledge have been cheapened and how far we have traveled from Chaucer’s world.
In my first semester, I received an extraordinary term paper from a student in my American literature survey course that began, and I quote exactly after all these years, “On the other hand … .”
The student had quite clearly lifted a paragraph out of context from some source without realizing how clear the theft was: You cannot have “the other hand” before you have a “first hand” as a point of contrast, and that if you want to plagiarize, it would be useful to be a little less obvious.
Some 35 years later at the end of my career, I was teaching the same course to another generation of students, and I received another noteworthy paper. This one was not so blatantly lifted midstream from a source. But its writing was well beyond what any student could possibly have produced.
This student had downloaded a paper. I searched, found the same paper, and printed it out. As I was returning papers, I called the student to my desk and pointed to the two papers sitting side by side. The student looked puzzled.
“I don’t know how that happened,” the student said. “I took it off my brother’s computer.”
Decades apart, the impulse to obtain knowledge with minimal effort is a constant, but the methodology has changed. If that were all there is to say about this odd coincidence, it would not be worth talking about. However, there are more significant ramifications to consider.
First, the very effort to seek authoritative information has been cheapened by the Internet. The student in the first example had to go to the library, find the book or journal article from which to lift the paragraph, and then work it into the paper.
The student in the second example had only to sit at a keyboard, hit Google search, and find a ready-made paper on a topic that fit the assignment, download it and print it out. The only expenditure, in all probability, was not of energy but a few dollars to purchase the paper. Or perhaps not even that.
In addition to the process of acquisition, there is also the question of authenticity. The sort of knowledge Chaucer’s clerk would happily teach has been compromised by the false impression that what is found on the Internet, by virtue of it being there, must be genuine.
But of course, it isn’t. Nor all Internet content providers know what they are talking about or intend to communicate accurate information. While I was still teaching research we advised students to check the source of the website, but that recommendation was, and likely still is, largely ignored.
In fact, the Internet provides a vast ocean of unsourced information, much of it thrust upon us rather than requested. My poor first student had consulted a source, which itself had gone through a vetting process that filtered out misinformation. In the age of the Internet and social media the distinction between credible and incredible has largely disappeared.
If Chaucer’s clerk could be time-traveled to today, he would have a hard time figuring out what to learn and what to teach as we all strive to keep our heads above the seas of misinformation.
Stephen Lewis, originally from Brooklyn, New York is a retired college English professor and writer whose novels include three mysteries set in northern Michigan. Contact [email protected].